Offense, on the other hand? Check back later.
Bringing together an entirely new group for the 2020 season, it stands to reason that Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith has plenty of work to do. Installing tactics and simply building chemistry are long processes, and will take the majority of the preseason. That segment kicked off less than two weeks ago, and the Boys in Gold must be ready to perform by their regular-season opener Feb. 29 against Atlanta United.
In a 0-0 draw against Swedish club IF Elfsborg in Bradenton, Fla. yesterday, Nashville SC showed that the defensive side of the equation is already rounding into form.
“I would say the first couple weeks we were working a lot on kind of our defensive shape,” said defender Eric Miller. “I think the last couple years, we’ve seen some teams come into the league as expansion teams and have kind of struggled with giving up a lot of goals, and kind of being pretty maybe soft and easy to play against at the back. I think for us, that’s probably something we’re going to be focusing on here throughout the season: trying to be a team that is not going to concede a lot, and be in every game that we’re playing.”
A structure that saw three entirely separate groups play 30-minute segments meant that every healthy and available player saw some time for Nashville SC.
“Most all of us played 30 minutes,” said midfielder Dax McCarty. “We’ve been put through our paces for the last two weeks with Gary, and have got quite a bit accomplished I think in our first two weeks. Now to actually see that come to fruition and to put in place the things that we’re trying to establish against a real opponent, it was a really positive outing for us.
“It’s always interesting to get on the field with a new group of players, and it’s not even the same as joining a new team, right? It’s joining – basically creating – a team from scratch. For the first 30 minutes, getting to know guys, getting to know their tendencies, trying to establish relationships on the field that will make us successful is the main part of the exercise, and I thought for the most part, it went really well.”
Goal-scoring, of course, remains a question. Nashville may have kept a clean sheet – and allowed the goalkeepers to be relatively unbothered – but didn’t manage to find the back of the net on its own. With just a few chances, the team will look to not only generate more opportunities over the course of the preseason, but hone the finishing of those chances.
“Every time that you can look out on the field and see some encouraging signs, it gives you the opportunity to move forward, to be more positive in a different area of the game,” Smith explained. “There certainly will be little sections of our work and pieces of our work that are not just going to fit together that easily and that simply. It’s the forward-going, creative individuals always tend to be the last piece that you see that clicks. Defending always is a little bit easier because you’re disrupting play, you haven’t got to try and create and finish the most difficult thing in the game: which is to score.”
The team’s offensive output should be getting some help by the time the regular season begins. Winger Randall Leal is away on international duty with Costa Rica, while offensive pieces Daniel Ríos and David Accam watched from the sidelines as they nurse injuries. Midfielder Jimmy Medranda is recovering from a knee injury that cost him most of the 2019 season with Sporting Kansas City, while even the defensive unit has reinforcements on the way in the form of centerback Miguel Nazarit, who will join the team shortly after visa delays meant he didn’t arrive in the UNited States from his native Colombia until this week.
With more pieces to continue integrating into the full squad, there’s plenty of upside as the regular season approaches.
“When I look around the group, and you’re missing a couple of bodies – of course Randall is away with his country, Miguel Nazarit is ready to come in to camp but has been been a little bit slow through the process of getting here, so we’re still missing some bodies here – and when I look at the guys that have competed here today, I think there are some really nice signs,” Smith explained.
“What I will say is, in the brief spell that we had Randall, looks incredibly exciting, very talented boy. I’m very very pleased with how he connected with the group. I think you’ve seen some signs today of what we might get from Hany [Mukhtar]. Bright, technically excellent, sharp, got a trick, creative, all of the qualities that you want to see from an effective No. 10. You have to remember we’re very very early stages of not just the team being put together, but also in their preseason. They’re finding their way, but again, some very encouraging flashes from a lot of that front line.”
For the time being, it’s more important to introduce and drill concepts than to see results in friendly matches. Some of what Nashville would like to do over the course of the season is becoming clearer as preseason progresses.
“The things that we really tried to focus in on these last 10 days have been how we build out with the ball as a group, from the back,” McCarty explained. “When do we play short? When do we try to build out possession from our goalkeeper to our defenders to our midfielders? How do we create chances and move the ball into the final third? And then on the other side of it is also defensively: How are we going to set up when we’re playing in a little bit of a lower block, with a little less pressure on the opponent? The things that we saw when we took those principles into a game I think were incredibly positive.”
Nashville SC is still looking for its first unofficial goal as an MLS team after being kept off the sheet by Elfsborg. However, the groundwork is being laid to succeed not in preseason friendlies, but during the inaugural season in Major League Soccer.
Photo courtesy Nashville SC.