For all the talk about Nashville SC’s overall offensive struggles last year, I think not quite enough attention was given to how the Boys in Gold got into their offensive sets. This portion of the preview strives to answer questions about just that topic.
There were a few truisms about how Nashville SC went from defending to offense during the course of the 2018 season. The primary characteristics of those transition phases were as follows:
- Goal kicks were almost always played long by Matt Pickens, typically with the intention of an aerial duel just past midfield that central defensive midfielder Bolu Akinyode would win.
- Clean saves were played the same way (with a punt, though sometimes this was a bit more ambitious a play to get the ball way upfield to a wing player in space), or thrown wide to one of the fullbacks, who would usually play around the back – with a pass to the centerbacks – if there wasn’t an immediate opportunity to get it to the wing upfield (or less frequently, the central attacking midfielder or withdrawn forward).
- Recoveries in the defensive half, interceptions, tackles, etc. had a similar philosophy, but there was a bit more emphasis toward taking at least a look toward a counter-attack quickly upfield.
- If the ball was stuck at the back for any length of time without good passing options, the centerbacks would often hoof it upfield, which would play out similar to the first bullet point (though often – particularly from Bradley Bourgeois – with a little too much leg, overshooting teammates and ending up with the opposing goalkeeper or even over the endline for a goal kick).
- When the ball got to a central defensive midfielder under most circumstances, the options were: Michael Reed or Matt LaGrassa attempts to carry upfield or Bolu Akinyode (sitting deeper) plays to the centerbacks or a fullback, or the ball is played to the wide midfielders or a fullback to either combine with the attacking central midfielder/second striker, or to play up the flanks to get into the offensive third from a wide position.
- Recoveries further upfield were more likely to result in a shot earlier in a sequence. The first pass often went to a striker for his own shot or a layoff to a teammate, or up the flank to a winger or overlapping fullback for a cross or pass opportunity. Sometimes the latter involved a dribble sequence into a pass or shot from the winger, particularly when it was Alan Winn or Ropapa Mensah.
Some of this is pragmatic moreso than beautiful – basically every USL team aside from the MLS2 teams plays long, and the MLS2 teams are typically bad at playing out of the back, but they value the experience of trying it more than they value winning (as they should, since their job is to prepare youngsters for the first team, not to win USL) – but the majority of it certainly has the intention of advancing the ball patiently into the attacking third if that initial longball doesn’t spring a counter opportunity.
So what will be different in 2019?
First of all, a change in philosophy in the transition to defense phase of the game probably means more quick shots in the transition to offense. A high press has been utilized throughout preseason friendlies, and if that sticks around through play in the USL Championship, Nashville SC will be recovering the ball in or near the attacking third far more frequently, and with players (wingers, attacking midfielders, and strikers) who are far more comfortable trying to turn that into immediate offense. We saw one opportunity for that against NYCFC, but a slow trigger meant the chance was ultimately wasted. Going forward, it will be an emphasis that Tucker Hume (and other strikers) turn an interception at the doorstep of the opposing penalty area into a shot as quickly as possible.
Additionally, there’s something to be said for a simple upgrade in the talent almost across the board, plus an addition in variety of skillsets across the roster.
Gary Smith has been open that Connor Sparrow is more a modern keeper than Matt Pickens, more athletic (maybe not more than Pickens was in his prime, but as a 37-year old for sure) and probably more comfortable playing out of the back: that adds a skillset that can diversify the gameplan based on who’s in between the pipes.
Adding Kharlton Belmar to the left wing is a more athletic option than we saw at times last year (whether that’s because he’s simply faster than Ish Jome, or because playing him there allows both he and Taylor Washington – an occasional left mid last season – to be on the field at the same time), which produces the chance to get into space and take one-v-one opportunities (which he excels in), and get more quick-change opportunities, or at least get the ball into dangerous areas by the time the defense is able to set up.
The right wing has seen an upgrade as well, without even changing personnel: both Alan Winn and Ropapa Mensah are young players, and after their first season with the club (Winn’s first professional year overall, Mensah’s second), they should be able to feel comfortable from the get-go, and able to focus on improving their game. Both made major strides over the course of last year, and that could be taken to another level in 2019.
Finally, there’s been an obvious and major upgrade at the striker positions, beyond the fact that they’ll be able to produce chances for themselves in other phases of the game. A frustrating hesitance to pull the trigger on shots plagued the team last year, particularly in transition instances, and it’s safe to say that Cameron Lancaster (led the league with 110 shots) is not similarly afflicted, nor is Daniel Ríos (tied for 12th with 61 attempts). The data available doesn’t include how much of that came on the break, but certainly a willingness to shoot is ingrained in these players – as you like to see in guys who are first and foremost goal-getters – and that will apply in both phases of the game when they get the ball at their feet. If Nashville SC is to increase its scoring output, some of that is going to come from a bit more ambition from individuals, and these are a couple guys who want to show that whenever possible.
There are other aspects of the transition game that will still need to be improved, and there’s really no way of knowing for sure if they will be until we see it. For all his positive attributes (including not turning the ball over in the passing game), it does seem like the conservatism of Bolu Akinyode can slow down this team in transition. He was far more willing to make the right pass rather than the safe pass this preseason (of course, the right pass tends to be a safe one as well, just not quite as safe, but the potential reward makes the risk worth ), as well as dribble forward rather than sticking his heels on an imaginary line five yards in front of his centerbacks. His lone goal of the season was an absolute banger, and being a little more comfortable involving himself in the offense would take him from squad regular to potential MLS call-up, in my eyes.
Similarly, Michael Reed seems to take too much pressure on himself to turn transition into offense at times, which isn’t a surprise given that the captain feels responsible for the entirety of the team’s performance, and that team performance included too few goals in 2018. If the pieces around him are able to step up this season, that urgency to step up and blast a shot from just outside the 18 can hopefully result in picking his spots to use that huge right leg, and doing so with a bit more accuracy when he takes the opportunity.
Thanks to personnel additions, simple individual growth, and likely a bit of a change in tactical focus, this is one area in which Nashville SC’s game can take major steps forward in 2019.
Not having the pure finishing striker was part of the problem. Even Brandon Allen’s eight goals on 24 shots for Nashville SC was propped up by a 3/3 mark from the penalty spot, so from the run of play it was a 5/21 performance. Considering that a striker who made 22 appearances (10 of them starts) only took 21 shots in league play is… an issue that won’t recur this year, as described above.
Nashville SC may not become an all-terrorizing buzzsaw of a transition offense this season, but with better pieces and a little more ambition, this looks to be a phase of the game that will see major improvement nonetheless.