Nashville SC

From the film room: Cincinnati finds an opener

Nashville SC’s 2021 season opener did not get off to a super-good start! FC Cincinnati scored within the opening eight minutes of the game, and would add a second via penalty kick just three minutes later. Let’s take a look at what went wrong on that first goal.

The situation

The teams are trading their opening salvos, without a ton in it for either side (indeed, this play would result in the first shot of the game, and first goal of the season). After Joe Gyau loses control of the ball up the sideline – thanks to solid defensive work from Randall Leal and Dax McCarty – defensive midfielder Kamohelo Makotjo recovers, and zips a first-touch pass to winger Alvaro Barreal.

With a nice bit of dribbling, Barreal squeezes through a double-team arriving in the form of Hany Mukhtar (who was man-marking Makotjo as the two FCC players came together) and Randall Leal (who followed through to man-mark Barreal with plenty of defensive help behind him to pick up Gyau after the tackle).

Barreal’s ability to control through traffic is important. So too is his vision to hit far-side (offense’s left) CB Tom Petterson, bypassing a couple Nashville players, rather than going with the safe pass to Nick Hagglund, showing for him on the weak side. Even though the pass is backward, that ability to skip past a couple NSC players allows FCC to switch the field much more quickly, and build down the left side.

What happens

As it happened, the above play seemed insignificant: it’s a run-of-the-mill pass-around-the-back situation that you see unfold dozens of times in a single match.

However, Nashville SC’s formation is narrow and heavily shifted (defense’s) left as the Boys in Gold tried to pin the ball on the sideline. With the skip pass and a smart use of spacing from LB Ronald Matarrita, Nashville right winger Alex Muyl isn’t in position to quickly man-mark the Costa Rican, and he has a chance to collect the ball, pick his head up, and plan his next pass-and run.

Matarrita plays a one-two with CAM Lucuiano Acosta,

As he’s tracking back, Muyl takes a stab at Acosta’s feet in possession, trying to stop ball. He does not do that, and Acosta has the ability to lay the ball right back off to Matarrita.

That leaves Dax McCarty one-on-two with guys you could consider two of FCC’s top three players. You can see the other of those top players, No. 9 Brenner, on the right side of the frame there. He’s holding the attention of both Nashville centerbacks, who don’t want to give him a free run on goal.

McCarty is stuck between stopping ball against Matarrita and tracking Acosta’s run. He opts for the former, knowing that if the ball never arrives, Acosta is irrelevant to the play anyway. There’s also help with Alistair Johnston available to help off Calvin Harris, and Walker Zimmerman another player able to either stop ball or track the runner.

The ball squeezes through a tiny gap, Acosta manages to touch it over Willis, and it’s an easy finish.

What went wrong

Nashville’s playing a bit of a risky game with a sideline trap, and when the ball is released from it on the pass to Petterson, there’s not an outstanding job reacting. Alex Muyl overcommits to Yuya Kubo in the center of the field, then when he catches up to Matarrita, makes a risky play by trying to follow the ball and make the tackle on Acosta.

One could argue that Aníbal Godoy needs to be a bit more high-motor in his recovery, but I think he’s expecting Muyl’s tackle to work out, and therefore providing a passing option for the breakout in the other direction. Once it’s clear that Matarrita’s getting the ball back, he could certainly step up and give a little intimidation over the shoulder or even commit the foul to give up the free kick.

The biggest issue here, though, is the tracking of Acosta as a runner. Nashville has a big numbers advantage as the final stages of this play begin:

That’s a 6-4 advantage in field players, and even if you consider Muyl 100% out of the play after his ill-advised tackle attempt (ill-advised only if it goes wrong, of course), and Romney 100% unavailable because he’s man-marking Brenner, Johnston is in position to provide assistance while his mark (Harris) is not in position to be dangerous on the play, and that’s still a personnel advantage of 3.5 (I think it’s fair that Zimmerman still has to give half his attention to Brenner) to 2.

When both Zimmerman and McCarty step up to stop ball, and Johnston plays for the offside flag rather than helping them track Acosta, we enter the territory where the risk-taking of stepping up to stop ball had better pay off, because Acosta going to be all alone.

Alas, the ball from Matarrita is absolutely perfect, and Acosta is in on Willis all alone – with Brenner crashing, but marked by Romney.

Even with all that, Acosta still needs to make an incredible play to get the ball past Willis and then get the easy finish – though surely he could have tried a different technique to get the ball into the back of the net and succeeded with that one, too.

In the end a number of little things went wrong, from simple bad luck about the way the play started, a minor mistake and then a bigger one from Muyl, Godoy not expecting the second mistake, and then a miscommunication that sees one defender (Johnston) not track a runner while the two guys he’s expecting to track that attacker both step up to stop ball, rather than prevent that free run into the box.

Muyl’s second mistake is the most-significant part there, I’d say (and this, more than Handwalla Bwana’s nice offensive output in relief would be the argument for making a change in the starting lineup), and the miscommunication between McCarty and Zimmerman second-most. Beyond that, the vision and technical skill of two players who didn’t call Cincinnati home last year allow it to pay off for the Orange and Blue.

Going forward

We saw last season that Nashville SC might have a play where there were a few minor mistakes that happened to occur in sequence that caused them to be punished. After that, you didn’t see many of those same mistakes at all (much less in combination) as the team managed to tighten things down. I would expect the same this year, especially given that a wily veteran and one of the most-talented players on the team – McCarty and Zimmerman, respectively – combined for the final piece here.

Nashville has shown the ability to assimilate the knowledge from mistakes and not make them in the future.

The one aspect that could be intriguing to watch is one I alluded to above: if Alex Muyl is on the field primarily because he’s the best defensive winger on the team (and, mistake or not, he almost certainly retains that title), and that defense isn’t going to be consistent enough, does head coach Gary Smith make a change and say, “let’s go all-offense at that spot, instead?” Bwana certainly provided an argument that he will indeed bring the offensive punch.

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