Nashville SC

Nashville SC 2020 season preview: The four phases

In the past I’ve broken the season preview down into smaller chunks, but, well, time is short and I’ve already done less 1,000-foot-view-y stuff in various previous posts.

So. Let’s take a look at the inaugural season for Nashville SC. I’ll do a mini version of last year’s preview series with the four phases in the run of play (and touch on some other phases in a fifth bonus section): Scoring goals, transitioning from offense to defense, preventing goals, and transitioning from defense to offense.

Scoring goals

This is going to be the big question for the team, and one that won’t find a satisfactory answer unless and until they prove that the current players on the roster can get the job done.

Simply put, the strikers are somewhere between “unproven” and “not good enough.” The hope has to be that there’s much more of the former than the latter, of course. There’s another aspect at play here too, though: can strikers who are just OK find success if the team around them is set up to make life easier on them? The Gyasi Zardes principle may be at play here.

Service from the midfield and the wings is going to be massive for the strikers, and if there’s some goal-scoring from those players in the run of play, that’d be a very nice step toward easing the pressure just a bit. As I said above, I don’t think criticism of the striker unit is going to disappear in that circumstance: it’ll simply be considered a problem that’s not an albatross around the team’s neck.

The team will also try to find scoring in other less-conventional ways (for a given definition of “convention,” I guess. Set piece tallies will be important (whether through free kick shots, or service from free kicks and corners), and Nashville will try to generate goal-scoring opportunities through transition, as well.

That brings us to…

Transitioning from offense to defense

Gary Smith has talked a big game about a press this preseason, and I don’t think that’s just lip service.

“For our group, the pressing element of it has been quite a focus in the last week. There’s still some things we need to polish off and make clearer, but one of the big components of pressing is a really determination and tremendous energy. If you play without those two when you’re trying to press, then you’re probably not going to get much success.”

Yes, that’s mostly a sort of banal quote about what pressing is, but even as the team worked a high press last preseason (using it sparingly in USL play), there weren’t any sort of quotes about how important it would be to the side. I think this team is serious about pressing high, and most specifically, the re-press after turning the ball over.

Most of our evidence on the topic – in terms of potential success – is anecdotal or talks more about physical attributes of the players rather than any sort of proven ability in the high press:

  • Even with only an occasional heavy press last season, Daniel Ríos showed the effort level and athleticism to put pressure on the backline.
  • A guy like Abu Danladi or Alan Winn has the speed to be a pest chasing the ball around the back a little bit as a complementary piece to a more cohesive pressing scheme.
  • Anibal Godoy is massive (seeing him on the field in training is an eye-opener, even after seeing him previous in press conference settings), and very mobile to run the middle of the field trying to force the opponents into mistakes.

…and so on and so forth. Since press-and-possess are often linked (I’ll talk more about the latter in a few moments), it’s worth noting in this section as well that the back-end has a very different ability on the ball than fans will be used to seeing from the USL days.

Settled defense

Before the signing of Walker Zimmerman, this may have been one of the bigger question marks, despite some decent talent added. Dave Romney was considered a castaway (perhaps unfairly) by LA Galaxy, while Eric Miller was claimed on re-entry waivers, Jalil Anibaba was an expansion draft selection, etc. etc.: these were mostly guys who, while talented, were going to be doing a lot of the legwork in proving GM Mike Jacobs’s “valuing the undervalued” mantra to be prophetic.

Zimmerman likely changes that. While LAFC fans have mixed emotions on him – as do some United States Men’s National Team fans – the defense shown by Bob Bradley’s side in the opening leg of the Concacaf Champion’s League game against Leon showed that, at the very least, they’re going to miss him during a transition on the back-end.

He was a Best XI selection last season, and while you can consider that an overreach if you want, there’s only so much worse he can be: perhaps not a top-two centerback in the league, but it’s a stretch to drop it past five or 10 CBs better than him. He has the physical attributes to succeed in the defensive phase, and is a vocal organizer for his D – I think fans will be pleasantly surprised to see the likes of Daniel Lovitz with a similar nature – and with the talent around, the pieces are there to protect the keepers.

Add in the talent of McCarty and Godoy in the pocket just ahead of them to break up attacks, and I don’t think Joe Willis is going to be too bothered this season.

The question then, becomes whether Willis is a true No. 1 keeper in this league. The results have been mixed over time. He’s not a Stefan Frei or Nick Rimando type who is going to go out and steal games for you. The defense in front of Willis has to be at least “pretty good,” because that’s the level of help that a replacement-level keeper (and while that term comes across insulting, there are plenty of guys who will start for MLS clubs this year who are well below replacement) needs to get the task done.

Transition to offense

This could be the most interesting part of the game for the nuanced observer. A Gary Smith stereotype bunker-counter team will not be the name of the game, to say the very least. The club wants to advance the ball playing foot-to-foot, and playing through the levels (a long session of breaking pressure without going over the top at Wednesday’s training session hammered home that point).

Certainly when the lights come on and the game becomes “can we score more goals than the other guys,” Route One is going to be taken when available. It’s not the preference on an every-game basis, though, and that’s going to be perhaps the most jarring thing for longtime MLS observers who haven’t seen a Smith side play since his days with the Rapids (who tended to be fairly longball-oriented team).

Can Willis get the job done out of the back? It remains to be seen, but his history is certainly not as an above-average passer:

willispass

That’s a dude who’s right around average for pretty much his entire career. The distance on his passes appears to be right near the league average, as well – not notably long or notably short – the latter of which would indicate a guy who’s played out of the back regularly.

Once Nashville breaks that first line or two, I think they’ll be fine: there’s the speed on the wings and some hold-up play up top to get out of trouble. Initiating a possession-oriented offensive style is something that has yet to be proven.

Set pieces

For all his steps back offensively last year, I think it’s safe to say that Walker Zimmerman is going to be one of the bigger threats on corners if Nashville’s technical staff decides to use him that way. There isn’t a Carlos Vela on this team, and activating a centerback to make up for that gap (lol, as though that can be done) is going to be more apropos for Nashville than it was for LAFC.

Other centerbacks (particularly Dave Romney) have some ability in the air, too.

I don’t know that Nashville has a free-kick maestro. Certainly from within the domestic (MLS) signings, you don’t have a guy who’s taken a bunch of direct free kicks in the recent past. Can Hany Mukhtar or Randall Leal be that guy? Anecdotally, yeah. We haven’t seen it yet in Gold, though.

Defensive set pieces were a somewhat annoying bugaboo for the USL team in the past couple years. Was there something inherent to the way they were coached? Was it simply the talent on the field (obviously everyone loves Matt Pickens – and justifiably so – but that one segment of the game seemed to give him fits individually at times)?

As with other aspects of this team, the talent is (probably) there. Putting it together – and, in all honesty, making it into more than the sum of its parts – is going to be the difference between success and failure in 2020.

Stay tuned for more preview pieces in the series of undetermined length in the next couple days.

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