Dax McCarty photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer
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Midway through Nashville SC’s Saturday evening game at Real Salt Lake, the Boys in Gold were not having a banner day in possession. The team completed just 76.7% of its first-half passes. None of the team’s three shots tested RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa. And fatigue was beginning to set in at over 4,500 feet of altitude.
“I thought we took too long to get into our stride in the first period,” said Nashville head coach Gary Smith. A lot of simple and silly mistakes that were made in possession. I felt as though that improved in the second half.
“We started to make a little bit more of a game of it, but on a night where our quality, our creativity, and some of the very good attacking play that we’ve seen at home wasn’t going to be the difference, we needed to maybe go back to basics, roll our sleeves up, and show the sort of discipline and determination that we’ve seen from this group on many, many occasions to earn a very, very good point.”
NSC did exactly that, holding the hosts to a 0-0 draw in Rio Tinto Stadium. Any point in the standings from a road match is a positive in Major League Soccer, and while Nashville’s Saturday evening may not have been the most aesthetically-pleasing draw in the world, it got the job done. Particularly at altitude – for the first and until at least next year only time in the club’s MLS history – snagging the result is a major positive.
Better still, Nashville recognized that a cohesive offensive performance may not be in the cards, with Smith running out a defense-first 4-4-2 for the second game in a row. NSC buckled down and held RSL without a single shot on goal in the contest – more than just a consolation prize for a game in which NSC finished with 12 total shots and only three on the frame.
“We sat a little deeper: we got in kind of two blocks of four and the two guys up front, and tried to just keep them in front of us,” explained goalkeeper Joe Willis. “Tried to be hard to break down. Tried to be compact and not let any little slipped balls in through the middle, tried to force them wide and make crosses.I think we did a really good job of that today. On the other side, I think the set-pieces defending was incredible. We have a lot of guys who take pride in defending and keeping clean sheets. We have some warriors on that back line who were cleaning everything up on set pieces.”
“If you look at the fact that maybe we defended a little bit deeper than we usually would, but I wanted the group to try and manage the altitude, and to put ourselves in a better place to see the game out,” added Smith. “The guys worked the plan well, they defended terrifically. We just weren’t as bright as I think we would all like to have been with the ball.”
Nashville’s 2020 success was built upon one of the best defenses in the league. This year’s edition got off to a rough start, allowing four goals in the opening pair of games against offensively-inept FC Cincinnati (Attendance FC didn’t find the back of the net again until three games later) and CF Montreal. However, NSC’s shutout streak stretched to 297 minutes – more than three and a half full games – and it’s clear that the defense is back.
Indeed, until the dying embers of the game, when RSL defender Erik Holt bounced a doorstep header well over Willis’s net, Nashville generated the best chances of the match. Randall Leal putting two shots on-target and Jhonder Cádiz also drawing a save from Ochoa after entering as a second-half substitute.
In a defense-first battle, Nashville’s unheralded defensive engine room Alex Muyl – who promised earlier in the week that he’d run the greatest distance of any player on the pitch – picked up a 50th-minute yellow card and was pulled off the field to avoid a second-yellow. Enter MLS rookie (second-year pro) Luke Haakenson, who didn’t miss a beat while providing a facsimile of Muyl’s defensive bite – and a bit more technical ability on offense.
“I think there’s a lot of aspects of Alex’s game that I think that, if you look, both of us have similar qualities,” Haakenson said. “At the end of the day, as you said, I am my own person, I am my own player, and I can also bring something that Alex doesn’t bring, which is a positive. But like I said, we play the same position, I think we’re both guys that like to inject some energy into the game and positivity, and are looking to constantly work to give our best.”
With the draw, Nashville stands 1-0-4 on the season, with seven points through five games. Maintaining pace after the first road trip of the year – in trying circumstances – is a positive. However, as we’ve seen at other points in this young season, there’s a feeling that there’s more to do for Nashville. Earning wins, and not just draws, is on the horizon for this squad.
“As far as we’re concerned, our home form’s been very good,” Smith said. “We go about our business in a particular fashion. The guys are very confident, and I would think looking towards next weekend, as long as our preparations are not troubled, we’ll be in a good place, and we’ll be ready to take on an Austin side that have started their season in very good fashion, and look very tidy.”
Nashville SC next welcomes expansion side Austin FC to Nissan Stadium. Road warriors to begin the year (the opposite of Nashville’s four-in-five at home to start the year), Austin has begun with a 2-3-0 record. The game kicks at 8 p.m. CDT Sunday evening before a national television offense on FS1.
- The “shots on goal” stat as a proxy for defensive performance can be slightly misleading. There’s not a whole lot Nashville did to make the final header from Holt turn into a shot off-target, for example. Limiting overall chances, and limiting them from dangerous areas, is far more important: a shot on- or off-target is more about the opposing player (if he’s getting the shot off). That said, RSL’s only shots from dangerous areas were from crosses (particularly set-piece crosses) or a bizarre play on which Damir Kreilach intercepted a teammate’s shot only to turn and blast well over the ball. That’s solid defense.
- I’ve been a David Ochoa defender, whether that was after the U-23 Olympic qualifying failure or Adrian Heath’s limp trash talk after RSL beat Minnesota. But man, there are some serious weaknesses in his game. He didn’t make a clean save on any of Nashville’s three on-target attempts, and was a little iffy corralling some crosses, as well. If NSC had been a little more aggressive crashing rebounds, they’d have been able to beat him. He’s good at stopping the initial shot, and plays well with his feet, but there’s a lot of room for improvement in a few other aspects.
- The blessing and the curse of the 4-4-2: when it worked against New England, fans heralded it as the formation NSC should be using, but this is more the expected type of performance offensively with two up top: it’s simply too hard to progress the ball cleanly into the attacking third without a central midfielder (or wingers more-able to tuck inside) in the formation. On the flipside, it played a big role in Nashville’s strong defensive performance, and it’s also a less physically-demanding scheme to execute defensively, which helped NSC save its legs for a game at altitude.
- Speaking of saving the legs: Nashville looked gassed by the end of the game. Holding on for those final 15-20 minutes and not only keeping the clean sheet, but preventing dangerous opportunities outside of set-piece situations was a very impressive bit of the team’s showing the positive elements of belief in GaryBall.
- Hany Mukhtar did not have a good outing when he came onto the pitch. He seemed a step slow with his technical ability, and had a few giveaways. He’s a guy who very much needs to be in a rhythm to find success, so sitting out last week and coming off the bench this week was a situation where you have to hope, rather than expect to get the best out of him. It did not happen.
- Road teams are 16-38-18 (0.92 ppg) so far this season. Taking a point in a particularly tough place to play for a sea-level team that hasn’t traveled yet this year is totally fine. It’s not just lip service when Gary Smith says it. Getting this game out of the way is a long-term positive for the way the rest of the season can unfold now, too.