Ivey’s Three Thoughts: An abysmal loss in Houston

Nashville SC traveled to Houston on Saturday and turned in one of the worst performances in club history. Despite playing with a man advantage for 61 minutes, Nashville conceded a second goal and never truly threatened the Dynamo’s net.

Here are my three thoughts on the match.

Poor positioning between Maher and Romney results in two goals

Following a midweek extra-time thriller with Atlanta, Gary Smith felt compelled to rotate Nashville’s backline to provide some rest for Walker Zimmerman. The rotation resulted in a disjointed performance as Jack Maher and Dave Romney’s poor positioning gave the Dynamo’s attackers room to exploit vacated space.  

Maher and Romney are accustomed to playing together in Nashville’s first-choice XI. However, it’s usually Zimmerman operating between the pair. On Saturday, Maher slid into Zimmerman’s typical position in the middle of Nashville’s back three. It forced Maher to adjust to a new partnership with Romney. 

Houston’s first goal displayed the lack of coordinated movement between Maher and Romney. 

As Fafa Picuault receives the ball on the right wing, Romney follows Picault well away from Nashville’s box. With Romney outside of the area, a large gap develops between Maher and Romney. Rather than shifting toward the action to shield the near post, Maher plants himself in the middle of the box. Darwin Quintero makes a darting run into the vacated space. With the pass played into him, Quintero plays a cheeky back-heel to the on-rushing Memo Rodríguez.

Maher shifts toward Rodríguez, but plants his feet to shield the far post. The Houston homegrown is given a clear sight at Nashville’s net. Joe Willis makes a wonderful diving save, but the rebound falls right to Adalberto Carrasquilla. He slots it in, and Houston takes the early lead. 

In this situation, Maher needs to recognize the vacated space earlier and reduce the gap. If he had shifted further toward the near post, Maher would have been in position to close down and block Memo Rodríguez’s shot to extinguish the danger. 

The penalty awarded to Houston that led to the Dynamo’s second goal resulted from a similar positioning error. 

As Darwin Quintero receives the ball, Maher and Romney are virtually on top of each other. It leaves acres of green grass for Fafa Picault to run into for a one-on-one situation with Joe Willis.

That segues into my next thought.

Joe Willis must sweep away the danger

Houston’s second goal is just as much on Joe Willis as it is on any of Nashville’s field players.

I grabbed a screenshot of Willis’ position the moment he showed up within the camera’s view. Willis is parked at the edge of the goal area. 

Think about Willis’ positioning for one second. It is the second half. Nashville trails by a goal, and Houston is down a man due to a red card. Nashville’s backline is playing higher up the field as the Coyotes chase an equalizer. Why chain yourself to the goal line? Fafa Picault’s first touch does not even occur until the ball is already in the penalty area. Willis absolutely must beat the attacker to the ball and clear the danger.

It is as if Nashville missed the entire last decade of goalkeeping innovation with keepers establishing higher lines to cut out counterattacks and serve as a passing outlet in the build up.

In a way, it should not come as a surprise. According to American Soccer Analysis, Joe Willis has the second-worst Goals Added (g+) in Sweeping activities since 2020. 

As measured by Stats Bomb accumulated by FBref, Willis’ average distance of defensive actions is just 11.8 yards from goal (7th percentile). He is also in just the 6th percentile for the number of defensive actions taken outside the penalty area. Translated, Willis plays it safe with his positioning rarely venturing too far from his net.

Down a goal and up a man in the second half was not the time to play it safe. By failing to establish a more aggressive position located further up the pitch capable of extinguishing counter-attacking threats, Willis was equally as culpable in allowing Houston to grab its second goal of the match.

No offensive ideas beyond pumping crosses into the box

Beyond Nashville’s defensive woes, Nashville’s attack displayed no creativity in attempting to unlock Houston’s low block. The Coyotes resorted to an endless stream of low-percentage balls pumped into the box.

While they serve a purpose and should not be dismissed completely, crosses and long balls into the box rarely lead to goals

When C.J. Sapong was on the pitch, you certainly cannot fault Nashville for attempting to find his head via crosses.  But Sapong left the match in the 64th minute. His departure left Nashville with an attacking front three of Ethan Zubak, Aké Loba, and Hany Mukhtar. Zubak stands at 6’2”, but his aerial duel win percentage is fairly average. With those three on the pitch, Nashville needed to find another way to penetrate Houston’s defense. 

As long as Nashville continues to try and fight low blocks by attempting to cross their way into the box, Nashville needs some new blood. Getting Teal Bunbury back from injury would help. But Nashville needs additional attacking depth that fit Gary Smith’s tactical plans.

However, options for adding new pieces to the roster are limited for the next month and a half as the summer transfer window will not open until July 7th. Nashville needs to figure out these issues internally before the summer heat melts away their chances at a U.S. Open Cup run and a home playoff match.

Nashville’s depth will continue to be tested. The Coyotes face a continuation of their May gauntlet with another four matches over the next 10 days. Rotation will be necessary. It starts this Wednesday with Eastern Conference leaders C.F. Montréal visiting the Music City.

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