Nashville SC makes a tactical shift, but can’t find a goal in North Carolina

I forgot to take pictures of the actual game, so here’s a baby that I kidnapped while I was there.

CARY, N.C. – Through the opening phase of its game against North Carolina FC Saturday evening, something wasn’t quite right with Nashville SC. The Boys in Gold were disconnected in the midfield, toothless in attack, and unable to consistently keep the ball out of their own defensive end.

By the time NCFC midfielder Ben Speas poked home a cross from Aarón Guillén in the 30th minute, it was clear that the game’s opening tactical battle would go to the hosts.

Smith made one of the season’s earliest (non-injury) substitutions of the year, replacing wingback Kosuke Kimura with offensive winger Alan Winn in the 39th minute. The change in shape took a little while to find results, but ultimately led to a much better tilt in the run of play.

“I had seen enough,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “We had moved from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 before Alan came on, so I think it was after about 32-33 minutes, we changed and I had seen enough. We were a goal down, their shape was dominating ours and there wasn’t enough intensity in our game. We certainly weren’t good enough on the ball to make a difference, and I felt as though making a bit of a shift in the group was going to help us get some traction. It didn’t straight away, although Alan made a little bit
of an impact. But, it didn’t give us the desired effect straight away.

“We needed halftime to come along and honestly the attitude was far better. It was far brighter and more positive. That showed in some of the statistics in the second half. We certainly controlled that, created the best chances. It’s just a night of frustration for everyone through a bad first-half performance. It wasn’t anywhere near good enough for this group, and I think the guys are feeling that.”

Nashville was able to seize momentum after the halftime break, outshooting North Carolina FC 12-3, with a 4-0 advantage in shots actually on-target. They won the possession battle 59.0-41.0% in the second 45. However, they were unable to turn consistent pressure into a game-tying goal.

In the end, the first-half tally was enough as North Carolina FC took home the 1-0 victory.

“I thought we were by far the better team in the second half,” Smith said. “But tonight the goal scoring abilities and prowess of the group deserted us, and sadly we failed to keep our goal intact yet again. Those days are going to come along and it’s got to be a combined effort.”

Failing to keep the goal intact was a group effort, but keeper Connor Sparrow – who made two spectacular saves in the portion of the first half in which his net was under siege – was hardly the primary guilty party. He added another routine save to finish with three on the night. It was the first, a diving tip over the bar, that was his most impressive.

“First things first, I followed him and was able to go out and deflect the cross,” Sparrow explained. “I just dropped back to my line tried to get myself in a good spot, tried to put as much time in between the shot and myself. I was able to get a hand on it.”

While he and his defensive unit will regret not keeping a clean sheet – and the resulting loss on a night where the offense wasn’t able to mount much of a response – there’s still plenty to build on going into this weekend’s game against Louisville City FC.

“You have to move on; there is no point in dwelling on it,” said centerback Bradley Bourgeois. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t capitalize on this game. It was a big one. We have the two-time champs coming up. I know everyone will be looking forward to it, I know the fans will be. It’s one we have to take advantage of, really. Louisville hasn’t been in the greatest run of form and high up the table like last year, but it’s just an opportunity to get three points.”

“I think we’ve just got to build off of the positives from that game, especially the positives of the second half,” Sparrow added. “I thought it was really like night and day, our performance in the first half and in the second half as a collective unit. We’ll be able to build off of a lot of that second half, we’ve just got to focus on bringing that intensity and energy and the quality that we showed in the last 45 minutes tonight. We need to bring that for the full 90 next Saturday.”

The strike combo of Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster can likely be counted upon to deliver in subsequent games: they’ve combined for 15 goals through 17 games to date, on a 24.5% conversion rate. Nights on which they combine for 11 shots and fail to find the back of the net will be few and are between.

The next one will be even more personal for Lancaster: he scored a USL-record 26 goals for Louisville City FC last year, and this will be the first time facing his former club after four years donning a purple jersey. Rebounding from a rough night last weekend (when it was Ríos, who finished second in the 2018 Golden Boot race to his new teammate, facing his former club in NCFC) will be paramount to helping the team recover – and getting some catharsis after early-season injuries frustrated both himself and Nashville fans.

NSC will head just up I-65 to Slugger Field Saturday evening. Their tilt against the two-time defending champs – with whom they split three meetings last season, 1-1-1 – begins at 7:00 p.m. local time, 6:00 in Nashville.

Game highlights

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