Last content item from games last week (not counting Sunday’s loss to SKC, which is still on the docket for a full overview) until the Wrap, which will come this afternoon following the preview for tonight’s game. Bear with me here.
Nashville SC generated – and almost converted – a golden opportunity in the opening exchanges of its game against Minnesota United a week ago. Let’s get into how the chance came about, and what went not-quite-right-enough to turn into the opening goal.
Coming off a weekend draw against New England Revolution that was disappointing not in result (a scoreless draw on the road is just fine), but in how completely impotent Nashville SC’s attack was… there was perhaps not a ton of optimism entering a home game against Minnesota United.
While the Loons were without a number of defenders (2019 MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara has missed the majority of the season, goalkeeper Tyler Miller will miss the rest of the season, and left back Chase Gasper was suspended for yellow-card accumulation over the course of the year), Nashville SC would play its second-straight game without a true forward available. That personnel unavailability was a major part of the offensive impotence in Foxboro, and there was little reason to expect different, even against a depleted (and not-that-good-to-start) Minnesota United defense.
For obvious reasons, Nashville SC desired to change the tone.
In short, Nashville generated a golden chance on the counter-attack that midfielder Derrick Jones (drawn into duty as a member of an attacking front three) almost converted.
Hey, that’s pretty close!
A pass from the right side of the penalty area from the foot of Costa Rican designated player Randall Leal found Jones alone with keeper Dayne St. Clair. His right-footed poke was hurried to beat the arriving José Aja, and just nicked the outside of the goalpost as it went out.
Why it happened
As with yesterday’s film room piece (to which this was intended to be something of a spiritual complement before other happenings became more important), this one begins with a loose ball in midfield, so let’s rewind from the final-third action to take some of that into account. Where we saw the inability to win the ball turn into a great chance for New England, Nashville didn’t win this one, either. However, Alex Muyl competing hard before possession was fully settled forced backup left back Bakaye Dibassy into a turnover.
The above makes it very obvious why Alex Muyl fits the DNA of this club to a T. The initial ball is played back into no-man’s land by Romain Métanire. A header from Nashville right back Alistair Johnston is in the direction of Muyl, but it loops and bounces in a funny way, so Muyl’s attempt to chest the ball down results in another loose one, and his header to control it ends up in possession of Dibassy. Muyl, knowing that he still has a chance to make something out of the play, continues his all-effort lifestyle, pressuring Dibassy.
That forces the Malian to try to move the ball across his backline first-touch. He scuffs the ball, and it’s right in the path of Leal. It’s worth taking a look at Leal’s control of that ball. A bit of a scorpion-kick touch puts the ball on the ground at his feet, ands it’s off to the races. I would contend that we’ve only seen proof-positive that two players (Leal and Jones) on the team can pull that off with any consistency:
The rest of the offensive push is honestly not quite as important as how the breakaway was created, but for good measure: Leal plays the ball in to Muyl, and although his cross is blocked, Leal recovers it (once again with some technical footwork in traffic that few on the team have proven to be capable of – though this one is certainly more common across the roster), pushes to the endline, and zips the ball through to Jones.
Alas, that slide from Aja spooks Jones just enough that the small sliver of net that St. Clair leaves open barely escapes him.
The attitude – rather than the technical ability – of Alex Muyl has been an upgrade to this team. I was one who was unsure how a guy from the press-press-press Red Bull system would fit in with Nashville’s style: very solid defensively, but accomplishing it in a different way. This is how it happens. Even when his skill lets him down (though I’ll admit to underestimating the technical ability upon his arrival), he can make up for it with energy and effort.
There’s also no secret that Randall Leal has been a disappointment this season. One goal and one assist in over a thousand minutes, on 0.23 xG+xA per 96 minutes played is not up to the expectation for a young Designated Players. However, he’s also capable of footwork that nobody else on this roster is, and showed it there. The Minnesota and Sporting Kansas City games have been his best two of the season, and if NSC can get a strong seven games out of him to close the year, the offense may very well verge into the range that raises the ceiling on this team.