Nashville SC season preview 2019: Offense

Daniel Rios no está impresionado con su falta de goles.

Here’s the big one. Nashville SC’s offense was something of an Achilles heel for the team last year, only pouring in 42 goals in 34 games (1.24 per outing). In previous portions of the season preview, I’ve given some reasons to expect more scoring output than last year. The majority of that scoring, though, should come in this phase of the game.

The problem

The unfortunate narrative around last year’s team was that they had no ability to generate scoring chances. Why was it unfortunate? Because it wasn’t the most accurate one. The squad finished 19th in shots (including blocked shots) and 20th in conversion rate, potting just 9.9% of those taken.

Screen Shot 2019-03-08 at 10.47.08 AM
In buckets by 1% conversion rate

At right, you can see a histogram of the conversion rates of every team in the league. As you can see, there’s a lot of territory to the right, though in fairness, Nashville was the top team with less than a 10% rate (hardly a consolation prize). FC Cincinnati is that outlier to the far right. Finishing at just a league-average rate (11.2%) would have seen the Boys in Gold net six more goals, at which point the offense would have been far less a talking point than it was.

While both were a problem, it’s pretty clear that finishing seemed to be the bigger one in the grand scheme. The “not creating enough chances” narrative is also faulty because, while only a shot counts as a chance in expected goals terms (as it should), Nashville SC managed to create looks at goal that weren’t taken. The first Penn FC game is a good example, because there were a number of such opportunities there, but there were a lot of them throughout the season.

It’s worth noting, as I shared yesterday, that in 22 appearances, striker Brandon Allen managed only 21 shots from the run of play. That’s not good. It’s not all Allen’s fault, but an implication that it’s exclusively systemic, instead of blame being shared by system, teammates, and Allen understates the upside when the talent is upgraded.

More than an inability to generate offense through tactics last year, I’ve made it pretty clear that I think a big part of the problem was personnel. Nashville SC entered the year thinking Michael Cox and Robin Shroot were going to be the primary goal-getters, and Cox was traded a handful of games into the season while Shroot ended it mostly on the bench.

Things got a little bit better with the arrival of Allen (who didn’t create or take many chances, but finished at a decent rate when he did – but I think it’s fair to say did not have the impact the staff was hoping when they brought him in on a transfer, and Bethlehem Steel’s eagerness to let him go on the cheap probably makes a little more sense in hindsight) and Kris Tyrpak (the opposite), as well as the maturation of youngsters Alan Winn, Tucker Hume, and Ropapa Mensah. However, too much of the offense remained dependent upon more natural distributing midfielders Lebo Moloto and Matt LaGrassa to try to finish it themselves, until things clicked a little bit after Moloto’s unfortunate injury prevented the team from leaning on its most creative player.

The solutions(?)

And upgrade Nashville SC has. The league’s single-season record-holder in goals scored was Louisville City’s Cameron Lancaster. The second-leading scorer in 2018 was North Carolina FC’s Daniel Ríos. Both will play for Nashville SC this Summer.

Lancaster took the most shots in the league last year with 110, so you can be certain he’s not going to suffer from some of Allen’s troubles finding pockets in the defense with his movement (for all his motor, which was underrated, the effectiveness of Allen’s attempts at getting open was often low), and he still converted at a 23.6% rate, well above Nashville’s team average. Ríos was tied for 12th in the league with 61 shots, and in bucketing 20 of those, had an incredibly effective 32.8% rate of conversion.

As if that wasn’t good enough, NSC added 10 more goals in winger Kharlton Belmar (45 shots, for a 22.2% conversion rate) and Belmar’s six assists were in the top 25 in the league. He had 15 goals on 44 shots the previous year, in case you’re worried that the conversion rate isn’t as ludicrously high as, say, Ríos’s.

Dropping Moloto into a chance-creating role is probably natural for him – he had seven goals but 52(!) key passes (essentially assists, whether or not the teammate finishes the eventual shot, which happened only an unlucky four times for him) as Belmar’s teammate at Swope in 2017 – and you won’t see him feel the pressure to launch a team high in shots again (he had 57 last year). Adding the finishing pieces around a player like Moloto, plus Belmar’s recreation in 2018 as a scorer and setup man will probably help a great deal.

There’s an element of trust here, for sure: did Nashville SC not score because they didn’t have the horses, or because Gary Smith didn’t turn them loose? (I’d obviously contend based on his history that “Gary Smith doesn’t like goals” is patently and obviously false). Will things get better just because there’s more talent here?

The chemistry

There’s an important X-factor that should also help in Nashville SC’s favor this year, but it’s tough to quantify: chemistry (or as Smith likes to call it, “appreciation”).

Nashville SC had an entirely new squad of 22 new players (among those who played at least a single minute in USL competition) last year, basically all of whom were new to each other. Certainly Moloto played with centerback Liam Doyle at Swope the previous year, and there were a few other similar connections, but in terms of building that offensive chemistry, they were mostly starting from scratch.

The club brought back 14 players this year, and it stands to reason that – even if it takes Belmar, Lancaster, and Ríos some time to develop that comfort (which doesn’t seem likely based on preseason) – those 14 core returners have a year playing alongside each other upon which to build. The offensive form certainly wasn’t linear and on a constant upward trajectory last year:

Screen Shot 2019-03-08 at 11.33.19 AM

But aside from the early-season blip of a 2-0 win over Louisville City and a 3-1 win over Penn FC (those two peaks that bumped the five-game average to its highest point all year), it certainly built later in the season. The nadir was obviously a scoreless trip to Rochester to take on Toronto FC II, but even with some radical swings, the upward trend was apparent.

Verdict

There’s no reason to expect anything other than a vastly improved offense in 2019. Even if you assume that better players up top (and not just the new signings: a second year in the system for the majority of the team, plus natural growth early in the careers of guys like Hume, Mensah, and Winn) won’t result in more chances, simply replacing the finishing of departed strikers and midfielders with the finishing of the new guys – which, unlike what I spoke about above, was better than league average – makes for huge gains.

Brandon Allen (including two goals with Bethlehem Steel), Michael Cox (including his more productive time with St. Louis FC), Kris Tyrpak, Ish Jome, Ryan James, and Robin Shroot combined for 14 goals on 85 shots (16.5%), and that includes a perfect 4/4 on penalties from Allen and Cox during their time with Nashville SC. From the run of play, it was more like 10 goals on 81 shots (12.3%).

If you only assume that a combination of Belmar, Lancaster, and Ríos gets those same 85 shots (including the penalties) instead – and that as a group, they finish at their combined rate of 25.9%, that alone would mean seven more goals, without even taking into account the likely gains in chance creation, the fact that they’re going to combine for a hell of a lot more than 85 shots (given Lancaster took 25 more than that alone last year), and the improvement of the squad around them, or tactical evolution that should generate a much greater volume of quality chances. Heck, Ian Ayre has also been pretty open that the Summer window will probably bring more talent, too.

All told, barring a catastrophe – or the unlikely revelation that the system was indeed the problem, not a reliance upon a bunch of guys who left on free transfers (including some who may have been on multi-year contracts, as much of the team was last year) – there should be major steps forward for this offense. Will it be among the elite in the league? That, I actually doubt: there’s a certain point at which diminishing returns offensively aren’t worth what you may lose in the process on defense. However, being solidly above-average alongside an elite defense should create plenty of excitement.

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