Nashville SC

From the film room: Nashville SC draws FC Dallas in, then counters for the goal

Nashville SC only scored one goal last week, but that was enough to lead the team to four points across two road games in Dallas, How did the lone score come about?

The Situation

The teams have traded realistic scoring chances, but come the 86th minute, there’s no question that FC Dallas has been the dominant outfit: The Toros have outshot Nashville SC just 10-6, but five of NSC’s shots (including all three that have been on-target) came from well outside the box. Four of Dallas’s shots were within the penalty area, and two of those forced saves out of NSC keeper Joe Willis. I don’t have minute-by-minute possession breakdowns, but for the game, Dallas finished with nearly 65% of the ball.

Luchi Gonzalez’s side is getting frustrated! They’d already switched from a 3-5-2 formation to a more typical 4-2-3-1 alignment, taking a centerback (Reto Ziegler) off the pitch for more attacking talent (Zdenek Ondrášek). Now, the team begins pushing forward to make the tilted field finally pay off in a goal.

What happens

Dallas’s numbers thrown forward does indeed result in a goal. Probably not the way it was drawn up, though!

FCD centerback Bressan carries the ball deep into opposing territory, but a heavy touch results in a bad pass, and then eventually a 50/50 ball that Nashville wins. While Bressan gets on his horse and recovers into a solid defensive position, quick transition play from the Boys in Gold puts left winger David Accam (who receives a pass from Dax McCarty), central attacking midfielder Abu Danladi, and striker Dominique Badji into a 3-on-2 advantage against Bressan and fellow CB Matt Hedges.

Danladi overlaps into the outside channel, forcing Bressan to delay his step up to Accam. The Ghanaian veteran cuts inside, where Hedges has had to track Badji into space (though defensive midfielder Bryan Acosta is making a recovery run, he doesn’t have an angle to cut off a pass to Badji). Hedges leaves Badji to stop the ball from Accam, but it’s too late: he gets the shot off through Hedges’s legs, and a deflection isn’t enough to keep it out of the back of the net.

Why it happens

This starts, as mentioned at the top, with Dallas’s eagerness to earn a payoff for what they (rightly) feel has been an advantage over the run of play. The Toros are getting forward already, and Bressan takes that to another level by dribbling out of the back:

The back four is very far forward (Bressan is still moving well upfield, too), and while the CDMs are hanging back a bit, they’ll push forward to try to win a second ball.

The offensive players (in the upper-right portion of the image) are not that relevant to the play – their defensive responsibilities don’t become an issue, really – but left fullback Ryan Hollingshead is in a reasonably advanced position, while right fullback Reggie Cannon is way into an offensive spot. That’s by design: he’s a talented offensive player that Dallas wants to involve in the final third.

But when Bressan carries the ball forward and his CDMs hang back to replace him in the shape – and then surge forward in attempt to win the second ball when Bressan’s loose touch leads to lost position for his team – Dallas’s structure breaks down, leading to the odd-man rush. There are simply too many numbers forward, and not too quick a reaction from the FB-CDM-CDM-FB line, for Dallas to do anything other than hope to stop the ball, or hope for an error in decision or technique from Nashville.

Here’s the portion of the play that precedes Accam’s receipt of the McCarty pass:

Nothing really goes horrifically wrong, but plenty of things go wrong enough that not being perfect at the back – and Cannon staying high to pressure McCarty while Tessman recovers slowly after pressuring Aníbal Godoy – is enough to turn this into a Nashville goal.

You can also observe some of the things that go unnoticed in the elite nature of Nashville’s defense. Namely, hard work from all over the field. Accam begins the play by turning Bressan’s heavy touch into a potential turnover with a defensive run, and Bressan’s lack of composure in that moment turns into an actual turnover when Godoy works hard to get into position and then slide tackle a 50/50 ball into existence. Walker Zimmerman is in position to win a header over a much smaller player, a couple different NSC players (MLS debutante Matt LaGrassa and then McCarty) make one-touch passes, and Nashville is in business.

I’d also like to point out something that long preceded the portions of the play on display here. Dallas actually started with the ball in Nashville’s half of the field, but LaGrassa made a high-pressing run not to force a turnover (though certainly NSC would have taken that outcome), but rather to force a pass back to Dallas goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, and a reset of Dallas’s offensive play. They saw a pattern of play that they wanted to exploit when Dallas plays out of the back, and created the circumstances to create that pattern of play from the opposition.

Going forward

There’s plenty of (justifiable) consternation about a team that wants to sit low and hit opponents on the counter-attack, but you saw why it works in this contest. Dallas got frustrated enough to throw more and more numbers forward, and that left tons of space on the wing for David Accam to exploit en route to a 3-on-2 and a Nashville goal. It may not be the strategy for Nashville all the time (and wasn’t, even against the same opponent, just a couple days later), but it can be effective at times largely because of the talent of the defensive six (with an assist from the quality of the keeper when the opponent does get shots off), and the high defensive workrate of the offensive players.

Everyone is bought in, even when it’s not obvious that they’ll directly benefit – it was largely a coincidence that Accam was involved in creating the defensive advantage and was also rewarded with the goal.

That’s going to mean not just continued strong performances from Nashville, but also opportunities to get in-behind. You can see why speedy wingers like Accam, Danladi, and Alan Winn make sense for this team. In a 90-minute game, you may not have a ton of opportunities to hit on the counter like this, but late in a contest where Nashville SC was outplayed for large stretches, they ended up with the result.

The flipside is that they may not have the attacking talent to finish games early when they’re the aggressor (as we saw a couple days later), but that can be considered a work in-progress.

NSC broadcast analyst Jamie Watson also broke down some portions of this play. “Check it out.”

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