Nashville SC

On a night when the offense doesn’t click, Nashville SC defense holds firm

The line on Nashville SC is easy to remember: Gary Smith’s team plays a pragmatic, regressive style of play that achieves plenty of draws, but doesn’t provide much excitement going forward, and has its limitations in the table.

Of course, the reality of the 2021 edition of the Boys in Gold doesn’t match up with that reputation: Nashville has scored the seventh-most goals in Major League Soccer (and is even underachieving its creation metrics sightly), and is tied for third in the Eastern Conference table – with a game in-hand on Philadelphia Union. Striker CJ Sapong and attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar are both in the top 10 of the xG+xA table.

So on a night when that powerful offense couldn’t make that moment of magic – and largely without the likes of Mukhtar and Sapong (and midfielder Randall Leal) on the pitch – it was back to the defense that has been the backbone of the club. The desire to be a little more expansive this season has dropped NSC from the ranks of the elite defenses, but Smith’s group has made strides in that department in recent weeks, and the whole team buckled down to ensure a scoreless draw against New England Revolution Wednesday night.

“From the top guy – from No. 1 to No. 30 – this is a team that continually pushes the guy in front of us,” said defender Jack Maher. “I think that expectation and that reality has really been a key part that contributes to the team’s success.”

Nashville started a somewhat makeshift lineup, with captain Dax McCarty manning the broadcast booth, rather than the midfield pivot, and the “big three” offensive players coming off the bench. That’s not to say the NSC attack was without talent – Designated Players Jhonder Cádiz and Aké Loba were in the roles you might otherwise expect to see Mukhtar and Sapong occupying – but for the middle game of a three-game week, it was a rotated squad. Given that New England Revolution can boast the current pole position in the race for the Supporter’s Shield (and that this is a club whose home-field advantage is particularly quirky, on a FieldTurf surface in a mostly-empty NFL stadium), you may have thought Smith made the decision to simply ride out a draw and taper toward a full-strength group in Miami this weekend.

And it sounds like you may not be so far off from the truth.

“I couldn’t be more proud with the way that the guys have gone about their business, and ultimately, I felt, showed more aggression and enthusiasm and even had a hint of ‘we can win this’ towards the final 10 minutes of the game – which is phenomenal,” Smith said. “So, all-in-all, a fabulous night, a wonderful point, and the end of what has been a difficult four or five days for us on the road.”

Mukhtar entered the game at halftime, with Sapong following in the 64th and Leal in the 79th. Even against tired New England legs, though, they were unable to combine to find the winner,

“The last six weeks, those guys have been stalwarts in this team,” Smith said. “They’re unbeaten since they’ve come in the group. So there’s some rotation to be had, the guys who came on did a fabulous job; it’s not easy coming off the bench, especially with the conditions that we’d had. And my hope is that some of those guys that have not gotten as many minutes are maybe going to be in a better spot for the weekend. But look, that’s a long way off right now, plenty to consider and to think about and we’ll take stock of where the group’s at when we get back.”

The Revs were without the leading candidate for league MVP at the season’s halfway point, attacking midfielder Carles Gil. Their own high-flying attack was limited by his absence, though the return of winger Tajon Buchanan from international play with Canada certainly softened that blow. Nonetheless, the highest-scoring team in the league managed just 0.56 expected goals against Nashville – in spite of a 69%-31% advantage in possession.

Indeed, each of New England’s six shots on goal drew little more than a routine save from Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis. The only potentially-tricky opportunity came in the late stages of the game. Teal Bunbury’s diving header in second-half stoppage time bounced on its way to Willis, but like each of the other New England attempts, landed safely in the big mitts of the veteran keeper.

“Yeah, you have to stay focused for 90 minutes, or sometimes 95 minutes,” he said. “I think you see it – I’m not saying we’re at the level of Barcelona or Bayern Munich – but you see it with some of the top teams in the world that they control most of the game, and their opponents will get one opportunity, and you have someone like [Marc-Andre] ter Stegen or [Manuel] Neuer, they make those big saves, and that’s what makes them great.

“That’s the type of attitude that I try to take, especially with this team, where we’re so good defensively, and our opponents might not get a lot of opportunities. I know that at some point, they probably will get one. The guys in front of me are putting a lot of hard work in, so I need to be ready to put some work in myself. And I also don’t want to be the guy who lets the team down when our defenders are putting in shifts like they do.”

With the Boys in Gold likely to field a first-choice lineup when they take the pitch in Fort Lauderdale Sunday afternoon, Willis ensured his team left the Northeast with a crucial point in hand.

Match highlights

Bullets

  • It’s obviously less-than-ideal to be put in a situation where you choose to play for a draw. If those situations can be avoided, that’d be great! I don’t necessarily think that’s what Smith went into this one thinking, though (and if he’d known early enough that Gil wasn’t going to be available, I wonder if some of the personnel decisions might have been different, such as playing McCarty for 45 minutes or so). Putting your top three attackers on against tired legs isn’t a horrible decision, and particularly so when two of the replacements for them are DPs.
  • That said… Mukhtar looked very good, Sapong looked like he usually does (not necessarily pretty, but potentially effective), but Leal seemed off. There were a few times that New England gave him space just outside the 18-yard box – the area where he typically sees a flashing “SHOOT NOW” sign, and he didn’t launch a single one of them – he didn’t take a single shot at all, in fact. Some of that was NE getting him on his left foot, but it seemed like there may as well be keeper-testing blasts if the alternative is dribble into traffic and lose the ball anyway.
  • The possession numbers look ugly, but I wouldn’t sweat them overall: while Nashville has been quite a bit more willing to give up possession as the road slate is catching up with the abundance of early-season home games 1) ceding possession is a stylistic choice (not a lack of quality) in some games, including this one, and 2) Nashville’s at about 47.1% of possession on the year, so 31% is a pretty extreme outlier nonetheless.
  • Obviously, some improvement in quality on the ball (71.1% passing accuracy) would still be nice – but that’s a consequence of playing without Dax McCarty (86.6% passing on the year) and Aníbal Godoy (92.6%), as well. The players in their stead – Matt LaGrassa at 76.6% on the year and 76.2% for the game, and Brian Anunga at 85.2% on the year and 84.8% for the game – are nice pieces. They necessitate a different playing style or different priorities, though.
  • New England definitely had more shots, but you could fairly say they were a lot less dangerous. Per American Soccer Analysis (whose xG model I trust quite a bit more than Opta’s dated version), the Revs’ 12 shots totaled 0.56 xG. That’s 4.6% chance of scoring for the average shot. Not great! The Nashville defense, even with a semi-makeshift group, excelled.
  • The question for me is what happens when the task is different. Are we seeing a 5-3-2 for good? Or is it still a temporary and situational philosophy thanks to the rotation (and lack of Godoy and Walker Zimmerman, in particular) of this stretch?

We will live más about this game in the coming weeks. Maybe. You’ll note I’m way behind on game wraps anyway.

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