Nashville SC gave up a two-goal lead late against Pittsburgh Saturday evening. What went wrong? Here’s a look at the first goal of the quick 1-2 for the Riverhounds.
Nashville SC leads 2-0 and has dominated Pittsburgh basically wire-to-wire as we near the 88th minute. Nashville has just made its final substitution, replacing Daniel Ríos with Ropapa Mensah, a like-for-like sub at the striker position.
The play begins shortly after a Nashville SC goal kick. Connor Sparrow’s bomb went past everyone, clearing the endline and allowing Pittsburgh to start the offense with Kyle Morton’s own goal kick. He plays it short, and Joe Greenspan hits a big cross-field pass. After a contested header or two, the Riverhounds settle it.
It is not good! Nashville SC’s striker pairing (Mensah and Cameron Lancaster) have had it played over their heads, to they hustle to get back into defensive positions.
Pittsburgh midfielder Kenardo Forbes plays the ball to midfielder Robbie Mertz, who quickly moves it to right fullback Jordan Dover. Dover’s speculative ball to the front post manages to find an unmarked (or at least loosely-marked) Christian Volesky, and he nods it home.
Nashville SC would go on to concede a second goal, dropping from a winning position into a draw with the Hounds.
Why it happened
A lot going on here: first of all, Nashville’s strikers aren’t quite pressing at the back, but they also aren’t sinking back into defensive positions. Something a little more definitive in their execution might be preferred.
That said, they do manage to get back into defensive positions, and Nashville has 10 men behind the ball (plus keeper Connor Sparrow: that’s everybody, yo) by the time the play really gets going:
However, their momentum (particularly in the case of Lancaster, who was a little slower in dropping) prevents them from getting into balanced defensive positions, and Nashville SC is drawn out of position. Michael Reed collapses in on Mertz, leaving Dover wide open on the wing. Lancaster recovers to him, but it’s too late to prevent the right back from getting solid service in.
At the back, Nashville SC is marking three Pittsburgh runners with three defenders: right back Kosuke Kimura is on Anthony Velarde (15), right centerback Bradley Bourgeois has Neco Brett (9), and sweeper Ken Tribbett has Volesky (12). Away from the play, left back Justin Davis steps wide to cover Kevin Kerr (10), while left centerback Liam Doyle is the free man (No. 5 in your program, No. 4 in your heart the graphic above).
Those three offensive players make their runs, with Sparrow stepping to his right to cover Velarde, who’s actually in an offside position (your mileage may vary in terms of whether Sparrow’s reaction to an offside player is enough that the goal should have come back for offside – by the letter of the law, maybe, but by my eye as a reasonable observer, no). The ball never goes across the face of goal, though, because Volesky has won a physical battle with Tribbett, and his diving header directs it home at the near post.
So there are a couple individual mistakes and/or areas of improvement here:
- Either Reed needs to play his role and stay on the wide fullback, rather than collapsing when the ball is moved centrally, or Lancaster has to recover faster to be in position. Whether that position is “get inside so Reed doesn’t have to sink there” or “cover the fullback,” he didn’t execute either well enough.
- Tribbett loses a physical battle with a guy who’s 6-1, 170. That’s hardly a mighty mite in USL terms, but Tribbett has to use his strength to bar that run off, since on pure speed terms he’s not winning a footrace with many strikers.
- Doyle doesn’t want to deflect the ball into his own net, or put his keeper in a bad position off a deflection, but as the free man on the backline, he has to be able to affect that service. It’s hard to say for sure from any of the available angles, but he may be in a spot to head that out for a corner. If not, he should be (and despite NSC’s occasional issues defending set pieces, that’s preferable to letting an even more dangerous cross in from open play).
- Sparrow reacts to a runner who starts in an offside position – and therefore can’t be involved in the play, though certainly the officiating crew would have missed that – and doesn’t do a fantastic job reading the path of the cross/service. It was a bit of an awkward ball in, for sure, but combined with a couple other instances in this game, reading and dealing with crosses is definitely part of his game that can use some refinement.
For me, the greatest sin is letting Dover get the service in unmolested. Like with last week’s film room, the other stuff is mostly minor “happens on every play”-type imperfection, and it takes allowing the perfect service for any of it to count.
There are a couple applicable lessons here other than “do better!” on those individual elements. Certainly each of those will be worked in the coming week(s), but there is also one structural item I see.
Gary Smith made all three subs prior to this play, all of them like-for-like: striker Cameron Lancaster replaced Kharlton Belmar and left back Justin Davis replaced Taylor Washington in the 75th, and Mensah replaced Ríos in the 85th. That kept NSC in the 3-5-2 formation they’d been rocking with all game – shifted to more of a 5-3-2 just put some fresh bodies (and less banged-up ones) on the pitch.
However, you saw above how having two strikers high here was problematic: you had two players hustling to get back into the play. Would inserting Lebo Moloto for Ríos, and rocking with a 5-4-1 have made more sense? The width that the formation lost when Reed and Lancaster both moved centrally, rather than cutting out Dover, would have been natural from the structure of the formation, not something that the players would have had to consciously do.
A midfield four of LaGrassa-Akinyode-Reed-Moloto with Lancaster up top – where the lone striker can run laterally to pressure high up the pitch, but not put the team in a bad position when he’s unable to slide back as quickly – might have been better formulated to work out. Mensah’s probably the better hold-up option for lumping it up to the striker and having him take the ball to the corner to waste time, but the far worse defensive option. Lancaster was already subbed in so that particular question is moot (it may have also been possible to play a 5-4-1 with Lancaster on one of the wings with the personnel that was in).
Anecdotally, the home game against Toronto FC II is the only time I can really remember Nashville SC failing to close out a game, so it’s not like this has been a consistent problem in the history of the franchise, but there’s always room for re-evaluation of tiny tactical decisions, particularly in the wake of a disappointing result.