Nashville SC

The Graphical: Canada double-dip

In an effort to expedite getting these done (and not skipping any games), I’m going to Graphical-ize the Toronto FC and CF Montreal games together. Insights from each, both, (neither? – extremely Jean-Ralphio Sapertein saying “mom?” voice) herein. Without further ado, on with the show.

The Maher of San Diego

Jack Maher returned from a loan spell with San Diego Loyal and stepped immediately into the lineup as Walker Zimmerman was away for the birth of his son, Tucker. I asked him specifically about whether playing in San Diego’s system – where he was touching the ball over 100 times a game – helped him prepare for success back at the MLS level.

“I think one of the big things, especially at the professional level, is just the different pictures: that whenever you get the ball, you know exactly Option A, Option B, Option C,” he said. “I think just being able to have these reps in-game and at a very good club in San Diego, I think it makes all the difference really.”

It went well – with limited training time! – in his return against TFC. Obviously a goal is going to get the headlines, but he quietly had an extraordinarily effective game passing the rock.

Not a ton of speculative or risky balls there (which can be both a blessing and a curse at times). In Nashville’s system, I would say priority No. 1 for the defenders in possession is to not give up the ball – Walker Zimmerman’s current time with the National Team, where he’s been a little bit more adventurous with his progressive passing, may very well demonstrate the NSC system’s priorities.

Those big switches to the opposite wing, on the other hand, are enticing. That’s not necessarily a simple ball to hit, and it has the potential to unlock opposing defensive structures to a degree. Going 4/4 in attempting that type of pass is a good indicator that there’s some upside in the offense as Maher gets comfortable.

He continued to nail that ball against Montreal, too (obviously in different circumstances), even though a lot of his other action was a bit more conservative – which you can see on the right. Those represented and even larger proportion of his game as Nashville dominated the ball quite a bit more.

And yes, I just wrote an entire paragraph about this passmap without noting 1) the assist, and 2) that he missed one pass all game. I’d actually be interested (somebody remind me) to find out how the technical staff values loans to specific USL sides, because it seems San Diego was the perfect fit for developing what Nashville needed in Maher.

First-year wingers

The Toronto game also saw two Nashville SC players get their longest run-outs yet. Luke Haakenson got 36 minutes (he would go on to eclipse that by a wide margin against Montreal – about which more in a moment), while Rodrigo Piñeiro got 14.

Haakenson was a deserving man of the match and Team of the Week selection for his two goals that sparked the Nashville come-from-behind victory. But in 50 combined minutes, they got only 30 total touches:

Luke Haakenson and Rodrigo Piñeiro combined touchmap via WhoScored

That’s a minimal impact on the game overall. In a situation where they were offensive subs as Nashville worked to claw from a deficit, it’s a little concerning, even. Piñeiro is a winger who wants to demand the ball, and while I’ve talked about how he’s still a ways away from being ready to contribute (pretty much ad nauseam by this point), a guy with that style needs to find ways to get on the ball. When his offensive-area passes are four successful back-passes , one unsuccessful short pass, and two unsuccessful crosses, you need to see more before he’s considered a spark going forward.

Of course, Haakenson wasn’t necessarily much more involved, but 1) three of his 14 touches were shots, two of them goals, and 2) he’s not a big-name incoming transfer from South America, either. That’s not to slam Piñeiro, just to point out the difference in expectations between the two (and Haakenson’s not even two years older, either, so it’s not like he gets crafty veteran status), and to note that the Uruguayan is still very much a work in-progress. He didn’t even attempt a take-on, despite his Instagram feed at times feeling like an advertisement for the fact that he’s able to do it.

It stands to reason that the technical staff – which has not played Piñeiro in a game since – agreed that he showed that there’s still work to do before he’s ready to contribute. Haakenson, on the other hand, earned the start and 70 minutes against Montreal despite an injury, has obviously done more to this point.

The downside? Haakenson was once again fairly anonymous in the passing game against Montreal, and without two goals to show for it (indeed, he didn’t take a shot and had just one key pass, which came on a cross). He’s not a ball-demanding winger, so that’s not the worst thing in the world, but it shows that even the preferred young winger for this club has a way to go.

