Ivey’s Three Thoughts: Nashville SC’s derby day in Cincinnati

Nashville SC held onto a 1-1 draw in Cincinnati on Saturday night. 

Here are my three thoughts on the match.

Life without Hany

Nashville’s team sheet delivered quite a shock for supporters with the unexpected absence of Hany Mukhtar. I will admit that I missed it on first glance. At this point, my brain presumes Mukhtar’s presence in the Starting XI. Despite my subconscious attempts to insert him into the lineup, Nashville’s talisman was unavailable due to injury. 

Missing Mukhtar is a real blow to Nashville’s attack, but it by no means a death knell. In matches without the German playmaker, the Coyotes are 3-2-4 (1.44 ppg). The record fits right in line with Nashville’s average point total across its MLS history. While the results appear similar, the open-play attack takes a nose dive. 

Nashville struggled mightly to find its footing when it reached the final third. Outside of a Bunbury flubbed chance at the top of the box, Gary Smith’s men produced little from open play.

Luckily for Nashville, Bunbury brought his bicycle to Ohio. 

Offensively, Nashville’s best moments came on set pieces and this goal was no exception. It was an early sucker punch for Cincinnati that set the tone for the rest of the match.

As an aside to the offensive issues, I cannot have a discussion about a Nashville soccer match without mentioning Aké Loba. Call it the “Loba’s Law” of Nashville soccer media. If this match does not convince you that Loba will never break through with the Boys in Gold, I am not sure what will. Four forwards featured in this match and Mukhtar was missing from the squad. Loba still couldn’t even get off the bench for find a late-match cameo. Nashville need to move on sooner rather than later.

Set-piece woes return

Nashville’s defense largely locked down FC Cincinnati’s attack. But once again, the Boys in Gold conceded a back-breaking, set-piece goal. 

During the FC Cincinnati broadcast, sideline reporter Alex Stec relayed an interesting conversation she had with assistant coach Dom Kinnear about the goal and how they came up with the designed play. Stec quoted Kinnear as responding, “You just go back four or five games, see how [Nashville] defend set pieces, and come up with something you think might work.”  

Early in the match, Cincinnati sought to attack Nashville’s far post and nearly came away with a goal. The breakthrough for the Orange and Blue came in the 52nd minute via a scripted set piece that unbalanced Nashville’s defensive lines..

Let’s take a look at how the defensive breakdown occurred. 

1) Here we see Nashville in their typical hybrid man-zone set-piece defense. C.J Sapong, Dave Romney, Walker Zimmerman, and Daniel Lovitz are the zonal defenders tasked with protecting the six-yard box. Jack Maher mans up on Nick Hagglund. Alex Muyl marks Geoff Cameron, while Teal Bunbury’s assignment is Brandon Vazquez. Muyl and Bunbury’s job is to slow down the two principal targets from having a free run at the four, zonal defenders.

2) As the ball drops for Álvaro Barreal at the top of the box, you can how distorted Nashville’s defensive lines have become. The zonal defenders have taken a step up, but Sapong, Maher, and Bunbury are left trailing behind. Brandon Vazquez has already positioned himself on the back shoulder ready for the second ball. 

3) Here, we see it from behind the net immediately after Barreal makes contact. Vazquez finds himself in a large pocket of space having separated from Bunbury who is caught ball watching. Maher is nearby as well. Previously tasked with occupying Nick Hagglund (#6), Maher finds himself in between both Hagglund and Vazquez. 

4) Our final screenshot highlights the moment Nashville knew they were toast. Vazquez is attacking the open space behind the line while the gold-shirted defenders watch helplessly as they are caught flatfooted. 

The set-piece woes for Nashville have not always been on the initial ball. They have just as often come from the second or third action after the defensive lines have been scrambled. Nashville are vulnerable and other teams know it.

The rivalry begins to rebalance

Is it not refreshing to have a genuine rival that does not feel forced by mere geography or easy MLS HQ narratives? 

Nashville SC may have budding animosities for other clubs, (Atlanta due to proximity, and Orlando by way of on-field thrillers with controversial outcomes). Still, there is a special place in our cold, black hearts for FC Cincinnati. 

While regionality and a season of shared USL history certainly helped organically grow the rivalry, the initial fuel came through the MLS Expansion wars. Despite fan perception that Cincinnati held the inside track to an expansion slot, MLS awarded Nashville SC with an expansion team in December 2017 over FC Cincinnati. The Orange and Blue faithful did not have to wait much longer as they locked up their bid just five months later. But the slighted feelings never subsided. 

On the field, the series features a clear line of demarcation. In 2018, the lone season with both clubs in the USL, the sides were as evenly matched as they could possibly be. Nashville and Cincinnati played to a draw in a preseason match, three regular-season affairs, and a playoff match. But it was FC Cincinnati that advanced on penalty kicks in the playoffs as extra time could not break the season-long deadlock between the clubs.

In MLS play, Nashville wrestled away control of the series. 

After a two-year drought of matches, the rivalry was renewed in 2021. Three matches were contested with plenty of highlights for Nashville. The season opener saw Cincinnati score two quick goals to shock the reduced-capacity crowd. Nashville battled back to tie the match and battered Cincinnati’s net looking for the winner. In July, Nashville raced out to a comfortable 3-0 win. The last match of 2021 was a 6-3 thriller. Cincinnati led by multiple goals only for the Coyotes to deliver a thunderous second-half response. 

It should come as no surprise that Nashville has dominated the MLS iteration of the rivalry. Cincinnati was historically bad in its first three years of existence while Gary Smith has led Nashville to one of the more successful expansion eras in league history.

Saturday night felt like the start of a shift back to the tight, competitive matches from the USL days. The game ended with honors even, a fair result given the play.

It was a rebalancing of the rivalry. The trajectory of both clubs signals that fiercely fought matches between Nashville and Cincinnati may be here to stay.

Bonus thought

I have to brag on my city. This weekend, One Knox SC advanced to the quarterfinals of the USL League 2 playoffs. On Friday night’s first round match, 2,342 spectators filled the stadium creating an electric atmosphere for an semi-professional club. Soccer is growing by leaps and bounds in all the nooks and crannies of this expansive country. It is a rising tide that will lift all boats.  

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