CJ Sapong photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Through three games, Nashville SC played very well twice, and just OK once. However, the team had just three points to show for it. That didn’t make Saturday’s contest against New England Revolution a “must-win” – there’s a pretty significant distinction between winless squads with three points versus those with none – but the Boys in Gold didn’t leave much room for ambiguity anyway. Nashville came out in a new formation, and earned goals from CJ Sapong in the first half and Alex Muyl in the second to make relatively easy work of one of the strongest teams in the Eastern Conference.
“Aside the victories, I think we’ve performed in a very decent fashion, and really and truly may have taken one of the previous three games,” said Nashville head coach Gary Smith. “But this, for, me, was always going to be the toughest of the four – just on paper of course – to begin with, because of the way that New England performed last year. Having watched the opening fixtures, I genuinely felt that this team that we were playing against were the most complete group that we’ve run into so far.
“It was always going to be a really, really tough game, one that maybe we could measure ourselves against, and of course desperate to get ourselves a win, as well. So it’s all turned out how we might have wanted it, and I think we’ve got ourselves in a very decent position.”
After previously playing an MLS-standard 4-2-3-1 formation throughout the first three games, the absence of creative central midfielder Hany Mukhtar forced Smith into a 4-4-2 formation. That meant first starts of the season for DC-area natives Dominique Badji and CJ Sapong. It was the latter who got the team going.
“When you see that ball go over your head, first inclination is just to get towards the goal. I didn’t even know Walker [Zimmerman] was over there, until I turned around. Once I saw him, I knew, ‘OK, there’s a high probability, high chance the ball is coming back across the face of the goal.’
“Once it did, obviously it’s ‘just get a touch on it.’ I saw Dom next to me as well, so I feel like even if I didn’t get there, he would get there. Again, just a good feeling on the field when you think you can see that your teammates are in positions to succeed, and you see your teammates in positions to make you look better. Again, it just an overall great vibe, and I was happy to be a part of it.”
It was a moment of vindication for Sapong, who has performed well in substitute appearances in each of the previous three games, but was kept off the scoreboard by FC Cincinnati, CF Montreal and Inter Miami CF. While his strike partner almost certainly would have been able to slide it home if Sapong hadn’t been there, the decision to join Nashville – one that may have looked curious in the offseason, given a striker may not have been looking to join a squad that had relatively meager goal totals a year ago – looks like a wise one now.
Of course, the former US International – well-known around the league for his belief meditation and visualization as a means to athletic success – foresaw the scoring success.
“I felt that they wouldn’t have brought me in here if they didn’t see that as a possibility for the team,” he said. “Like I said, when you have guys throughout the roster that can bring something different day-in and day-out, it allows me to kind of just embrace the role that I bring. I know the energy I’m going to bring to the game, and I focus on that. When I’m training, I have that in the back of my mind. When you get your number called, those are the qualities that they’re looking for in the game, it gives you the confidence to just go out there and do what you’ve been doing.”
It was validation of a different kind for Badji, who is not new to the team, but hadn’t started a contest for the Boys in Gold since last September.
“It was amazing being back,” Badji said. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve had this feeling. Great to be back, great to be able to do what I love doing – and on top of that, get three points for the team. Definitely set the tone for how we want to be for the rest of the season. I’m excited to have been a part of it.”
For Nashville, the win brings about a 1-0-3 record, and a rapid climb to fifth in the Eastern Conference standings.
It remains to be seen if the 4-4-2 will remain utilized on a case-by-case basis. With Mukhtar unavailable and a New England team that played winger Tajon Buchanan at one of the fullback positions, it seemed a good – perhaps the only – choice. It’s also one that paid off with NSC not content to whip in crosses (one of the downsides of a 4-4-2 formation in the modern game – the Boys in Gold fired just 10 from open play, barely over half the 19.3 in previous games). Instead, Badji and Sapong were able to interplay with their wide and central midfielders to latch onto balls in-behind.
“I knew Hany was struggling with a little bit of a sore hamstring, wasn’t quite sure what would happen,” Smith said. “So it just leant itself to thinking about forwards, what would the team look like, and how would we prepare for that.”
“We have speed, we’re able to hold the ball up with strength, and can challenge for anything,” Badji said of himself and Sapong. “So seeing what they brought to the game and how they like to play, we definitely saw that we could exploit going in behind, and so we did that, and caused them a handful all game.
“It’s easier to share the load where he can run behind and I can check in, and when I’ve got energy, I can run behind and he can check in. So we can kind of share the load. So that’s what we did all game, and we were able to have a lot of success.”
Nashville’s next game will come on its first road trip. The Boys in Gold will take the confidence of having tasted victory to Salt Lake City for a Saturday evening game against Real Salt Lake. Despite taking a first loss of the season Friday evening, RSL remains one of the stronger outfits in the league. With a talented opponent and the first taste of life on the road in store, it will be a tall task for Nashville to keep the win train going.
The contest kicks at 8:30 p.m. CDT Saturday evening from Rio Tinto Stadium in suburban SLC.
I forgot these last week. “My bad.”
- I alluded to it in the above – and will touch on it in The Graphical as well – but it’s worth noting how much Nashville’s gameplan didn’t resort to whipping in a bunch of crosses, despite the 4-4-2 formation that typically devolves into that. It’s worth exploring how much of that is gamestate-oriented, but regardless: if you can generate offensive chances from the 4-4-2 without feeling the need to lump it in or up to your target man, there’s a lot to like about the formation.
- …many of those positives come in the press, where there’s a little bit of risk to leaving two guys high – but a lot of potential payoff, too. It resulted almost-directly in the second NSC goal. It’s worth noting that Nashville also pressures and defends from a 4-4-2 anyway, even with a central attacking midfielder on the field rather than a second striker (Mukhtar steps up next to the forward), so from a defensive perspective, it didn’t change a whole lot for what NSC wanted to do, rather than potentially leave the non-strikers with a bit more energy to engage in the press – except for Alex Muyl, who couldn’t possibly bring more energy than he always does, anyway.
- Another solid performance from Joe Willis. Without the highlight-reel saves to set the tone for the day, making four stops isn’t going to draw the same number of headlines as a less-active performance against Miami a week ago. We’re seeing nonetheless that he’s good for a howler in the season-opening game that gets people to sleep on him, then he performs at an elite level for the rest of the year.
- Speaking of elite keepers, hard to fault Matt Turner on either Nashville goal. There was just a lot going on on the first one, with his having to move side-to-side with Nashville’s service changing the point of attack multiple times (and poor marking from his defenders). On the second, he was outside the frame of the goal to be a passing option as New England tried to play out from the back, and had zero chance to recover when Muyl wisely used the turnover (from the aforementioned press) to very quickly take the shot to the opposite corner. I imagine I’ll be Film Rooming both goals this week.
- Re: the (non-)penalty… I’m totally agnostic on it, and it seemed to be one of those calls that won’t meet the “clear and obvious” standard to overturn, whichever the call on the field had been. It both looks pretty clear that Johnston doesn’t get any ball, but also that Buksa tries to go for the hard sell after thinking contact will come… and you don’t get clear-and-obvious evidence from either direction whether that contact does come, or whether it’s part of Buksa’s sell job.
- Had that penalty been given (and scored), that game definitely ends 1-1 or possibly even 2-1 in favor of New England. It had the feel of a deflator for Nashville SC.