It’s the penultimate day of the game week, I think. If you haven’t yet voted in the community ratings from the Saint Louis FC contest, please do so. The Wrap coming Saturday morning.
Nashville SC’s result Saturday evening was disappointing. A lack of offense gave Saint Louis the opportunity to win the game in a single moment, and Russell Cicerone provided exactly that boost to his team.
The two teams have been pretty much at a stalemate throughout the contest. Nashville’s 3-5-2 has been unable to produce much in the way of offense, and while STLFC has been able to find some dangerous moments against it, the score remains 0-0.
Saint Louis, meanwhile, has been dogmatic in its approach: there has been no change to the 4-4-2 formation, with the fullbacks pinching inward while the wide midfielders sink to create a six-man backline in defensive postures.
However, Saint Louis FC has made a slight tactical shift late in the contest. While they’re still emphasizing defense first, there’s been a bit of high pressing, and in particular, counter-pressing (providing pressure high up the pitch shortly after their own turnover, while Nashville is still shifting into its settled offense to play the ball out of the back).
The counter-press pays off for Saint Louis. A headed clearance/pass from Forrest Lasso is intended for midfielder Matt LaGrassa.
Cicerone, playing left midfield, sees that LaGrassa is waiting for the ball to arrive, rather than moving toward it. The Saint Louis winger seizes on the opportunity, intercepting the pass and getting forward immediately.
He crosses up a couple Nashville defenders, and fires low to the opposite post. Matt Pickens can’t stop it, and Saint Louis goes up.
STLFC would ultimately make this one stand as the winner, switching into an even-more defensive posture to see out the final 16 minutes.
Why it happens
This is another of those plays on which enough small things go wrong that they add up to a significant problem (and it still required a great play from Cicerone to result in a goal).
Lasso is attempting to pass the ball out with his head, instead of clearing it. LaGrassa doesn’t feel Cicerone coming. Both Bradley Bourgeois and Ken Tribbett fall for Cicerone’s fake windup with his right leg, giving him plenty of space to shoot with the left. Cicerone’s placement is perfect, and, well, sometimes you get beat by a great play by the other guy. Make enough small mistakes in the lead-up, and a moment of brilliance is all it takes.
Nashville didn’t really adjust when Saint Louis had started activating the strikers and the near-side winger in the press. A few minutes earlier, it had led to what was actually a better chance for Saint Louis:
Nashville was starting to have problems simply getting the ball out of the defensive end – as is the purpose for Saint Louis’s press – and it seemed like good chances were inevitable. That this far superior chance didn’t score and Cicerone’s did is just another indication of how much luck, circumstance, and execution have to line up to create a goal.
In the end, Saint Louis earned the win.
All those words above (certainly when combined with what I’ve written over the course of the week) is probably a giveaway to how I feel about this one: an opponent chance is going to happen here and there. A little luck, and they get a goal. Other than Bourgeois and Tribbett’s both overreacting to Cicerone’s shot-fake (I think Bourgeois, as the outside centerback, is in the wrong there, by the way – he shouldn’t end up running past the teammate on his left, especially when Cicerone cuts back from whence Bourgeois came – and maybe should still be), and probably LaGrassa’s initial effort in collecting Lasso’s pass, there isn’t a ton going wrong here.
The problem for me is allowing that single goal to be the game-winner. Nashville went with an extremely defensive tactical plan until after this point. Drawing 0-0 on the road isn’t half-bad. But playing for the 0-0 draw too long (Kharlton Belmar was already about to enter the game, even before the goal was scored, so it wasn’t going to finish with Gary Smith playing for the draw) allowed the game to play out such that a single moment of fortuity and skill can completely change the outcome.
Certainly, it’s tough for Nashville without Daniel Ríos, who’s likely to finish second in the USL Championship’s Golden Boot. However, Belmar and Alan Winn were chillin’ on the bench with a formation that didn’t suit their offensive talents (think this might have been useful before the 88th minute?), and that lack of offense left the door open for that single moment to decide the game.
It’s easy to sit on the couch and criticize a gameplan – trust me, I’m doing it right now! – but it seems like NSC needed to, well, try to win the game. Surely they were going to begin that effort in earnest in the 78th, but by that time, it was too late. Hopefully a healthy return for Ríos renders all this hand-wringing moot in short order.