Ivey’s Three Thoughts: Nashville SC’s draw against Portland

Nashville SC dropped points at GEODIS Park yet again, this time in an especially disappointing fashion. The Coyotes found themselves up two goals before an Elliot Panicco goalkeeping error gave life to the Timbers as they quickly evened up the score in a devastating five-minute sequence for Nashville.

Here are my three thoughts on the match.

Zero sense of urgency  

The most disappointing takeaway from Sunday’s loss was the lack of urgency displayed throughout the club after Portland tied the match. In the 25 minutes after Niezgoda equalized, not once did I get the feeling that Nashville was a club in desperate search of a go-ahead goal.

Gary Smith set the tone with his first round of substitutions that removed an attacker, Luke Haakenson, in favor of an extra defender, Jack Maher. From a tactical perspective, it made at least some sense at the time. Portland controlled the midfield early in the second half and Smith must have been concerned about conceding a third goal to the Timbers.

But for all of Portland’s possession in the first twenty minutes of the second half, they created virtually no chances outside the two goals – one of which resulted from an Elliot Panicco error rather than any sort of tactical superiority from Giovanni Savarese’s men. 

The Haakenson-Maher switch signaled to supporters a manager and a club looking to preserve a draw rather than one fighting tooth-and-nail for a win. Beyond the substitution choices, the on-field energy level never matched the moment.

Part of the lack of urgency may be explained away as tired legs following a midweek match in Orlando that went to penalty kicks. But several of Nashville’s featured players in the second half against Portland played limited minutes in Florida, including Aké Loba (47 minutes) and Teal Bunbury (0 minutes). When Nashville needed more pressing intensity from the front two, it was never found. 

It was a disappointing performance for all as one point earned in home matches is becoming very much the norm.

Violating the Hippocratic oath of goalkeeping

For what feels like the umpteenth time this season, a Nashville goalkeeper gave away a goal by violating the Hippocratic oath of goalkeeping – first, do no harm. 

Before the medical professionals rush to the comment section or my Twitter mentions, let us make one point clear. Yes, I know the phrase does not actually appear in the translated text of the Hippocratic oath and I know of the waning relevancy of the oath itself. But the goalkeeper Hippocratic oath remains alive and well. 

Elliot Panicco violated the oath – twice. 

First, Panicco violated the goalkeepers’ oath to do no harm with the initial giveaway. I am not quite sure if Panicco failed to see Jaroslaw Niezgoda or just thought he could squeeze the pass past the Timbers’ forward. Either way, Nashville’s young goalkeeper gifted Portland the ball in a dangerous position instead of choosing a safer option. But things went from bad to worse after the giveaway.

Panicco violated the goalkeepers’ oath a second time, compounding his initial mistake, as he brought down Niezgoda in the box for a penalty. Panicco lunged late and caught Niezgoda’s foot. Panicco’s diving lunge was entirely unneeded. Niezgoda’s momentum is taking him away from the goal and is serving only to cut down his angle for a shot. If Panicco shuffles his feet as Niezgoda attempts to round him, he creates a much more difficult shot attempt than the eventual penalty.

First, do no harm. If Panicco lives by that oath, we may be discussing a very different match.

Panicco’s mistake turned the match upside down. As Gary Smith remarked in his post-match comments with Tony Husband and Jamie Watson, the goal was “a gift” and “breathed life into [Portland].”

After a week where Nashville gave Elliot Panicco every opportunity to win the starting goalkeeping job, the mistake must be a tough pill to swallow. Outside of a singular error in both matches last week, Panicco looked excellent. He deserves plaudits for his 40th-minute save. The post-shot expected goal percentage was 88%. It was an elite-level save from the 25-year-old keeper. 

Fair or not, one mistake can spoil an entire goalkeeping performance. That is why the Hippocratic oath of goalkeeping is vitally important.

How much would you pay for an open DP slot?

If you were the owner of Nashville SC, how much would you pay to open up a Designated Player (DP) slot? That is the multimillion-dollar question surely buzzing through John Ingram’s head right now. 

A year into the Aké Loba experiment, Gary Smith is no closer to inserting the Ivorian forward into his first-choice XI. While Loba has failed to supplant C.J. Sapong as the Coyote’s starting striker, there has been some belief that a change in formation could be key to finding Loba a spot at the top of the team sheet. But Sunday night proved that to also not be the case. Smith dropped a defender in favor of an extra attacker, but Luke Haakenson received the benefit of that switch. Loba remained on the bench. 

In some respects, it should not be at all surprising that a formation shift did not create a spot for Loba. While Smith will tinker with his attacking tactics at times, he remains uber consistent with his defensive setups. Nashville’s defensive structure almost entirely consists of a 4-4-2 or a 5-3-2 shape. Within that defensive shape, to my recollection, we have never seen Loba operate on anything other than the two-forward line.

Hany Mukhtar has occasionally dropped back into the second line to facilitate Loba’s inclusion, but it is not ideal as it removes Mukhtar further from counterattacking opportunities. The point is that barring a titanic shift by Smith to a 4-3-3 type defensive structure, there is simply no amount of tactical changes that will manufacture a starting role for Loba within this team. 

On Sunday, Loba again came off the bench for Nashville but he failed to impress in twenty-five minutes of action. The opportunity was there for Loba to make his mark as Nashville had just relinquished its lead and desperately needed a goal to avoid yet another home draw. But Loba never created a moment of magic to end the deadlock. I remain convinced that there is a well of talent in Loba that has yet to be tapped in Tennessee. But I am just as much convinced that the breakthrough will never come. 

It brings us back to the original question. If you are John Ingram, how much money are you willing to spend to recover a DP slot? It is the most valuable roster mechanism in MLS and cannot continue to be wasted on a player who doesn’t seem close to the manager’s preferred starting XI.

The $7 million-dollar price tag paid a year ago for Loba should be ignored. It is a sunk cost. It will be far more detrimental in the long run for the club to lock up its third DP slot than take a hit now and find a move for Loba. 

Bonus thought

It’s sad but true.

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