On Saturday night, Nashville SC played the Vancouver Whitecaps to a 1-1 draw. It was a disappointing performance that has become all too common for Gary Smith’s side.
Here are my three thoughts on the match.
Gary Smith took his foot off the gas pedal and paid for it
It was a tale of two halves for Nashville SC.
In the first half, the Coyotes came out attacking from the jump. Gary Smith lined up his side nominally in a 4-2-3-1, with Teal Bunbury operating at his more natural winger position. It was the most aggressive initial setup we have seen from Smith this season, and it paid dividends.
Nashville dominated the early proceedings with a constant barrage of looks in front of Cody Cropper’s net. The breakthrough finally came in the 17th minute through Bunbury’s well-placed header.
At that moment, you could not help but think that the match had all the makings of a runaway. Vancouver, fresh off a mid-week Canadian Championship final and a 2,000-mile trip, could be forgiven for getting steamrolled.
But that is not what occurred. Nashville immediately took their foot off the gas pedal and became far too concerned with not conceding the equalizer rather than finishing the Whitecaps off with a second goal.
The change in posture became immediately apparent with Smith’s first set of substitutions in the 63rd minute. An attacker was removed as Jack Maher came on in place of Bunbury. It shifted Nashville into a much more defensive orientation inviting Vancouver to possess the ball in Nashville’s defensive third.
From there on out, the rest of the match felt like a slow, painful march toward Vancouver’s eventual equalizer.
It didn’t need to happen this way. Smith had options on the bench that could have kept the pressure dialed up on Vancouver in search of a second goal. Even with Bunbury departing the match, Smith could have turned to Luke Haakenson, Ethan Zubak, or Handwalla Bwana to slot into Bunbury’s right-wing position and allowed the Coyotes to remain in the 4-2-3-1.
Would the match have played out any differently? No one can know for sure. But a like-for-like substitution would have certainly sent a jolt of encouragement into the Nashville side to go hunt for a second goal. Instead of putting on more steam, Smith took his foot off the pedal.
The lack of ambition did not stop when the final whistle blew. It continued into Smith’s post-match press conference as he declared that making the playoffs in 2022 would be Nashville SC’s greatest achievement.
Lowering expectations is for politicians entering a primetime debate, not a coach of a soccer team that has made the playoffs in every year of its professional history. Smith’s comments reeked of an attempt to save one’s job and not to inspire a group of men to play to their potential.
Maybe you could interpret his comments as a subtle jab to Mike Jacobs to add more pieces to the roster prior to the transfer window closure. But it is not like Nashville has been shy about spending money. There is a nearly $7-million-dollar forward who was never integrated into the lineup and a talented winger purchased from South America currently lighting it up in Chile. From all accounts, Smith signed off on these transfers. He is just as culpable for these failed signings as Jacobs or anyone else at the club. At a certain point, any perceived talent deficiency rests with the coach along with the front office.
Am I Gary out? At this point, I’m not sure that I even know.
What I do know is something has to change. I would much rather that change come from Smith developing more of a killer instinct at home rather than spinning the roulette wheel on a new manager that may want a dramatic rebuild to fit their own identity. But it’s difficult to teach an old dog new tricks.
It’s up to Smith to convince the fan base that he can keep his foot on the gas pedal to end the abysmal home record. His seat is unquestionably rising in temperature. The club has 30,000 seats to fill. Tepid home performances, like Saturday night’s second half, will not keep fans coming back for more.
Another set-piece goal to break down
I feel like a broken record. Nashville’s defense in the run of play once again pitched a shutout just to be undone by conceding a set-piece goal. For what seemingly feels like the 1,000th time, let’s take this one frame by frame.
Before Ryan Gauld strikes the free kick, we can see the eventual goalscorer, Javain Brown (orange arrow), occupying the space between C.J. Sapong and Jack Maher.
