Last year’s Nashville SC team was extremely sound defensively, but left something to be desired when it came to offensive punch. This year’s squad has been even better defensively to date (0.4 GPG allowed, compared to 0.91 last season), but has also managed to make vast strides offensively.
Indeed, while last year the Boys in Gold scored 1.24 goals per game, this year’s unit is at 1.6 GPG – despite having faced three of the four stingiest defenses in the East.
How are they getting it done? In a lot of ways, a simple upgrade in talent has paid dividends. Last year’s second-leading scorer in USL, Daniel Ríos, joined the team from North Carolina FC, and already accounts for half the team’s goals this season. There’s also been a slight shift in mentality, and that’s what we’ll look at today.
Playing it forward
Nashville SC’s tactics have varied at times this year, though mostly based out of either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 (there have been glimpses of a five-man backline choking out the final moments of games). Nashville, like the vast majority of USL teams – and basically every successful one – is unlikely to go away from a scheme that includes two defensive midfielders.
The change this year? In possession, that duo has been much more ambitious going forward. Both Matt LaGrassa and Michael Reed are comfortable making line-breaking passes. Here’s a LaGrassa example from last weekend’s win over Memphis 901 FC.
While he’s dropped extremely deep in the formation (almost between the centerbacks, though that partially says as much about their comfort pushing up the pitch to create advantageous numbers), his pass breaks two lines of the opposing defense to find the striker, Ríos. While Justin Davis’s eventual feed is just short of the head of the other striker, Tucker Hume, the ambition to create that play is important… and it’d be fair to say you wouldn’t have expected it last year.
Speaking of Davis, he had some line-breaking passes himself (as did his fellow fullback, Darnell King on the right side):
Neither is the most exciting play in the world, necessarily (and Davis’s in this particular sequence is made impactful because of a similarly ambitious pass by Lebo Moloto), but it’s indicative of a more aggressive mindset.
Last year, the fullbacks’ primary offensive contribution was staying home (without being involved with the ball in the middle or offensive third) to allow the wingers to move freely up the field, or overlapping and sending in crosses. This new philosophy can be more ambitious on offense, and given that it allows the fullbacks to involve themselves in the offense without having to bury themselves in a crossing position near the corner flag, it also lets them remain sound defensively.
Obviously, we’re looking at two separate items (defensive midfielders playing it through the lines to their forwards, and defenders playing throughballs or forward passes rather than overlapping to cross) that fall within the same realm here. Both of them were rarer last year, even though they appear to allow the team to remain spatially sound.
Why is that?
Simply put, neither of them is easy. Passing through the middle of the pitch is often just as likely to see the ball turned over as it is to be completed (of course dependent on the passer’s and recipient’s respective levels of skill). Even if the defensive midfielder has stayed home on the pass – so a turnover doesn’t give the opponent a chance to counter-attack – if you give away the ball, you can’t score with it.
Nashville now has the confidence in the vision and passing accuracy of its midfielders (and with a slightly different implementation, its fullbacks) to allow them to take that risk – and it’s shown to be worthwhile. LaGrassa in particular has proven adept at displaying the vision to see that pass, and he’s fairly successful at hitting his spot when he does find a forward up the field.
While it requires a high level of skill – particularly passing accuracy and field vision – it also lets Nashville be better on both offense and defense when it comes off, at least from how we’ve seen it play out to date.