NASHVILLE – After Saturday evening’s draw against Chicago Fire, Gary Smith made it clear that a few things were missing from his team’s performance, despite earning a result. The midfield play and ball-retention were issues for the Boys in Gold. Entering Wednesday evening’s match with FC Dallas, he took steps to ameliorate some of those issues.
A five-man backline saw Nashville play a slightly more aggressive press with the front five, while three central midfielders focused on maintaining possession and controlling the game. While the result ultimately didn’t come off in Nashville’s favor – with a Ryan Hollingshead goal providing a winner for the visiting side – it’s clear that Smith was pleased with some of the incremental gains in his squad’s overall performance. A possession mark of 55.5%, outshooting Dallas 12-10, and completing 83% of passes are all building blocks that can pay off in the future.
“There were moments in the early exchanges that I just felt Dallas were able to find some little pockets of opportunity as we settled into what is a slightly different shape again,” Smith explained. “What I would say is, beyond that – and I think we can see through the stats in the second half – that the attitude and the spirit of the team gave us real impetus. I thought there were some very good passages of play, possessionally, we’re in a much better place. in terms of our front-foot and aggressive approach, much better place.
“I think we fell down in the final third, and it was always going to be a concern with limited attacking players, and of course, the quick turnaround and nature of the schedule: having to offer some other players a little bit of rest. So very, very disappointed, but certainly not disheartened with the way that the side has played. in fact, I think that we’ve come out of this with a number of positives that we can certainly take towards what will be our next game here, and a playoff game.”
Final-third output has been one of Nashville’s issues for much of the season. The team’s 21 goals are second-fewest in MLS (FC Cincinnati has a jaw-dropping 11 goals scored in 22 games, surely on pace for record futility), and while a recent uptick in scoring form has improved the outlook there, it wasn’t to be on the night. Starting striker Daniel Ríos didn’t manage a shot before leaving at the half to avoid aggravating the injuries that have kept him out of the lineup at times this Fall. His replacement, Jhonder Cádiz, took just two shots, one from extremely long range. Only four of NSC’s 12 attempts managed to test goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, and one of the best in MLS was up to the task.
The Boys in Gold weren’t offensively impotent, but on a night where the team was hit by a bolt of lightning from Hollingshead on the other end (and – based on Smith’s postgame comments, the result was less important than the process), they didn’t muster enough to pull back for a point.
“We’re suffering, and I think anyone can see that. The injured list, and even sort of half-injured players are Accam, Badji, Danladi, Mukhtar. We’ve got – as I’ve said – Daniel Ríos who’s struggling and has played a decent 45 minutes. You can throw into that that guys like Alex Muyl – who has been terrific for us – has got through a tremendous amount of work.
“So number one, we are without bodies, and that does make a difference. In terms of confidence, I can’t believe that the guys have not felt on top of the world with what they’ve achieved. I know indeed they are. And the last thing is: when you look at the way that the playoffs are going to be structured this year, I think it’s going to be very very difficult for any team to take whatever momentum they had in the season into the playoffs.”
Added midifelder Aníbal Godoy: “We have so many rotation today because we play so many game like Wednesday-Saturday, Wednesday-Saturday. But this is not only about the formation, or about the players that go in, because we have good team, we have good players, and we always want to go inside the field to show the best performance we have.”
Hollingshead’s goal itself will be a slightly controversial one. Playing as a winger rather than his typical fullback position, he timed his run off the back should of Nashville’s defensive line. The video assistant referees didn’t deem it worthy of a further check, but the margins that kept him onside were very slim, to say the least. In the end, though, Dallas was the better team for much of the night, and Nashville’s production largely came with the Toros trying to hold that lead.
For NSC, the loss drops them to eighth in the Eastern Conference. A chance to rise to sixth still exists, but there’s even an argument that remaining in seventh or eighth – and playing a first-round home game after the international break, rather than going three weeks between games, only to head immediately on the road – is preferred, anyway.
“The first playoff game is two weeks after the last game – which is Sunday for us,” Smith explained. “If you’re in the top six, it’s going to be three weeks, and I defy any team that have been playing two games a week – as we have for the last three weeks – and gotten into that routine, to then go into a quiet phase, and keep the same mentality, the same sharpness, the same appetite. It’s just not easy. You’re still going to see good games, but please don’t tell me that everyone’s going to feel exactly the same two or three weeks down the line, because they’re not.”
Nashville will finally find out its playoff seeding with Sunday’s Decision Day. A win over Orlando City SC doesn’t guarantee a climb up the standings, as NSC would need dropped results from New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls to ensure a finish higher than eighth. Get favorable results in all three games, and sixth remains a possibility. Each kicks off at 2:30 p.m. CST. Nashville’s inaugural MLS regular season is drawing close to its end.