As the ball comes in, I want to shift our focus elsewhere for a split second. Tristan Blackmon (black arrow) creates this goal for Vancouver. In a veteran-savvy move, Blackmon delivers a subtle push to the back of Walker Zimmerman. The push was just enough to knock Zimmerman’s leap off course allowing the ball to continue to float to the back post. Blackmon’s nudge drew a look from the Video Assistant Referee but ultimately was deemed not egregious enough to warrant a trip to the monitor.
Let’s return to the picture above and focus back on Javain Brown. As the ball comes in, he is still in the space between Sapong and Maher.
Below, we see Walker leaping but ultimately coming up just a second man bun short of clearing the ball away. Maher has now managed to get his arm out in front of Brown as he aggressively attempts to position himself between the ball and Brown. In front of Brown, Sapong is caught flat-footed likely believing that Zimmerman was going to get a head to it.
Javain Brown’s outstretched leg finds the end of Gauld’s free kick and sends the ball careening toward Joe Willis’ net. The shot requires Willis to get his hands up quickly, but the ball whizzed past him for the Whitecaps’ equalizer before Willis could reach it. Ideally, Willis comes up with the save here. But until I can compare the reaction time of Willis versus the average MLS keeper down to the millisecond, I have a hard time assigning that much blame to him.
In total, it is a lot of little things going wrong for Nashville that led to yet another set-piece goal conceded.
Shaq Moore’s opening night
Overall, Shaq Moore’s first match with Nashville went about as expected. He flashed moments of class, but still has work to do in understanding where he needs to be positioned within Nashville’s defensive shape.
I picked out some of the moments throughout his 63 minutes that stood out to me, both good and bad.
Moore’s first notable involvement came in the 4th minute. Moore intercepted Vancouver’s counter, joined in on Nashville’s attacking sequence, and delivered a dangerous ball right at the 6-yard box in front of the net. From the jump, Moore demonstrated his two-way ability.
A minute later, Moore unleashed a blistering shot from the top of the box. Based on the camera angle, it appears the shot would have traveled just wide of the net. But driven shots like this can quickly create havoc with just one deflection.
Later in the first half, Moore left Walker Zimmerman visibly frustrated as Moore failed to fill in the space Zimmerman vacated to mark a Vancouver runner. The sequence allowed Ryan Raposo an unimpeded shot. This is an example of the growing pains to be expected of any defender inserted into the lineup with only one week of training.
It was also apparent at this point that Moore was starting to tire out. After all, this was his first match in nearly six weeks.
Here, Moore needs to do better to shut off things from the inside to force Vancouver out wide, especially on the shot attempt. It is a bit nit-picky, but I wanted to highlight both the good and the bad.
Here, Moore rides the challenge and picks out Sapong. The pass is a touch high, but Nashville retain possession. One of the things that I really like about Moore is that he’s another player in possession constantly looking to make line-breaking passes. We will see another example of that in a minute.
Next is one of my favorite sequences of the night. Moore brings down the ball, makes an attacking run, and delivers a pin-point diagonal ball into Hany Mukhtar’s feet. It really highlights the level of skill Moore is bringing to Nashville.
The last clip provides a perfect example of Moore’s vision. Despite just a week of training with the club, Moore spots Mukhtar’s run and attempts to play a killer ball over the top of Vancouver’s defense. The pass sails just a little too far, but the idea is commendable. Balls like that to Mukhtar will eventually lead to a goal.
Overall, I remain just as impressed with Shaq Moore as I have been watching him play for the U.S. Men’s National Team and CD Tenerife. He is going to be a big upgrade at right back for Nashville, even if it takes a bit of time for him to gel with the rest of Nashville’s defense.
Shout out to @stacheVille for making me audibly chuckle in the car on the way to Nashville on Saturday. An over 2-hour delay due to a semi-truck accident on Interstate 40 put a damper on our pre-match plans. Little did I know that @stacheVille’s joke was also a premonition of things to come.