Nashville SC still learning tough lessons after first loss of 2019

Matt LaGrassa’s header forced a bigtime save of Jake Fenlason – and the Saint Louis keeper delivered.

Nashville SC made a number of high-profile signings this offseason – and the quality of play has looked improved, accordingly – but not enough to score against a stout Saint Louis FC defense last night. In a high-variance, low-scoring game like soccer, not taking advantage of opportunities can be a killer.

STLFC scored an 84th-minute header off a set piece, and that was enough for the visitors to take home the 1-0 victory.

“Of course, bitterly disappointed,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “I think any defeat at home would put us in a very similar mindset.

“In the end, I know that they’ll be absolutely delighted that they’ve come here and defended well and they looked very organized, had a good plan and are a rugged team. But when you look at the stats in the second half, 75% possession to their 25%, we should be making more of that. And therein lies the problem. Possession is worthless unless it’s actually productive. Tonight, we certainly weren’t productive enough.”

Nashville SC’s dominance in possession (63.9% of the ball over the course of the entire game)didn’t amount to enough bite on the offensive end. That allowed Saint Louis to capitalize on one of just a few dangerous chances. A corner kick (one of just three earned by Saint Louis, to Nashville’s 12) led to a breakdown at the back for Nashville SC. Striker Caleb Calvert rose through the middle and met the service from Joaquin Rivas, nodding the ball home past keeper Matt Pickens.

“There’s an opportunity to deliver the ball into a dangerous area, and we have to be more sturdy, more resilient, better than we were,” said Smith. “It’s a good ball into a good area, but it’s routine. Straightforward delivery, there’s just determination in their play and that in the end was the difference between them winning and not.”

“We run man for man in two zones and I think it was just over the first zone and then he just comes steaming in out of nowhere,” added defender Liam Doyle. “It was a good ball, good run, and he managed to get his head on it.”

While set pieces accounted for some of the (few) weaknesses in last year’s defense, the story of this one was a Nashville team that managed to dominate possession, but couldn’t turn that into any significant scoring opportunities. New signings Cameron Lancaster, Daniel Ríos, and Kharlton Belmar took four shots, but couldn’t put any of them on the frame of the Saint Louis goal, and they combined for only one key pass.

The best chance on goal – the only shot that forced a save of Saint Louis keeper Jake Fenlason – came just moments before Nashville conceded. A cross from right back Kosuke Kimura found the head of midfielder Matt LaGrassa. His own headed attempt forced a diving save of Fenlason (a repeat of a similar save from Matt Pickens in the first half). With just a bit more luck on that one, Nashville may be sitting on a 1-0 win this morning, rather than a loss by the opposite scoreline. Indeed, Smith sees a lack of confidence in making the pass that Kimura did as something that needs to shape up for his team, and in a hurry.

“It’s one of the best moves of the game,” he said. “A nice combination play down the flanks, a ball played with some nice feeling into a good area and a midfield player arriving late. I do believe it was from some concerted pressure, which enabled Matt to be in a much better position.

“But, in all honesty, and every team is the same, if our guys are not confident that the ball is going to be delivered into a good area, or that we can go and attack it, then it doesn’t inspire midfield players or forwards to attack dangerous zones in the penalty area. It becomes matter of fact, and I do believe that we’ve become a bit ‘okay, there you go. It hasn’t found the right area, I’m pleased I didn’t make that run.’ But then when it does find the right area, the forwards are on their heels because they’re not ready for it. So it’s a Catch-22, but it certainly starts with a better delivery that the forwards and the midfield players believe that they can actually score from.”

That may sound like a repeat of last year’s specific struggles in managing to turn dangerous position into legitimate scoring opportunities. Changing that with additional personnel is going to take some time and building of chemistry between teammates. For the time being, the hesitance of Nashville fans to believe that their squad will actually manage to put up impressive scoring performances appears to be justified.

With a trip to a strong New York Red Bulls II team next weekend, followed by a bye, the Boys in Gold will want to figure out how to find that final-third instinct in short order.

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