It’s tough to make any sweeping generalizations about the way either guy played in either game defensively using event data (and using event data is the nature of The Graphical). I would contend that Haakenson is considered a better defender among the technical staff – they obviously value that a ton, even in creative players, but particularly among those who aren’t considered the creative outlets – and that’s primarily what has him on the field more regularly.

Here’s what American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added has to say – with sample sizes so small as to be not particularly revealing anyway. Neither of them has done anything to impress the numbers on defense (again, limited to event data here – positional play and spacing are important aspects and not captured).

How to draw a game in 10 stats

Let us shift our focus primarily to the Montreal game. I cannot promise to remain true to the heading, but when you can reference a Kate Hudson rom-com, you reference a Kate Hudson rom-com.

It’s fair to say Nashville dominated this game! During the first USL season, “possession without purpose” became something of a talking point: all too often, Nashville would dominate the ball without getting good looks (or even shots) on the goal. The team was at its best when largely playing on the counter, without the ball, in fact. That’s all to say this was not that. NSC not only dominated the ball against Montreal, but used that possession to put the thing on the net, which it must be noted is how you win soccer games.

If my calculations are correct (and I really hope they are, because it’s not particularly difficult math), Nashville had about 60% of the possession… and 72.4% of the shots and 63.6% of the shots on-target. If soccer were a very different game and possession correlated directly with offensive opportunities, NSC would be considered an over-achiever here.

It’s also important to point out that these weren’t exactly bad looks at goal, either. The expected goals tally shows Nashville with 2.1 xG on the game and the Impact (gonna keep calling ’em that) at 0.6. That’s a paddlin’

Gamestate effects always come into play when a lopsided xG tally doesn’t end up corresponding with the final result. There’s a bit of that here, but for the most part, Nashville was dominant at an even gamestate, and also got the expected xG deluge while trying to play catch-up.

Alas, NSC dominated this game, but a Walker Zimmerman-less side was unable to prevent the opponent from getting a cheapie on a set piece. How Nashville overcomes that gap in its game over the short-term is going to tell the story of where this season can end up. Do enough to shore up set-piece defense, and more often than not, you’re going to win a game like this with average finishing.

So, about the finishing

American Soccer Analysis used to have a pretty cool featured called “Lowered Expectations.” Harrison Crow ran through the highest xG opportunities in MLS each week that didn’t result in a goal. I don’t know why it was discontinued (I would imagine a combination of potentially coming off mean-spirited, and the blog portion of ASA being far more big-picture-focused now). Regardless of the reasoning, its absence certainly, uh, at times presents missed opportunities for NSC to make the front page of the blog.

I would actually not contend that finishing is capital-A capital-P A Problem for Nashville this year (and even if it has been, a piece that sort of changes that equation renders previous evidence outdated). It hasn’t been great: 16 goals on 20.78 xG, according to ASA, but the concentration, timing, and appearance of those misses is more notable at times.

This game was an example of one that Nashville is going to regret not only missing some major chances – while, as noted above, giving up a softie on the other end – but those misses costing the team points. Per Opta (not ASA‘s IMO-superior expected goals model, to be fair), Nashville missed chances of…

  • .253 xG. A Dax McCarty header wide of the post from a free kick.
  • .326 xG. An Abu Danladi back-post poke after a corner (and head-on) that was saved.
  • .341 xG. An Abu Danladi volley from a long throw (and a head-on) that was saved.

While none of them was more likely than not to go into the back of the net, the statistical likelihood of missing all three (assuming accuracy in Opta’s model) was just 2.8%. And that’s just on three of Nashville’s 21 total shots. Snakebit maybe, bad finishers maybe – it’s worth noting that Danladi is a 17% better-than-average career finisher, so probably – but either way, you’re happy to generate chances and unhappy to not convert them. I’m not exactly breaking new ground here.

I continue to maintain that Nashville’s outcomes will regress back toward the underlying numbers, which would be a positive on both ends of the pitch. But certainly I can also understand the frustration when it doesn’t happen, and particularly when that finishing luck costs the team points.

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