Nashville SC still a work in progress, but it’s time for offensive consistency

Liam Doyle photo from file. Ryan Lassan/For Club and Country.

NASHVILLE – Sometimes results are, by their nature, disappointing. That is certainly the case with Nashville’s 1-1 draw against the Charlotte Independence Saturday evening. The Boys in Gold remain one of the USL Championship’s top teams on an aggregate basis, but frustrating outcomes have been unfortunately frequent this year.

Whether that’s allowing two late goals to drop road points in Pittsburgh, or failing to find the net at all in home losses against Saint Louis FC or Tampa Bay Rowdies, the disappointment hasn’t always sprung from the same source. Against Charlotte, though, it was one of the more common problems rearing its ugly head once again: failing to find the net when the team needed it most.

“When you think about some of the opportunities and the positive play that we saw in the first period, there’s no reason to believe that this shouldn’t be the day that we’re going to recover and win a game from a goal down,” said head coach Gary Smith. “It just didn’t work out that way in the second half. We’re still searching for that moment. I don’t think it’s for a lack of effort. There’s never any question: I’ve mentioned that before. The foundation of the group is based on good attitude, great effort, and lots of determination.

“The thing that’s let us down this evening is a second period that, in the most part, looked a bit flat, and lacking the ideas that we saw in the first half. There were some really nice dimensions to our play, some good give-and-go’s, some nice third-man runs, some great individualism. In the second period, that deserted our play.”

Nashville responded quickly to going a goal down, countering Dominic Oduro’s strike in the 15th minute with a rebounded goal by midfielder Lebo Moloto – the South African’s first of the year after leading the team in goals from open play a year ago. Nashville was on the front foot for the entire first half, but, as Smith noted, couldn’t keep the level of intensity going in the second half.

Smith made a trio of offensive substitutions late in the contest – putting fan favorite Ropapa Mensah, fullback/winger Darnell King, and Tucker Hume into the contest – but the spark to find the game-winner couldn’t be found against a Charlotte team that had struggled to prevent goals this season.

“We have to force the issue: it’s down to us to make things happen and ask questions and constantly put an opposing backline under pressure,” Smith said. “I did honestly think in the first half when we were able to ask questions, good crosses, balls served into areas or played in behind for third-man runs, I didn’t think they dealt with it great. Against teams that have conceded goals – and they have – and against teams like Charlotte who haven’t been in good form, you’ve got to keep asking questions. Because the more questions you ask, the likelier it is, the more chance you’ve got of them not being able to find the right answer. And we didn’t do it in the second half. Simple as that, we didn’t do it.”

Charlotte left some space available on the flanks to Nashville’s attacking personnel in its 3-4-1-2 formation, and while Nashville players took advantage of that space, for whatever reason, they were unable to turn that into goal-scoring moments. A 20-shot performance – with 13 of those coming inside the box – has to result in more than a single goal.

“I think it’s important to get the second goal right away and just put your foot on their throat because it really puts a different perspective on the game especially for the other team,” King said. “They start doing things out of character for themselves, and they leave themselves exposed a ton. I think just based off of what he said, just kill the game in that aspect.”

Nashville wouldn’t have needed more than the single goal if not for a moment of defensive weakness that had been uncharacteristic in the early days of the franchise. One prime chance per game has unfortunately become a regular occurrence this year, and while it doesn’t always result in a goal, it did on this day.

Both midfielder Michael Reed and centerback Ken Tribbett stepped up to man-mark forward Zyena Jones at midfield, leaving Charlotte’s most creative player, midfielder Enzo Martinez, unmarked. Martinez quickly moved the ball to MLS veteran Dominic Oduro, and he made no mistake slotting the ball past both centerback Liam Doyle and keeper Connor Sparrow.

“I am concerned that teams are not making bundles of chances against us, [but] in the first real clear-cut moment that Charlotte have, they score,” Smith said. “That’s disappointing. We have to hold ourselves to better standards than that. If you’re not under serious pressure as a backline, or as a defensive group, we have to deal with those moments in a far better fashion.”

“I think they’re taking advantage of that chance: the game against Tampa and then in this one as well,” said left back Justin Davis. “I think we’ve just got to be a little bit smarter. I think when we’re not leading, we start pushing a little bit and leave ourselves a little exposed back there.”

Counter-attacking goals happen of course, and certainly Nashville would prefer to control the run of play than have their own net bombarded. When that control over the game doesn’t effect winning results, however, there’s an element of frustrations that also comes back on the offense. The team can’t continue to dominate the ball but fail to turn it into goals.

“Guys lost a bit of focus, maybe just got lulled into a false sense of security with some good territorial possession,” Smith said. “But possession doesn’t equate to points. You’ve got to make something of it.”

A team that scored five goals in last weekend’s game against Swope Park Rangers couldn’t find that moment of magic to turn solid control over the game into the part that actually matters: winning it.

The best chance to find a winner came late in the game, with Davis getting onto the end of a cross from midfielder Matt LaGrassa on the doorstep of Charlotte’s goal. However, he could only manage to direct the headed attempt at Independence keeper Curtis Anderson.

“I just tried to get something on it,” Davis said. “I think Tucker [Hume] was up there at the time so you’d bet on him to win it, but it just kind of went over his head and landed there. I thought I did everything I could, kept it down, kept it back across the face and probably a foot or more to the outside and it goes in, so it’s just kind of unfortunate. It was a great ball by Matt [LaGrassa]. Kind of at that point in the game, we were just trying to get stuff in there and see what can happen.”

We’ve come to the point in the season where an offense built around “seeing what can happen” is less than ideal, particularly against a Charlotte side that entered the game among the league’s worst defensively. And it’d be fair to say that Nashville isn’t always trying to cobble offense together with dental floss and chewing gum: with one of the highest scoring offenses in the league, it’s not about figuring out how to score. Rather, it’s about being able to do it with a degree of consistency.

With a midweek trip to Birmingham Legion looking less and less like a layup (more because of NSC’s ability to struggle against a weak team, more so than anything Birmingham has done specifically), and a matchup in Indianapolis on the weekend, the offensive chemistry has to click soon.

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