Abu Danladi photo courtesy Nashville SC
NASHVILLE – There’s something to be said for Nashville SC’s resiliency. The 1-1 draw Saturday evening – courtesy a stoppage-time header from striker Abu Danladi – saved a result against CF Montreal. It was the fifth time this club managed a come-from behind result this season (fourth draw, with Wednesday’s win over Toronto FC being the only time capturing all three points). At a certain point, though, it would behoove the Boys in Gold to score first, particularly in home games when they can put the squeeze on a rattled visiting side.
“We’ve been able to recover from some difficult situations already this year, which is great news,” said NSC head coach Gary Smith. “I think that’s a sign of character. That’s a sign of internal belief within the group that there’s always something in the game for us. So it’s a great quality to have.”
Some of it comes down to timing and luck: Nashville’s defense has actually allowed the third-fewest expected goals in Major League Soccer (8.87), but the opposition has managed to spin that into 11 goals. That every single one of those goals has put the Boys in Gold behind (or increased a deficit) is incredible. No team has cut into a Nashville lead like Nashville has so consistently done to the opposition. Once NSC goes on top, NSC stays on top. But that’s because those leads have been precious few: in a 2-0 win against New England Revolution, a 1-0 win against Austin FC, and in Wednesday’s stoppage-time victory against Toronto FC.
Against Montreal, the nature of the deficit was all the more frustrating. Without reigning MLS Defender of the Year (and dominant set-piece aerialist) Walker Zimmerman, Nashville allowed CB Aljaz Struna to score a set-piece header than was almost a carbon-copy of the one Patrick Mullins scored for Toronto in the midweek. Second-year player Jack Maher, in Zimmerman’s stead, can hardly be faulted for being a little less assertive in the air than the player he was replacing in the lineup.
Nonetheless, these are goals Nashville didn’t give up last year.
“It’s an identical spot – almost identical – that we conceded mid-week,” Smith said. “We tried to negate that area. Jack [Maher]’s doing a fantastic job, I’m delighted with his performance, but he was in that front zone that may well have – with a little bit more experience – might have just taken a little more aggressive step. It’s tough, because he’s got movement in front of him.
“We changed bodies. In fact, CJ was still on at that point, I think he was meant to be marking [Kiki] Struna. It takes a millimeter for a guy of Struna’s size to be getting in front of his marker. Ball was very good again, into a lovely area, timing’s spot-on: that’s why you see goals being scored.”
Of course, on a spectrum between winning and losing, there are plenty of worse results than clawing back from a deficit to earn a draw. Substitute forward Abu Danladi – in just his second appearance this year after recovering from multiple injuries – provided late drama to salvage the point for the Boys in Gold.
As we’ve regularly seen this season, Nashville poured on the pressure both before and after conceding to face a deficit. Maher got a measure of redemption for the goal conceded (of course, he was only partially responsible anyway – and by this stage Zimmerman had made his NSC return after a rest while his wife gave birth to son Tucker), hitting a pass from Randall Leal first-time to the far post, where Danladi’s only competition was teammate Aníbal Godoy.
After missing a previous chance, there was a measure of redemption for Danladi, as well.
“For me – and that’s the thing with soccer – you’ve got to learn from the chances that you get,” Danladi explained. “You’ve gotta keep learning from what you could have done better. For me, I could see the goalkeeper was very active, also there was a lot of space in-behind on goal. The first one, when the goalkeeper saved it, I kind of felt that I needed to be closer to the goal. Because I was farther from the goal for the first time. So, for the second, I kept getting closer to the goal, closer to the goal, and the ball was there. So I pretty much learned from the first one and the second one pretty much worked out well.
“It’s always a good feeling, you know? As he said, before that, I had hit – and the goalkeeper had saved – two shots. I tried to score, and that was very frustrating, so the second one, knowing the goalkeeper wasn’t able to save it, and it went in, it was a very good feeling. Also, know that we were in a situation not to lose the game was a great feeling as well.”
Nashville’s poor first-half finishing this season – just three of the 13 goals scored coming before the break – must be fixed, or the late heroics won’t be enough. Indeed, if Smith’s side wants to reach its goals, late heroics for draws in front of season-high crowds (22,523 Saturday evening) is already a status that isn’t getting the job done.
The fact that the team has had opportunities is a bit of consolation. The likelihood of continuing to undershoot xG (13 goals on 17.38 expected) is very low. But until that actually changes, the frustration continues.
“It’s different if we don’t create chances,” said Godoy. “I know we want to score: nobody wants to miss the goal. But this is about working. We try to working every day, the finishing, the last pass. It’s tough, it’s difficult for us, because I think if we score the first goal always, we’ll control the game. We try to move the ball better, we have more confidence with the ball, and we created more chance. But we need to improve this part.”
If it doesn’t improve, being on the playoff fringe may be a long-term status for a Nashville team that had planned for much larger targets in its sophomore season.
- Luke Haakenson’s first start went… fine. After he was the hero Wednesday evening – and had a hip ailment that didn’t clear up until Friday – it might have been better to see him off the bench. Of course, a bit of rest for Randall Leal to keep him fresh for the final couple games before he’s gone long-term with the Gold Cup squad of Costa Rica is a solid idea.
- Montreal was conceding tons of space in the midfield. Nashville had a number of long runs without much resistance. The Impact (yes I’m going to keep calling them that) played Samuel Piette as a lone holder in the midfield, and it gave NSC plenty of chances to counter. Some of the low scoring production came with frustrating decisions at the end of those runs (one from Hany Mukhtar and one from Alex Muyl both come to mind) to eschew a better look for a pass or low-percentage shot. Decision-making has been an issue with the xG-undershooting.
- Relatedly, though, I thought Dax McCarty and Mukhtar (aside from that final piece for Mukhtar) had probably their best games of the season. It’s obviously easier if you aren’t under much pressure, but the control, passing, and vision – until that final moment, at least – were cleaner than we’ve seen this year. Hopefully it’s a performance to build on and not a one-off that disappears when the opponent is a little less accommodating.
- Will be interested to see if Jhonder Cádiz is immediately available upon his return from duty with Venezuela. If so, he has plenty to provide to this team. CJ Sapong is a battler and an effort guy, but his hold-up play is diminished slightly by a first touch that sometimes takes him 5-10 yards back toward his own goal.
- Maher’s going to get too much blame for the Montreal goal, and perhaps too much for Nashville’s goal. In between (and prior to MTL’s score), though, he had another really solid game. He has physical growth in front of him still, but he’s a solid marking CB, and very good with two-footed passing. I’ll still always say NSC should have drafted Daryl Dike, but he’s going to be a solid player in this league for a while. The fact that he was getting like 100 touches a game under Landon Donovan in San Diego probably helped his growth as a distributor, as well.
- Very good to see the return of Daniel Ríos, and while he wasn’t the difference-maker, some of his technical ability in tight areas showed out. Keep him healthy, put him in favorable positions, and baby, you got a stew goin’.