Nashville SC bested the Concacaf Champions League winners, Seattle Sounders, with a 1-0 victory Wednesday night at GEODIS Park. After a recent poor run of results on the field and plenty of drama off it, the win feels like a breath of fresh air for the entire club.
Here are my three thoughts on the match.
High press fuels a dominating first-half display
After an initial spell of sustained possession for Seattle, Nashville SC went hyper-aggressive and pressed the Sounders into submission. The Coyotes pushed their defensive lines high up the pitch, hunted the ball, and smothered the Sounders. From about the 10-minute mark through the end of the first half was some of the best soccer we have seen from Nashville this season.
Now, not every pressure results in Nashville gaining possession. But Nashville established from the start that they would dictate the match tempo and be the aggressor.
Below is a great example of how sustained pressure can coax an opponent to play further into your hands. By the 22nd minute, the Sounders had seen a relentless high press from Nashville that made it difficult to play out of the back. Here, Seattle’s goalkeeper, Stefan Cleveland, has options to play to two of his right-sided defenders. Instead, Cleveland attempts to bypass the press with a ball over the top of Nashville’s first two lines of defenders. Seattle fell right into Nashville’s trap. Daniel Lovitz wins his aerial dual with Alex Roldan and Nashville immediately finds itself with a dangerous counterattacking opportunity.
The eventual goal did not come from Nashville’s high press, but it was born out of the mentality established by Gary Smith. Randall Leal hunts the ball, picks Nico Lodeiro’s pocket, and immediately springs Nashville’s counterattack with a perfectly weighted ball for C.J. Sapong.
I want to see more of this high-pressure defense from Nashville. For a club that finds its most dangerous moments when it plays quickly following a turnover, manufacturing more of these opportunities should be a priority. Now, I don’t expect nor want Gary Smith to embrace Red Bull-style, energy-drink soccer overnight. But I do hope to see more of this high press sprinkled in, especially in front of the home crowd.
Hany’s hold-up play
Hany Mukhtar breaks stereotypes.
In soccer discussions, we easily fall into the trap that only certain body types can play specific roles. Central defenders must be towering figures easily over six feet tall. A #10 should be a smaller player capable of dribbling through tight spaces. A target forward needs to be tall and strong, like a C.J. Sapong, to provide hold-up play. I am probably just as guilty of this footballing faux pas as anyone.
But Mukhtar continues to show that you do not need to be built like Terminator in order to play with strength and retain possession for your team.
Wednesday night featured several examples of Mukhtar retaining possession for Nashville in ways that we would ordinarily attribute to his strike partner. Mukhtar leans on his own unique attributes to receive the ball, exhibit control, and either lay off a pass or pick up a foul.
For all the plaudits Mukhtar receives for scoring goals, these little things probably endear him most to Nashville’s coaching staff.
The Backline’s self-inflicted wound
The biggest fireworks were not at GEODIS Park on Wednesday. Instead, they were found on Twitter, Facebook, and every other social media platform where you can find discussions centered on Nashville SC. The Backline Supporters Collective ignited a firestorm by announcing a protest to be staged during the match. The statement came a day following the club’s announcement of closing off Lot 1, the home to The Backline tailgate area, without prior warning to the respective supporters’ groups.
The announcement was met with near-universal derision for a variety of reasons. If you want a flavor of some of the criticisms in response, you can peruse the comments and quote tweets.
While the front office quickly established contact with The Backline, it came at a stiff price. The reputational damage had already been sustained. It was an entirely self-inflicted wound. For all the acrimony following the front office’s announcement that Lot 1 would no longer be available, The Backline founds themselves committing the exact same strategic error by not informing their members and giving them a chance to weigh in on the proposed action.
The Backline, and the various supporters’ groups it is comprised of, do a lot of great things in helping to establish the atmosphere that is central to what makes the MLS experience vastly different than any other American sporting event. But the initially published statement reeked of entitlement and created unnecessary drama that fired wide of the core reason why fans purchase tickets to stand in the section rather than sit elsewhere.
I have confidence that the organization learned a valuable lesson from its mistake and will become a better group for it.
For all the ups-and-downs of Joe Willis’ season, he delivered a Save of the Year contender. If that ball finds the back of the net, the outlook today likely looks a hell of a lot gloomier.