Nashville SC

Not pretty, but Nashville SC leaves New England with what it came for

with that for which it came? idk. not a “don’t end a headline with a preposition zealot around here.

Sometimes, a scoreless draw is good.

Nashville SC headed to Foxboro, Mass. short-handed. With the venn diagram of “roster” and “injury report” frustratingly robust, head coach Gary Smith had a lot of tough decisions to make as his team prepared to take on New England Revolution. No healthy strikers, various players missing from all over the pitch – and even one (identity undisclosed) whose participation was scuttled due to a positive test for the novel coronavirus.

In a problem with no easy solutions, his choice was to roll with what he could: three players who took the pitch with NSC’s USL side a year ago, one of whom – Derrick Jones – was playing out of position as a pseudo-striker alongside designated players Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar. A switch to a defense-first 4-3-3 formation with the other two former USL standouts, Tah Brian Anunga and Matt LaGrassa, flanking team captain Dax McCarty (and given only limited license to roam forward).

“Listen, I’m not sure there was a performance out there on the field there today that I could look at and be critical of,” Smith said. “Guys were asked to play a slight different role and a different shape. There were guys in the group, as you’ve rightly said: Matt LaGrassa’s professional MLS debut. Brian Anunga of course, we know has made a couple of appearances, but let’s not get too excited [about his experience level], it’s his first season in MLS. Those two lads in particular I thought were absolutely outstanding, and showed so much energy. And we needed that.

“It was the front line that were always going to have the biggest issues: not the most recognized group. Certainly talent in those three, but trying to get them on the same page, and to offer us an outlet and some opportunity the other way was always going to be tough. All three of them show different qualities, I felt, tonight. Derrick in particular stood up and really gave us a little bit of a focal point when we needed it. That’s not necessarily his game: he’s not that bruising center forward who’s going to be towering above defenders and winning headers. But I’ll tell you what, he did well enough using his body tonight. He protected the ball well, he gave us some respite when we needed it.”

All things considered, the ability to grind out a scoreless draw is a testament to the fortitude of the group. A less-recognized talent like LaGrassa not only being called into action, but in a different role than he’s used to… it’s a lot to ask. The fifth-year pro, in his first year at the highest level of the game in this country, stood tall to the task.

“I do my best to stay prepared for whatever’s coming my way,” LaGrassa said. “I think it is difficult sometimes when you’re out of the group for a long time to stay mentally in the place where you’re ready to get in there, but I had enough time to prepare mentally and know that I was going to be a part of it. For me, I’m happy with how it went, to be honest.”

A week removed from another draw, the feeling coming away with a single point in the standings was a totally different one. Giving up a late goal to drop a home win against Houston Dynamo led to feelings of bitter disappointment in the squad.

An entirely different set of circumstances made that single point precious this weekend. Losing goal-scorer Daniel Ríos (the team’s last remaining healthy forward) during the course of that game against Houston left Smith without any other options up top – and resulted in the unconventional trio against New England. Heading on the road is always more difficult in Major League Soccer, and never more so than in a 2020 season that sees teams travel in and out on the day of road contests. And simply put, New England is a more challenging opponent – particularly on the artificial turf of Gillette Stadium – than the Dynamo.

“I think there’s numerous reasons for that,” Smith said of the more chipper vibe. “The fact that, these away days, as we’ve spoken about before, are not easy. The guys were up early this morning, this is one of the longest journeys, if not the longest journey we’ve been on. The journey from the airport when we dropped down on the bus, added to that: the guys have been traveling over three hours just with the team, and that’s without getting to the airport. So it’s a long day, it’s a tough day, it’s a tiring day.

“On top of all of that, you’ve got a group here in New England that Bruce Arena’s got playing well. They’re very purposeful, they’ve got some good dimensions to their team, a Designated [Player] striker who’s in top form. We were able to navigate the surface, which is again not easy, and put in a sterling effort.”

It couldn’t have happened without a sterling performance from goalkeeper Joe Willis. New England tested him five times, including multiple efforts that looked bound for the back of the net, and he stood tall each time. He also got help from the defense in front of him, with backliners Jalil Anibaba, Dave Romney, and Walker Zimmerman each blocked a Revolution shot, while Alistair Johnston accounted for a pair (including on a very dangerous-looking second-half chance).

“It’s amazing: I think it kind of personifies us as a group,” Willis said. “We have guys who are making sacrifices for each other, and doing whatever it takes to get a point, so it’s – not to be cliche – but it’s a team effort. Everyone has to do their part whether it’s defending as a team or attacking as a team. So seeing plays like that is huge. It instills a lot of confidence in me, and it also at times puts pressure on me because see your teammates who are making these big plays, and you start to think to yourself, ‘OK, my number’s going to get called, I’m going to have to make a big play soon. I’d better be ready for it.’”

Whatever pressure it did put on Willis, he didn’t show many signs of cracking under it. With his sixth shutout of the season, he set a new career high, and every minute of it was earned.

“I think it might have been Joe’s best performance for us so far,” Smith said. “I wasn’t expecting, maybe, the sort of pressure that they did build. I was hopeful that we might be able to get some sort of foothold in the game. There were some moments, but they were fleeting, it has to be said. But what I think we were able to do, for the most part, was to keep the clear-cut opportunities to a very, very minimum.”

Nashville will have to have more effective offense than against New England – three total shots, only one on-target – to find success going forward. Improving on a possession mark that saw NSC have barely a third of the ball will not only lead to more chances, but take some of the heat off Willis. That may all come down to having a healthier roster.

Nashville’s next chance to improve its position in the table – currently 10th in the Eastern Conference on points and tiebreakers, though ahead of that in points per game – isn’t far off. With just two days of rest, the Boys in Gold next host Minnesota United Tuesday evening in Nissan Stadium. Although the Loons are among the Western Conference’s top teams, it won’t be a situation in which the team is happy with a draw.

Match highlights

Header photo courtesy Major League Soccer.

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