Nashville SC’s most disappointing result of the young season comes begging for a bounceback. Can the Boys in Gold get it against a Pittsburgh Riverhounds team that is historically tough to break down?
Opponent: Pittsburgh Riverhounds (2-1-3). 11th place USL East • 10th place USL East power ratings.
Time, Location: Saturday, April 27 6:00 p.m. CDT (7:00 p.m. Local) • Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Weather: 52ºF, 63% chance of rain, 43% humidity, 12 MPH Westerly winds
Follow: Twitter list • USL Gametracker
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 or ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio), 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
Party: At a Nashville soccer bar: Smokin’ Thighs with The Assembly, Neighbors Germantown or Party Fowl Murfreesboro with the Roadies. Nobles in East Nashville is hosting the club’s official watch party.
Etc.: Recap of last week’s coverage. Q&A with Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s John Krysinsky. Coverage from each of last year’s games.
Pittsburgh are the current missionaries of the USL-familiar concept of “Lilleyball.” Under head coach Bob Lilley – at Rochester Rhinos until last year, and in Steel City since the beginning of 2018 – there’s a certain heavily-defensive, counter-attack oriented style of play that’s tough to beat and very easy to draw.
“Lilleyball is a word that gets tossed around a lot, as well as ‘The Bob Lilley Special” or another word for 1-0 wins predicated on getting a timely goal, and stuffing out and wearing down opponents,” said Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s John Krysinsky. “If I were to define what ‘Lilleyball’ really means, it is actually a word that defines a coach who does things in his own unique style — and probably adapts and adjusts to every opponent.”
This year’s edition may not be quite to the historical standard, with the first three opponents putting a pair of goals on the Hounds – they gave up more than one goal just nine times all of last season – but it’s a frustrating style to take on. Now that they’re settling in, they’ve been able to cut opponent output to one goal in the past three games. They’re a suffocating defense, particularly at Highmark Stadium.
“I think the environment is challenging,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “Yes, it’s partly because they are a very good defending team, and a very determined team, but I think the environment, the field, the surface, the size of the field makes that such a difficult place to play a possessional-type game.”
The first three games in 2019 saw the Hounds come out in the 3-5-2 that we became familiar with last season, but conceding the aforementioned goals has seen them shift up tactics in the more recent pair. They’ve been a 4-1-4-1 team (or almost a 4-1-3-2 at times) in the past two games, and that’s resulted in a 1-0 win over Louisville City and a 3-1 victory over Hartford Athletic. Given the early-season returns for those sides, it may not be a sea change in terms of what it’s done for the team’s form, but certainly 2-0-1 is better than the 0-1-2 start, yeah?
One issue for the team has been casting players in different positions than they started the year expecting to play. Midfielder Mouhamed Dabo broke down some of those difficulties.
“All my career, I’ve just played as a holding (midfielder). Right now, I’m playing a little bit higher,” Dabo told Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s Matt Gajtka. “But we are professional. We have to do what the coach asks. Maybe he sees something, so you have to respect it. We know how good he is tactically, so maybe he sees something. We just have to respect it and be a professional.”
Even with the change to a slightly more offensive formation (ironically, made in what seems to have been an effort to fix the defense), there’s still some concern about actually scoring. The Hounds were Nashville-like in their mediocrity in front of goal last season, and with 10 goals through six games, that may seem better – until you take out the fool’s gold of having pounded an absolutely disconsolate Hartford team. Opening up the offense remains a priority.
“We need to be busier in front of goal, and that’s us taking the initiative to get behind and make hard runs and get on the end of stuff,” Lilley told Pittsburgh Soccer Now. “In my opinion, we played a little too cautiously. Some of it was them being hard to break down, but some of it was us not being active enough.”
All told, the Hounds have been approximately mediocre this year, but much better in the past three (to be fair, that includes both home games). Part of that is replacing struggling goalie Kyle Morton with the more-successful Ben Lundgaard, some of it is settling into a new system, some of it is getting to play at home.
The leaders offensively are striker Steevan Dos Santos, winger/midfielder Kevin Kerr, and defensively, centerback Joe Greenspan and left back (and former Nashville SC player) Ryan James. Dos Santos is the straw the stirs the drink, and though nominally a single-high forward, he’s also capable of dropping into a “false 9” role, where he collects in midfield.
