In last week’s film room, we saw that Nashville SC has the speed and skill to exploit opponents up the flanks. While Swope Park Rangers took a very different approach to defending than Indy Eleven did (and Nashville SC had a different route to goal), that area still produced the opening goal Saturday evening.
Nashville SC has yet to strike against Swope Park Rangers, despite creating plenty of offense. As we roll into the 42nd minute, the Boys in Gold have already taken nine shots, including a doorstep effort from Daniel Ríos and an attempt from the top of the six-yard box – a very dangerous area – by Kharlton Belmar both forcing saves out of Swope Park Rangers keeper Adrian Zendejas. All but one of Nashville’s shots has come from inside the penalty area, too.
This is a peppering, but a combination of bad luck and poor finishing (along with Zendejas’s heroics) has kept the underdogs in the game.
Nashville has the ball deep in its own end after a failed offensive push by Swope Park Rangers. An attempted cross by forward Ethan Vanacore-Decker is cut out, and Nashville’s centerbacks and keeper pass it around the horn for a sec.
The Rangers, typically a high-press team (as they prepare their prospects for promotion to Sporting Kansas City, which has always pressed under Peter Vermes, though a little less in the last couple seasons) are sort of… chillin? There’s no pressure on Nashville’s backline, and left centerback Forrest Lasso has plenty of time on the ball to pick out a long pass and execute it.
He finds winger Kharlton Belmar down the left sideline, and Belmar has the pace to get behind left back Will Little. He settles on the ball, squares up a recovering defender (right centerback Kaveh Rad), and distributes to a late-running – at least as late as you’d consider the third player to arrive on a counter-attack-style offensive push – attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto.
Moloto puts the ball in the back of the net with a first-time hit right-footed.
Nashville SC took the lead on what was quite honestly a much lower-percentage chance than some of their previous shots, and never looked back (particularly after Daniel Ríos doubled the lead shortly after the break).
Why it happened
There’s a lot going on with Swope, but this doesn’t turn into a goal without the simple individual talent of the three Nashville players to touch the ball. Lasso’s inch-perfect service, Belmar’s speed to get in behind and awareness to cut back and find a runner, and the shot from Moloto are all simply talented players executing the skills they’ve honed.
So, let’s get into what allowed this to happen. First off, Swope is stuck between a pressing posture (in the midfield and backline) and one where they’re sitting back (whatever the front three thinks it’s doing). That means they get the disadvantages of each: Belmar has space to run in behind the backline, and Lasso has all sorts of time to find that pass.
As you can see, Nashville’s centerbacks are completely unpressured, while the front two lines of Swope’s formation are bunched up in the midfield. The Swope wingers are cutting off passing angles to Nashville’s fullbacks (Washington is man-marked by Ngom Mbekeli, Kimura by Colombie), while the Rangers’ attacking midfielders are man-marking Bolu Akinyode (Roger Espinoza) and Michael Reed (Felipe Hernandez).
That’s all well and good, but center-forward Vanacore-Decker is sort of hanging out in no man’s land, as is defensive midfielder Gedion Zelalem. That’s an intimidating setup to try to pass through.
Nashville has the individual talent to not have to do that, though, thanks to Belmar’s speed and Lasso’s long passing. That’s why Vanacore Decker has to be providing at least token pressure on the centerbacks. Lasso’s time to chill out, read a magazine, and then find Belmar is pretty important to the play.
Belmar’s man-mark is also important here. Fullback Will little is nominally matched up on him – while the centerbacks are one-v-one with Moloto and Ríos, and left fullback Alexsander Andrade is manned up with Alan Winn. If the ball gets through the midifield (spoiler: it did!) , that’s a horrible numbers situation for the defense. Little had also started the game as an offensive winger, moving to fullback after an injury to right back Mark Segbers (with Ngom Mbekeli subbing on for Segbers and occupying the right winger spot that Little vacated).
Little is experienced as a fullback, but he also went into the game expecting to have an offensive mindset. That allowed Belmar to easily get in behind him when Little was caught ball-watching. To me, this is a lot of space!
The off-ball movement from Nashville’s other offensive players becomes important there, too. With Little left in Belmar’s dust, right centerback Rad has to slide over to cover him. Little sprints after him trying to recover, meaning Belmar has two defenders on him… in a situation that started with a 4-v-4. That means somebody’s unmarked (actually two end up being unmarked-ish, as left fullback Killian Colombie slides inside to make sure Ríos is adequately covered by Camden Riley – off-ball movement would also let Winn find an opening). It’s Moloto!
There’s no way in heck Zelalem can catch up to him as long as Moloto strikes the ball cleanly and first-time, and that’s exactly what he does.
Goals are good. This one is well-worked, and even if it requires mistakes from Swope either schematically or individually (or a combination of both), it is a positive for NSC.
This is largely why I prefer a four-man backlin to the odd backline that we see at times (particularly against teams that Nashville is worried will score). You have width in the defensive and offensive ends, without having to have players – particularly the wingbacks – double up. We saw Nashville have success on a similar-enough play the previous weekend thanks to Indy Eleven’s wingbacks being forward to provide the width on both ends of the pitch.
Obviously there’s a time and place that works, but with the talent that Nashville has wide (while Winn and Belmar were the dangermen on this play, don’t forget that Ropapa Mensah has been a dangerous winger, too), Indy couldn’t handle it. Swope’s fullback was caught upfield for different reasons, they had a similar mistake in the defensive midfield, and once again Nashville punished it.
With the wingers healthy and strong enough centerback talent that Gary Smith won’t be (as) tempted to go with a three-man backline, the 4-2-3-1 system allows Nashville to be dangerous both preventing goals on their own end as well as creating them going forward. There aren’t a ton of teams in the Eastern Conference – though there probably are two or three – that are going to have answers to it as long as Nashville’s players are on their game.