Randall Leal photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer
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With a win on the books and another clean sheet in the back pocket, there should be little Nashville SC has to complain about following Sunday’s game against Austin FC. However, a club that’s striving to be among the best in MLS knows that the performance – a 1-0 win that saw a number of missed chances, and a game-tying goal from Austin called back on video review – showed plenty of room for improvement.
“When I get the chance to look back at the game, I’m sure I’m going to look at it and, on occasions, cringe a little bit that we haven’t been able to extend our lead,” said head coach Gary Smith. “I’m delighted that we’re making those chances, of course frustrated and disappointed that we’re not making our life a little bit easier. But if you look at the fact that we’ve had 14 efforts at goal and six on-target again – in and amongst that, we’ve hit the post, Dom [Badji]’s had a one-on-one, Hany [Mukhtar] and Taylor [Washington] have found themselves in incredibly good positions and not been able to finish – all in all, it’s been a very, very exciting game. Two teams that are desperate to try and get themselves on the sheet, or extend their lead. It must have been a really good night for the fans that came and watched.”
Nashville racked up the expected goals against the expansion side. 2.28 xG is quite the offensive output, in fact. But NSC managed to turn that into only a single shot into the back of Austin’s net.
Indeed, only once this season – a 2-0 victory over New England Revolution in which Nashville generated 1.35 xG – has the team outperformed its expected goals numbers. Badji’s shot on a breakaway that Austin keeper Brad Stuver kick-saved, Mukhtar’s solo run into the edge of the six-yard box on which he was hesitant to shoot with the left and had it tackled away as he tried to cut back, and Washington’s decision to cross rather than shoot from a tough angle – none are cardinal sins on their own. And even then, only Badji’s counted as a shot to create xG that NSC underperformed.
But each seems to be endemic to the poor finishing that this team has slumped into in this early season. A Nashville team with an elite defense and elite chance-creation could be a juggernaut if things get put together.
“Yeah, we had a lot of chances to score, and my teammates make the decisions, and we didn’t score, you know?” said the player who did finish a chance, Leal. “This is something that we need to work, because we know that if we would score one more goal, then Austin can stop playing. They were pressing us and they was attacking us too much. We know that, and I think we want to talk about this during the week.”
The pressing and attacking that Austin emphasized down just a single goal almost came back to bite Nashville SC.
In the 73rd minute, winger Jared Stroud got in behind Nashville’s backline at the corner of the penalty area. His hard-and-low strike beat Joe Willis to the near post and momentarily leveled the game. Upon further review, though, Stroud had been in an offside position when he received a head-on pass from midfielder Danny Pereira, and the VAR process saved Willis’s bacon.
“I had no idea that it was potentially an offside,” the veteran goalkeeper said. “So, I was pretty confused – that’s one of the things, actually, I asked Walker [Zimmerman], was ‘what are they checking?’ I kind of assumed it was offsides, because they were looking at it. Once he blew the whistle and waved it off, I shook my head and thanked God for letting me off the rope that time. Because like I said, it was a mistake, and I got lucky that we didn’t get punished for it.”
Defense is hardly the area Nashville needs to shore up: with that shot relegated to the dustbin of history, Pereira’s 47th-minute shot that Willis tipped over the bar was the only on-target by an opponent since the 74th minute of the New England game, and the Boys in Gold have kept opponents scoreless for four straight games. But when the team isn’t high-scoring despite its creation, leaving the door open means just one strike – like Stroud’s could have been – changes the outcome.
“The guys carried out the plan very, very well: We won the ball in some terrifically good positions, and to a couple of the other questions, we really should have taken more advantage of that,” Smith opined. “But I’m certainly not going to be critical of the efforts, the way that the guys carried out the plan, and went about their business. I’ve nothing but positive words to say about the group. We continue to develop and grow. There are multiple facets in any game, and we slowly-but-surely are getting better and better at them.”
Instead, it was Leal scuffing a shot into the back of the net from a Jhonder Cádiz cross that decided the contest.
“I think we have a good connection, you know, between [Jhonder] and me,” the Costa Rica international explained. I think he saw me and I was running into the box. He make a good cross. And you know, I make a bad touch, but the ball goes inside, so that’s good.”
Nashville will take the points without hesitation. But soccer can be a funny game, and reducing the chances for an odd bounce against to change outcomes has to be the next phase in development.
- Will keep billets brief this week, because I’m already a couple days behind schedule on getting the game column up.
- I mentioned this on the podcast, but while finishing is an obvious issue right now, I really do think it’s largely a run of bad luck and an extremely low sample size obscuring things. Aside from Dominique Badji (whose historical finishing isn’t as bad as his reputation might be, anyway), nobody on this team has been a bad finisher over time. Cádiz’s sample size last year was obviously small, but he and Mukhtar were well above-average in finishing, and are below it now, for example. A single header could turn Walker Zimmerman from an underachiever this season into a major overachiever (and you better believe more than one of those is coming). It’s frustrating, but I don’t think it’s something wrong with the team that really needs fixing.
- Randall Leal’s defense goes so, so underrated. He’s not going to get the accolades because of the team he plays for (and the position he plays on what is to-date a low-scoring team), but he’s one of the best-rounded attacking players in the league at this point. Enjoy him for the next 16 months, folks, because that may be the end of his MLS adventure.
- Willis was really beating himself up about the “goal” in postgame, which is not what you’d expect from a level-headed guy (and one who is used to coming back from a major goof here and there). Will be interested to see if it was just speaking out of frustration in the moment and becomes something that’s just in the rearview.
- Austin turned out to be about what I expected: can beat bad teams handily, but is beaten by good teams relatively easily. Nashville’s poor finishing on the night was partially attributable to Stuver, but some of it was opponent-independent, too. That could easily have been a 3-1 or 2-0 game without being much different in the way things played out.
- As for Stuver, I’m willing to consider him a Willis-esque “bad stats at previous stops, but has the chance to be elite in the right situation” sort of guy. He looked awesome, and not in ways where the stats are going to obscure what actually transpired on the field.
Much more to come on the game this week. Possibly as early as tonight!