“Thus far, they’ve relied on veteran Steevan Dos Santos to set the table,” Krysinsky said. “If they’re trying to be more possession based, they’ll bring Dos Santos into the attacking midfield, where he has the ability to draw defenders, hold up the ball, and redistribute. But they can also play longer, and more direct with Dos Santos at the top of the formation. Dos Santos can be very dangerous in the air, and with the ball at his feet.”
If Pittsburgh goes with a 3-5-2 (about which more in a moment), the main change is dropping VanCaeyezeele to the right centerback spot, while pushing Brett a little higher to be the second forward (Volesky can also serve in that role), and letting the outside backs roam a bit higher.
The Boys in Gold
The first thing to think about with Nashville is perhaps more suited to go in the Riverhounds’ section: after seeing how much NSC struggled with an odd backline last weekend in Charleston – and on a very narrow field – does it maker more sense to return to three at the back and force the Boys in Gold to pump in a ton of crosses, with the expectation that they don’t hit any? It’s certainly something that will be considered.
Gary Smith was unequivocal after last weekend’s game that nobody – and particularly his players on the backline – weren’t good enough, and I would expect to see more of the personnel from earlier in the season (centerback Ken Tribbett and left back Taylor Washington) back on the field. A minor shakeup comes a lot easier when it can be seen as a return to what previously worked.
“I think after last week’s away game, we’re mentally looking at what we can improve on,” Smith said. “It’s certainly not going to be any easier than it was last week.”
Going back to what worked wouldn’t be the description of giving midfielder Lebo Moloto a rest, but it seems to be the view – at least from outside the technical staff’s war room – that it’s time for that. He seems to be pressing to make things happen, and while he’s getting back to 90-minute fitness after an injury-hampered offseason, giving Alan Winn a chance to get on the field from the start may be just the refresh the offense needs, and the rest Moloto could use (while making him a major weapon off the bench).
Another thing Nashville will be working on – has been working on since early last season – has been the set piece success on either side of the ball. Three of the five goals conceded this year have come from set piece postures, and NSC hasn’t been as successful offensively as many other teams across the league.
“I think 40% of the goals last year came from set pieces,” Washington said. “It’s been fun to work on it all week, and work on my service. It’d be great to get on the scoresheet and score off a set piece.”
Longer service has been a weakness of Washington’s game in comparison to his fellow left back Justin Davis, so to hear he’s focused on set piece delivery this week (Davis is typically the lefty server) indicates to me that it’s for a reason.
The other aspect to watch will be striker. I mentioned above that Pittsburgh may try to force NSC into a cross-happy offensive gameplan, which calls for Tucker Hume. But after Cameron Lancaster’s cameo last weekend, are we ready to see more of him on the pitch this week? It’s certainly a different dynamic than Hume provides, and he can be a mid more of a high-midfield creator to open up the offense a bit more, too.
Keys to the game
- Make the most of your chances. Pittsburgh isn’t going to allow many of them, so Nashville has to be more precise in finishing them. Getting Lancaster on the field next to (or in another forward alignment with) Ríos could be helpful there.
- Don’t give up set piece goals. That’s true every week for a Nashville SC team that typically only concedes from a dead ball situation. It’s particularly true with the massive 6-6 Greenspan a target on corners, and Dos Santos an aerial threat himself on the forward line.
- Don’t be intimidated by the press. Pittsburgh tends to press high at home, and tomorrow should be no exception. Nashville has the talent to play through (or if need be, over) the press, and needs to remain composed in order to successfully do so. That’s one reason Connor Sparrow – better with his feet – may make sense as the keeper in this one.
- Weather the storm. Pittsburgh wears teams down at home, whether or not they have a ton of possession of the ball. The backline has to stay mentally strong throughout, because that one chance on a counter is what the Riverhounds generally live for.
- Learn to spell “VanCaeyezeele” on the first try. That one’s just for me.
Notebook from Pittsburgh Soccer Now. Official Nashville SC site game preview, and a discussion on facing former NSC player Ryan James. USL weekend guide. Official Riverhounds site What2Watch4 and game preview.
Both teams are solid defensively (last week notwithstanding for NSC), and while Nashville is improved on offense versus last year, there’s still quite a bit to prove.
- Van Caeyezeele feeds Kerr into space shortly after halftime, and while his shot is saved, Brett is there to clean up and give the Riverhounds a lead.
- Cameron Lancaster levels it up with his first goal since the season-opener against Loudoun United.
The game ends in a 1-1 draw.