Despite leading for over half the game Saturday evening, it’d be fair to say things didn’t exactly go to plan for Nashville SC. The Boys in Gold ceded massive amounts of possession to host Louisville City FC, ending the game with a 65.4-34.6% disadvantage on the ball. LCFC took 16 shots to just six for Nashville.
And yet, the nature of soccer is such that an individual moment can change the narrative. Striker Daniel Ríos’s blast in the 11th minute stood up for more than 50 minutes, and seemed like it may have been able to give NSC the win, or at the very least a result. After a lay-off from fellow striker Cameron Lancaster following throw-in, the Mexican standout blasted the ball from outside the penalty area into the upper corner of Chris Hubbard’s net.
Nashville would go on to give up too much possession over the remainder of the half, though, with press-happy Louisville preventing NSC from advancing the ball if they could hold onto it at all.
“There were spells after we scored that I felt as though we just could not get out of our half,” Nashville head coach Gary Smith said. “There was a combination of factors for that, one was that we just were not proactive enough at the right times to get the group in better areas.”
An injury to Lancaster forced an early substitution, and Nashville was lucky (and overly dependent on goalkeeper Cameron Lancaster) to go into the half with the lead. While Lancaster and Ropapa Mensah have been one-for-one subs late in contests in recent weeks, their different styles meant that their Nashville teammates had to adjust.
“It’s hard; we have to adapt,” said Ríos. “We were playing so well and then Cameron got injured, so we had to adapt because it’s a different player. We have to play differently. We have the same plan, but with different players on the field, we know anyone can step inside. We adapt to the way the new player plays and we do it that way.”
A missed 41st-minute penalty kick from Magnus Rasmussen maintained NSC’s advantage, and felt like the sort of thing that just may indicate it was the visitors’ day.
While Nashville would be far more up to the task in the second half – they had only a 10% possession deficit in comparison to 48% gap in the first – Louisville was able to lean on the backline for the Boys in Gold, and ultimately managed to turn their mastery ovr the game into some production on the scoreboard.
“I think that you can see that they were getting more pressure,” defender Liam Doyle said. “They got a chance and I think they hit the post. That’s a warning sign and we didn’t take that. We conceded off of a set piece, and we shouldn’t really be conceding goals that easily off of set pieces.”
The scoring opportunity cam about innocuously enough. Nashville SC defender Bradley Bourgeois cleared the ball in his own end, but it went only as far as Louisville wingback Oscar Jimenez. A foul from Darnell King to prevent the transition opportunity gave a free kick 30 yards out. Jimenez’s ensuing service found the head of LCFC defender Paco Craig and leveled the game.
“The clearance from Bradley wasn’t good enough, it ends up with a foul,” said Smith. “It was a really good ball played into the penalty area, but it’s in the air a long time. I’ve spoken to Connor about it, we’ll have a look again when we get back. But, I certainly felt as though there was the possibility he should come and attack that. Nevertheless, we’ve got enough big, strong brave individuals there, you’ve got to do better. It’s just not good enough to concede that type of goal 1-0 up in such a tight and hard-fought game.”
It was the continuation of a troubling trend for Nashville SC. Last year’s nigh-impenetrable defense has been anything but in 2019. That’s been even worse since an injury to centerback Ken Tribbett forced him out of the lineup. Nashville has gone 1-2-1 and conceded an average of two goals per game in his recent absence, and lost 3-1 to Charleston Battery earlier in the season when he was held out for a coach’s decision.
When Tribbett has played, Nashville is 7-2-4 with an average of 0.62 goals allowed. Certainly Nashville can’t be so dependent upon a single player, but something has to get better if this team is to achieve its season-long objectives.
“There’s certainly a lot of food for thought in the way that we’re conceding goals at the moment,” Smith said. “It’s just too easy for teams to create and to find a way back into the game. When the front guys are not hitting the back of the net as regularly as they were – and against good teams – that’s just not going to happen. The backline has just got to be stronger, it’s got to be tighter. They’ve got to fight harder for the points, and today I felt there was more we could have done.”
“Goals are going in against us, and I don’t think we’ve turned bad defenders overnight,” Doyle added. “I just think we have to keep working hard, get ourselves together and plug the gaps. I think collectively as a team as well, the last two weeks we’ve suffered too much without the ball. We’ve bent in the past and not broken, and lately we’ve been breaking in terms of giving up goals.”
That the defensive dropoff is coincidental with a newfound inconsistency in scoring goals only further damages the effort. Nashville has scored three times in two separate games since Tribbett’s injury, but conceded enough in each of them so as to not find a multi-goal victory since the 4-1 victory over Bethlehem Steel in which the 26-year old suffered his calf strain.
Before Tribbett’s departure from the lineup, all but one NSC victory on the year had come by multiple goals.
“We will have time to work on our defensive shape and also try to score more goals,” Ríos said. “We have time to think about where we are right now in the table and where we want to be at the end of the season so we can make the playoffs and fight for the championship.”
Nashville has a long layoff – 11 days before their midweek trip to Memphis July 17 – to get things right. Tightening up defensively will be a major focus, as will putting the ball in the back of the net more consistently.
Just as important may be getting some rest: Lancaster and midfielders Michael Reed and Matt LaGrasssa were injury substitutions during the game. Ríos took a knock but had to stay on the pitch with all three Nashville changes exhausted, and of course Tribbett’s injury has been an ongoing situation since early June.
Injury situation notwithstanding, Nashville SC has played some of its best ball this season after a longer rest (a 3-0 victory over Ottawa Fury with 12 days between games, the 4-1 win over Bethlehem after a 14-day gap). Being able to run out fresh legs – for a team carrying a smaller roster, especially – is a benefit. Getting a bigger group of those legs on the field with players coming back from injury will be even better.
The prime focus, though, has to be cleaning up at the back.