Through 180 minutes against Atlanta United thus far in 2020*, Nashville SC has launched 29 shots, while the Five Stripes have managed just 12. Nine of Nashville’s have found the frame, compared to just six for Atlanta. The Boys in Gold have a 12-6 advantage in corner kicks, and just a slight disadvantage in overall possession. In a lot of the marginal ways to measure success in a game, Nashville has stood tall against one of the most talented teams in Major League Soccer.
*Believe it or not, February did indeed take place in the same year we still occupy!
In the way that counts, though, the team has been unable to get the job done. After a 2-0 loss in Atlanta last night, the aggregate score across two legs is 4-1 in favor of ATL.
“There’s so many other good things going on,” said head coach Gary Smith. “However, if you cannot convert, at some point the bow has to break. Whilst we showed some very, very good signs, it really is a difficulty and a problem for us, and we’re just not getting the opportunity to get our noses in front, and to change the dynamic of the game.”
With five total games of MLS play under their belts, Smith’s charges have notched just a pair of goals – from a set piece in the first game against Atlanta, and to bring the club its first league win just over a week ago at FC Dallas. There are naturally a number of reasons that it may take a team’s precision on offense to come together. A five-month break during a global pandemic is certainly one way to stunt the growth of a team that was only built this offseason. At a certain point, though, it’s the job of the players to not only prevent the opponent from scoring, but also to put the ball in the back of the net. Atlanta pitched a shutout: its players did the former. Atlanta received two high-class goals from Designated Player Pity Martínez: it certainly received the latter.
Martínez’s second goal came from a beautiful counter-attack when Nashville was pushing numbers forward late in the game to try to find an equalizer. The first, though, was a display of his individual class, and the areas in which Nashville SC needs to continue to make progress if the Boys in Gold are to challenge for a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Coming shortly after a near-miss chance from Nashville – midfielder Dax McCarty’s ball through the backline found a streaking Alistair Johnston, but the rookie winger couldn’t get to it in enough time to get a reasonable shot past keeper Brad Guzan – Atlanta hit quickly in the other direction, and Martínez made good.
“It happened pretty quickly,” McCarty explained. “A guy [Eric Remedi] had time and space on the ball in midfield. Pity had been floating pretty much all over the field. He’s a guy that doesn’t really have a set role; they give him the freedom to go wherever he pleases. He’d been coming inside, looking to try to get in-behind the midfield, try to create chances that way. Wasn’t having a lot of success, wasn’t having a lot of joy.
“I believe he started out wide. I’m going to have to see the goal again, but I think it was a simple ball over the top, in behind our fullback. He takes a good first touch forward, and goes and does his thing one-v-one, and has a good finish against Joe Willis. I think that it’s preventable. I think every goal that we’ve conceded this year has been preventable. But ultimately, these are things that you have to continue to work on. Good players are going to get into good positions. He’s always going to find ways to be dangerous around the box. Then it’s just a matter of making a play, and standing him up and making sure that we don’t give up a goal there.”
That’s been the story of the year so far for Nashville SC: a solid handle on the run of play, with just a handful of chances for either side. Too often – in a season that’s slumped to a 1-3-1 record – the opponent has been able to make that magic moment count, while Nashville hasn’t had the ability to do the same.
That’s not to say that the Boys in Gold are without high-quality players. Striker Dominique Badji – himself a bit of an MLS journeyman – had a solid game in a very different role than he’d been asked to do in previous appearances this season. After mostly trying to run in-behind defenders in earlier games, he still had the opportunity to do that against Atlanta. But he used more strength and positioning to be a hold-up player and connect with teammates in the attacking third than had been on display to date. But he managed to take just one shot, and it was blocked well outside the box.
Similarly, Designated Players Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar started at left winger and central attacking midfielder, respectively. The two have long histories of success in other leagues. They even came with a strong defensive effort on Saturday evening. What they couldn’t do, though, was be precise with their passing and shooting when the moment mattered. As good a game as either of them had off the ball – or even on it, a little farther from goal – they couldn’t bring the magic that Martínez did, and that magic is what ends up in a game won or lost.
“I’m not criticizing anything that anybody’s done for the team and the team effort,” Smith explained. “But at some point, as we saw from Pity Martínez today: he wins the game for them. Did Pity Martínez play as hard as Randall Leal or Dax McCarty or Hany Mukhtar? I would say no. I might be overly critical – I didn’t study him – but I would say no. But he’s just won the game for them.”
Nashville needs to find ways to unlock the offense. More precise play from the attacking four would certainly help. One potential avenue for the team to find a way to build confidence, though, might be connecting on set pieces. Defender Daniel Lovitz – who also got involved offensively in the run of play – knows that scoring from dead-ball situations can help a team get going offensively. While corners and free kicks can’t be the primary method of chance-creation, getting out of a scoring slump is the first key.
“I think, generally speaking, it’s an area where we should be productive,” Lovitz said. “I think a lot of that relies on the guys over the ball: myself and Hany. There’s certainly some instances in games in the past and certainly tonight where the service wasn’t good enough, and there are other times where we do get a good service into a dangerous area, and it’s what we worked on, and we’re not connecting on that first one, whatever it may be.
“I’m very much looking forward to when that piece clicks – because it will – and it’s going to be a nightmare for other teams to deal with. We’re going to be patient with that, I think set pieces are very important. I understand that’s a source of a lot of goals in the modern game. Again, at the end of the day, it’s not the bulk of our work, it’s not what we’re focusing on. We take time, we allot time for that, of course. We prep for that, we practice it, we drill on it. But at the end of the day, we want to be putting five goals in the back of the net every game without set pieces. It will be a nice supplement to our attack, but definitely one we take seriously and think we can do better on.”
The marginal stats may show that Nashville is improving, but if it doesn’t show on the scoreboard, it’s all for naught. Certainly there’s a chance that Nashville will be rewarded as its stands, by continuing to play strong for all but a few key moments in 90-minute contests. There appears to be just as much likelihood that an upgrade in the attacking department is needed.
“In terms of progression – and that’s the way I have to look at it – I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Smith said. “Do we need somebody who can find the back of the net? 100%.”
Whether that player’s already on the roster, or finds his way to Music City via the transfer market, Nashville needs a player to not only look good between the 18-yard boxes, but actually put the ball away.
There’s not much time to tinker before NSC will have its next opportunity (or obligation) to reach toward that elusive outburst, and the resulting points in the table. With four points through five games, the Boys in Gold stand 11th in the Eastern Conference, four positions outside of the playoff hunt. Wednesday, sixth-place Orlando City SC beckons. The Boys in Gold travel – the fifth-straight road game, including all four since regular-season play resumed after COVID-19 froze play for several months – to take on the Lions at 6:30 p.m. CDT (7:30 local) Wednesday evening.
A stroke of luck, a stroke of class, and the team may just be able to have a much happier ending than against Atlanta.
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Pity Martínez photo courtesy Atlanta United/MLS