From the film room: Saint Louis breaks the deadlock

I don’t typically write up film room stories on a set piece opportunity unless there’s something particularly interesting to note from them. However, thanks to a couple fairly forthcoming answers on the topic at the postgame press conference, it’s worth at least a look to see how Saint Louis FC scored the game-winner against Nashville SC.

The situation

Nashville SC has juuuuust missed going into a winning position on a header from Matt LaGrassa that was saved. With LaGrassa’s 81st-minute near-miss in the books, NSC has just replaced winger Kharlton Belmar with winger/forward Ropapa Mensah.

Saint Louis plays a quick ball over the top to enter NSC’s offensive end, and with limited offensive options (as was the case all evening), Albert Dikwa fires a shot from a poor position. Fortunately for him, that deflects off left back Taylor Washington out for a corner kick.

“Their wide right player ends up looking for an effort at goal and it ricocheted off of Taylor,” said Gary Smith. “Now, once you get to that point, all set pieces are the same.”

The film

Going with a GIF version here for a little more simplicity (and automatic looping):

STL goal.2019-03-18 16_10_13

What happens

It’s not a particularly crafty set piece design: a front-post delivery finds a hard-charging striker in Caleb Calvert, and he gets just enough of the ball to deflect it on-frame past Matt Pickens (and not so much as to direct it at Pickens, and it wasn’t far from heading into his body without the veteran needing to move).

“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.”

Hey, that’s what I said.

Centerback Liam Doyle’s answer gives a bit more context. Nashville is set up to defend man-to-man in a couple areas, and Calvert’s run from one into the other allowed him to lose his man-mark.

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

That answer (along with what happened on the play) implies that the two zones are front-post and back-post. Saint Louis actually put only one player on a traditional front-post run, and he was marked by Matt LaGrassa. Michael Reed’s role in this seems to be as the second front-zone player who wants to prevent the ball from getting to the back-post zone if it lands somewhere on the borderline between the two.

It ends up just a bit high for Reed, while Taylor Washington’s attempt to play physical defense on Calvert goes for naught. It’s past Pickens before he has a great look at it, and Ropapa Mensah’s mark holds him too close to the back post to react to the ball in time.

What we learned

Primarily, this seems to be a combination of really good execution on the service and the header from Saint Louis FC, and iffy execution from multiple members of Nashville’s defensive corps:

  • Whether he’s technically Washington’s or Doyle’s man-mark, somebody has to get a body on Calvert and prevent him from making the run he wants. Doyle seems to have passed him off to Washington, who still manages to end up on Calvert’s back shoulder and not jumping.
  • Reed could do a bit better to raise up and deflect the ball (or judge its path for a more efficient leap to deflect it), but that’s further down the list. As a member of that front zone, it seems like this is out of his responsibility, for the most part.
  • It’s a tough ask of Matt Pickens, but a goalkeeper of his caliber probably makes that save more often than not. He would have made it in the early stages of last season, and while his form faded later in the year, that fatigue of being an every-minute keeper shouldn’t have set in yet.

All told, this is likely the sort of play that the coaches will show on film not to come up with a new scheme or new coverage assignments for the players, but to emphasize the assignments they already have.

Set pieces were a weakness of Nashville SC’s defense last year (as much as anything was, at least, since no aspect of it was particularly weak), and if the Boys in Gold are to play a little bit more ambitiously and open up the counterattack to opponents in the run of play, they’ll have to be even more solid to avoid giving up set piece goals.

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