Randall Leal photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer
NASHVILLE – There’s hardly any shame in drawing matches in Major League Soccer. Even the best teams in the league split the points with their opposition sometimes. Last year’s Supporter’s Shield-winning Philadelphia Union experienced five draws in just 23 matches. But for Nashville SC, there’s an ominous feel to the beginning of the year, with three straight home matches and three straight draws, none of them against the strongest teams in the league.
While the first two were high-flying offensive performances that saw NSC claw back from 2-0 deficits, and not quite find the winner, Sunday’s scoreless outing against Inter Miami CF had a very different feel to it.
“If you’re going to have, what I think I saw were 10 shots, and five of them on target, I can remember two or three of those moments that really and truly, if you want to take the game, you’ve got to convert,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “The game today had one-nil written all over it. And if we’re not going to be the one to make a breakthrough, then we have to come out of the game with at least a point. But therein lies my frustration.”
NSC led the visitors in shots (a 10-5 advantage) and shots on-target (3-2), but neither side could find the breakthrough. Despite the lack of offensive production, one could fairly say that the Boys in Gold still suffered the same type of slow start that they’d slumped through to open previous games against FC Cincinnati and CF Montreal.
Three of Miami’s five shots came in the game’s opening 12 minutes, with both of those that tested Joe Willis arriving before the clock turned to seven. That included a solid diving save… and a lack of shot-stopping required from the veteran netminder for the remainder of the game.
“I would prefer to get my hands on the ball early,” Willis said. “Make a couple of saves because it gives you that confidence going forward, even though there will be lulls in the game where you’re not really involved, if something pops up in the 70th minute, 75th minute, you can go back on that first save you made and have the confidence to do it again.”
The issue was not with Nashville’s defense. Although the unit had struggled in the first two contests, Sunday’s performance looked much more like the 2020 vintage – which finished third in goals allowed.
The problem was in chance-creation. Nashville’s 10 shots accrued only 0.7 total team expected goals, a far cry from the 32-for-3.18 against FC Cincinnati and 18-for2.63 in the pair of two-goal outputs to open the year. The team was overly content to whip in crosses (particularly from the right wing) and hope to find a bolt of lightning, with only a few well-worked possessions breaking up the monotony of a day that otherwise didn’t seem particularly promising.
“I think – and I’m not pointing the finger at our creators, as such – I’m saying in a general sense, if you look at the fact (if I’m looking at the stats right) we had 18 crosses today,” Smith said. “And I believe – if again, I can recollect properly – that we’ve only actually connected with four or five of those. That could be, of course, open-play crosses, dead ball situations weren’t anywhere near as accurate as they have been. So there was an area in our game, No. 1, that we were unable to take advantage of today.
“Secondly, even in the final third or the attacking half of the field, players that have been playing in the last two games at a very good level were just not able to find that fluid play, that connection, that understanding, that sparkle that’s needed, and we’ve seen in the last two games. So therefore, there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.”
The head coach has emphasized finding balance after each of the first two games. A much more high-flying, attacking Nashville SC than we saw a year ago certainly thrilled fans. It also left them disappointed when their team was unable to be as solid at the back as NSC partisans had come to expect. The Boys in Gold allowed multiple goals in just seven regular-season games a year ago. They did it against two anemic offenses to open 2021.
However, that doesn’t mean the pendulum needs to swing too far back in the other direction. Smith’s mantra has been “balance,” and finding a footing defensively at the expense of attack will ultimately mean the same in the league standings: a draw, and just three total points through three games.
There’s some hope that the team will snap out of it. With six scheduled preseason games, factors outside the club’s control meant only two of them got played. A team that should have seen competitive (or semi-competitive, at least) action double-digit times this upcoming weekend is still playing its way into mid-season shape.
“I can only reiterate that preseason was not straightforward,” Smith said. “We are still trying to find a rhythm, we are still trying to find the right balance in the group, there are still some really good displays. We’ve carved some great openings against a much, much improved Miami group. All in all, the frustration lies in not winning; it’s not in how we’re playing, it’s in not winning.
“If we look at one person in particular, I think Joe’ [Willis] disappointing second goal against Cincinnati – and maybe how he felt and looked – is well and truly in the rearview mirror now. He looked like the goalkeeper we saw last year: makes two outstanding saves in the opening 10 minutes. We’re slowly-but-surely finding what I believe to be the team that we saw last year, but with some added impetus that we know can give us opportunities as we’ve seen today, but we have to convert those opportunities.”
There’s hope that tweaking performances will improve results. The fact remains that, regardless of the former, Nashville hasn’t gotten enough of the latter just yet. Changing that against New England Revolution – one of the Eastern Conference’s strongest teams – this weekend will be a tough task.