Taking stock of Nashville SC and the USL East

Since Nashville SC has a bye week, there’s been a little bit of time for reflection. In this context, “reflection” means “making charts.” That’s what I did.

East by offensive and defensive strength

Based on the current USL Pure Power ratings, here’s the USL’s Eastern Conference broken out by offensive and defensive quality. A quick note on the numbers: the methodology is described in this post, and it covers only goals actually scored, not xG. The numbers are in standard deviations from average, so a team that’s exactly average both offensively and defensively would be dead center.

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Fortunately for our purposes, there’s a pretty clear delineation between the “haves” and “have-nots,” and nobody particularly close to the grey area outside of Charleston (slightly below average, for what it’s worth).

Nashville has the best offense in the conference over the course of the season, but has fallen off defensively from last year’s quality on the other side of the ball. Given the missed opportunities we’ve seen from the Boys in Gold – to be fair, every team has had those, but NSC fans just aren’t watching as closely – they could be even better with some improved sharpness in the final third. On defense… the Charleston, Pittsburgh, and Charlotte outcomes (three, two, and one goals, respectively) are the only serious disappointments to date, but given that they’ve cost the team points in the table, there’s major room to clean that up.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay and Indy (and to a slightly lesser extent Saint Louis) have absolutely elite defenses, with the Rowdies’ mediocre offense plenty good to make them the best overall team in the East – and USL at-large so far – and Indy’s something of a (minor) problem.

Loudoun started the year OK, but had a huge setback with a home loss to Hartford (Hartford’s only road result of the year, though they have a 0-1-3 record at home), knocking them back into the stone ages with the second-worst overall result for any team all season – in both conferences.

Nashville game-by-game

So we know Nashville has been a very good team all year, with elite outcomes offensively and decent (or better) on defense. That’s in aggregate, though. How have things played out game by game?

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So, there are a few elite performances in there (the hump that’s the back-to-back Ottawa and Memphis games makes the rest look pedestrian… that smaller rounded hump includes the Pittsburgh and Atlanta United 2 games, which would both be very good overall), mostly above-average otherwise, with a small handful of negative results.

As you can see, though, things generally are looking a little less “hey this is an elite team” in recent weeks. The team may be regressing to the mean, or they may be playing on tired legs with the oft-discussed heavy run of scheduling (including Open Cup games, eight games in 26 days). The outcome of the most recent Open Cup game – tons of goal-scoring opportunities, very limited finishing – would imply the latter, but there’s no real way to know without more data.

Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 9.33.56 AMWhat we can tell is that there has been some correlation between days of rest and overall performance. Whether that’s a statistical quirk of all the short-rest games being recently and the longer-rest stretch coming earlier in the season is in the eye of the beholder. We may have a causal relationship between rest and performance. Just as likely, we could have two things mutually caused by the same factor – which part of the season we’re actually in (hell, with such a small sample size, it could just be random luck).

Anyway, let’s look at not only the overall performances, but the individual offensive and defensive outcomes. Reminder: positive is good for offense, bad for defense.

So the offense has been a bit of a roller coaster, but other than the New York Red Bulls II game, the other four below-average offensive outputs have come in the past five games – since the beginning of the heavy scheduling. (By the way, that NYRBII score will probably rebound and become above-average over the course of the season – their bizarre home loss to Loudoun United is throwing off the data a little bit but will be smoothed out over time).

Defensively, things actually started out on elite pace, but got hairy with the back-to-back Charleston and Pittsburgh games, and have been closer to merely average since. Some rotation on the backline that hadn’t really come up before that could explain it (as could tired legs, which obviously have played a factor in the rotation, as well), but largely, the team just has to play a bit better – it’s worth noting that one of those “bad” defensive performances was allowing a single goal to Swope in a 5-1 win, so it’s not exactly the end of the world.

Going forward

Elimination from the US Open Cup sucked on a pretty deep level, but it should prevent Nashville SC from having the same fatigue issues that were apparent basically throughout the month of May. They have five games on short rest (a weekend after a midweek, or vice versa) for the rest of the year. They had seven straight during May – about which, USL you should probably learn how to make a schedule.

On a similar note, some of Nashville SC’s personnel issues should begin to clear up and add depth to the roster. Here’s a rundown of some areas for quick improvement:

  • Alan Winn available and in shape after having to sit out the beginning of the season under concussion protocol.
  • Ropapa Mensah reaching 90-minute game shape after not being there early in the year.
  • Cameron Lancaster and Vinnie Vermeer returning from injury.
  • Derrick Jones added to the roster from Bethlehem Steel.

The parts of the roster that have shown the fatigue in the past few games (Daniel Ríos as the only available goal-scoring striker, winger Kharlton Belmar playing the vast majority of available minutes because there weren’t others at the position, not having a changeup at defensive midfield if things went poorly) are addressed reasonably directly.

If Nashville can simply get back to its season average performance on a consistent basis instead of living with the ups and downs, that’d be great. If they can smooth performances out while trending toward the higher end of their achievements to date, they have the opportunity to go on a major run in the next 21 games and into the postseason.

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