Lackluster offense leaves the door open, and Saint Louis FC struts through to beat Nashville SC

Russell Cicerone found a 77th-minute winner for the hosts.

Nashville SC has had one of the best offenses and one of the best defenses in the USL’s Eastern Conference over the course of the season. Saturday evening in Saint Louis, though, only one of them showed up. Nashville SC couldn’t muster much with the ball at their feet, and that gave host Saint Louis FC the chance to make a single strike the game-winner. That’s exactly what happened, and Nashville SC’s 1-0 loss is one of the year’s most disappointing results. Although it’s not one of the worst – the team has lost by greater margins, and even lost to this same side at First Tennessee Park – it’s certainly a tough pill to swallow.

Although Nashville controlled much of the run of play in the first half – with a 58-42% advantage – they mustered only one shot in the frame. When the possession leveled off following the break, all Saint Louis needed was one chance. Russell Cicerone took it.

“It’s just not an easy game on this field,” NSC head coach Gary Smith said. “It’s up-and-at-them, it’s very Pittsburgh-esque type field that they play on. Unfortunately, we certainly didn’t make enough of one or two moments where we controlled play a little bit more. That ended up being the defining moments. They found a way to break the deadlock and unfortunately we didn’t.”

The winger intercepted an attempted clearing pass from the head of Forrest Lasso in the 77th minute (during a stretch with plenty of NSC difficulty getting the ball out of its own end), cut onto his left foot, and beat Matt Pickens to the bottom corner. It probably wasn’t even the best Saint Louis chance of the night, given that exactly three minutes before the goal, a 4-on-3 break for STLFC saw the final shot hit well wide by midfielder Collin Fernandez – but it’s not about who gets the best shot, it’s about who puts one in the back of the net. Saint Louis FC managed to do it, Nashville did not.

A second-consecutive game in the 3-5-2 formation (after Nashville has been primarily a 4-2-3-1 team this season) displayed some of the weaknesses in that tactical approach: while Nashville SC was sound at the back for the vast majority of the contest, generating decent offensive chances against a solid Saint Louis defense proved to be a Sisyphean task.

In the absence of striker Daniel Ríos (who did not travel to the Gateway City, missing his third consecutive game with a groin injury), Nashville couldn’t consistently serve the forward line of Cameron Lancaster and Ropapa Mensah. Lobbing in 21 crosses in the game (seven of them complete) was the primary method of generating touches inside the penalty area, and of Nashville’s 12 total shots in the game, only five came inside the box, including three from key-pass crosses.

“I think we didn’t create the opportunities that we had in past games; it’s just unfortunate,” said wingback Taylor Washington. “We were in a good run of form, and this loss today – we’ll take it and make sure that we improve. We’re going to make sure that we come back from this and we use this as a propelling point to finish the season better.”

Nashville’s substitutions seemed to take too long to come: with Saint Louis beginning to push for the winner in the second half, the Boys in Gold seemed too willing to absorb pressure with their defensive formation. Immediately after Cicerone’s tally, winger Kharlton Belmar replaced midfielder Lebo Moloto, but a decision to go after the game earlier may have not only challenged Jake Fenlason’s goal, but also taken some of the pressure away from Nashville’s backline, which was having trouble clearing the ball.

Alan Winn’s entry in the 82nd minute (replacing centerback Ken Tribbett) showed intent to chase the equalizer, and by the time target forward Tucker Hume entered in the 90th, the shift in philosophy was too-little, too-late.

“The choices that have got to be made at that point, 20 minutes out, 15 minutes out, just before they scored was are we going to change dramatically to what we are or were there just one or two areas to tinker with that might have helped us,” Smith explained. “But just as I was going to make the change, they scored. It made life all the more difficult, but the story of the night was that we certainly weren’t enough of a threat on goal.”

Ríos’s absence is a major one – despite the recent rest for his injury, he’s running second in the USL Championship’s Golden Boot race – but the team has to be able to produce when he’s unavailable. Lancaster won that prize last season, but NSC could only provide him with 25 total touches, and only three of those inside the box. There’s no discounting that solid play from Saint Louis deserves credit for Nashville’s difficulties, but the game also provided the feeling that NSC didn’t do everything in its power to win – until it was too late.

With the loss, Nashville finishes the weekend in third place in the conference standings – and the Boys in Gold could have been in first (albeit temporarily) with a victory in West Community Stadium.

By the next time Nashville takes the field in just over a week’s time (Sept. 17 against Birmingham Legion), the sides around them will be well on their way to catching up to NSC’s 28 games played, and what looks like a lofty position now will take on another sense of urgency in the task for finishing in the top four.

Match highlights

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