Dax McCarty photo courtesy Nashville SC
When hitting the road to play against the defending MLS Cup champion, it is generally preferred to have a full-strength unit. Nashville SC had no such luxury Wednesday night, with quite the MASH unit:
- midfielder Aníbal Godoy and centerback Walker Zimmerman out with thigh injuries suffered on international duty
- defenders Dan Lovitz and Jack Maher unavailable due to the health and safety protocols implemented by the league in the return-to-play from last Summer’s coronavirus pause
- striker Dominique Badji still recovering from a sprained ankle suffered in May
- …and not injury-related, but defender Alistair Johnston still on international duty with Canada
That’s a starting midfielder and three backline starters unavailable, plus the replacement for one of those defenders out of the lineup. Nashville SC’s striker depth is such that Badji’s absence wasn’t significant, and of course it was the other end of the pitch that one might have projected some struggle.
Instead, a new-look backline inserted midfielder Dax McCarty as a free-ranging middle CB, with Taylor Washington and Eric Miller getting their first starts of the season at the wingbacks, and league veteran Jalil Anibaba slotting in as a right centerback. Makeshift? Maybe. But effective, as the Boys in Gold managed a scoreless draw against Columbus Crew.
“Everyone who played tonight played really well,” said goalkeeper Joe Willis. “I think it’s a credit to the system that we play and the way Gary [Smith] prepares us. It’s at a point where if one guy goes down, the next guy steps up and fills that role and we don’t skip a beat. And I think – especially this year with so many international tournaments, we obviously knew that we’d be missing some guys at some point, maybe didn’t know we’d be missing this many guys right now – that’s something that guys who aren’t getting a lot of minutes always keep in mind.
“Guys are training. Most people only see the games, and they see guys playing or not, but they don’t see the work that those guys put in every day at training, and the attitudes that they have and that’s why a lot of them are ready to go when their number is called.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean that unit made life easy for Willis.
While they blocked seven of Columbus’s 18 shots, the veteran keeper was still drawn into action to make seven saves himself, including a key fingertip denial of Darlington Nagbe in the 71st minute.
“When you’re seeing a lot of action like that – you know, we had guys making big blocks, big clearances, some saves from me – and when you’re playing like that, your confidence grows and you get to the point where you start building up,” Willis explained. “It’s almost like not quite the level of a no-hitter in baseball, but it’s similar where you start playing well and you keep the shutout and it’s like, ‘alright, we’ve gotta keep this going, keep this going. Just five more minutes, five more minutes, five more minutes.’ And then you just keep that attitude.”
Although the Crew had some first-half chances, Nashville actually started the game very well. A free kick from reigning MLS Player of the Week Hany Mukhtar forced a save out of Crew keeper Eloy Room, and the Boys in Gold had _ corner kicks in the frame.
But some halftime changes for Caleb Porter’s Crew side changed the shape of the game.
“The first period, I thought, was very even,” said Smith. “Especially the opening exchanges, we started off very brightly. In fact, the first five minutes, I think we forced a couple corners and an effort or two at goal. With some changes in the group, there’s always going to be a little bit of understanding and appreciation, getting on the same page. But the first half was almost according to plan.
“The second period, understandably, they started to take more chances. Some of the guys who have not necessarily seen loads of minutes started to maybe tire a little bit, and coupled with some moments where we were just below par with our quality on the ball.”
Quality on the ball in attacking zones may not have been the expected area of weakness for Nashville. Striker CJ Sapong and midfielders Hany Mukhtar and Alex Muyl are regular starters. Holding midfielder Brian Anunga played a more-advanced role than usual with McCarty slotted into the backline, but he’s been a regular starter in Godoy’s absence over the past month. Nevertheless, as much as NSC’s makeshift backline was able to hold firm, the attacking pieces couldn’t quite find the connections to pay that off with all three points in the table.
“I just think in this game, while we were very solid defensively, very organized, very tough to break down, we just didn’t have a lot of quality going forward in the attacking third,” McCarty said. “When we did get a chance to breathe and take the sting out of the game – try to take the crowd out of the game – everything we were doing through the defensive third and the middle third with the ball was pretty good. it was that attacking third where we just didn’t see the connections that we saw the last game.”
There was one extremely encouraging sign for the team’s ability to find those moments of magic in the final third in future games, though. In the 81st minute, striker Aké Loba made his debut, replacing Muyl to give the Boys in Gold a more-attacking piece to potentially find a winner with a late counterattack. The club-record signing couldn’t find that deciding goal, but did contribute in ways that will endear him to his squadmates.
“You know, he’s got some incredible individual ability, but his overall mantra is for the team,” Smith said. “And I thought he worked hard for the group, he dropped in very, very deep a couple of times to help out with some defending. And even though his English is still in a difficult place, he understands what it means to have that extra body there. He’s not silly: he comes from a terrific club and played at a very high level, and he’s rolled his sleeves up for the lads when we needed him most.
“Really pleased. We were never going to see what might be his true quality shine tonight. Last 10-12 minutes, under some pressure, the hope was that we may find the odd counter-attack, but he certainly gave as much as he could for the group, which is wonderful for the future.”
His captain echoed those sentiments.
“Once he gets fitter, once he gets more integrated into the group, he’s going to be able to add a whole lot to our attack,” McCarty opined. “Certainly that’s not to say he’s not going to be asked to defend and track back, but he’s humble enough to do it. He just has to get fitter, and once he does, I think you’re going to see the best of him.”
On a difficult evening for Nashville SC, the team did what was required to earn a point in the table. This weekend, they’ll take on the second half of an Ohio double-dip. FC Cincinnati heads to Nissan Stadium for a 7:30 p.m. Saturday kick. The Boys in Gold will be looking for a measure of revenge after feeling unlucky to draw Cincy in the season-opening game.
- Not a ton to discuss on an individual basis, since the parameters in which the players performed were so different from what we typically see. The Graphical should be pretty interesting, though (time to get caught up on those).
- That said, Brian Anunga was outstanding. He’s always been known as a solid defensive midfielder, and he’s made incremental strides in possession this season in particular. But he was outstanding in holding onto the ball, and a little more progressive with his dribbling and passing than he’s historically been (again, things he’s shown incremental work on already in 2021). It may have seemed jokey when I mentioned him as a possible overseas sale on the pod recently, but does it really feel out of the question with a 24-year old?
- The late moment where Loba and Cádiz had a chance to force Eloy Room – who was otherwise awesome – into a turnover is one that Nashville will regret. Obviously it was far from a sure-thing goal, but it was certainly the best one with those guys on the field.
- Eric Miller and Matt LaGrassa struggled in possession quite a bit (Miller more so, albeit with less being asked of the wingbacks in possession). However, if they’re going to put in a solid defensive shift like they did, you can live with that. With both of them and Muyl on the pitch, though, you can really see how Nashville struggled to generate solid chances in the attacking third. Smith mentioned after the game that Leal needed a bit of rest with three games in eight days, but man, would he have provided a different feel.
- Speaking of saving Leal for Cincinnati… does Smith see this one as a potential revenge game or what?
- I don’t want to criticize too much because they treated him and I did not (also: not Certified Athletic Trainer), but man, if Pedro Santos sounded half as dazed as he looked after getting banged in the head with an attempted cross, I can’t imagine he should have remained in the game. There were a couple of those instances for Columbus.
- Mucho más to come this week.