Ivey’s Three Thoughts: Nashville SC’s draw down in Austin

Just two weeks after smoking Austin at home, Nashville met The Verde and Black again. The Boys in Gold picked up a road point that may eventually be the deciding edge in the race for a home playoff match. 

Here are my three thoughts on the match:

Locking down Austin’s attack in the run of play

Over two matches in two weeks, Nashville’s defense stifled a potent Austin attack – both at home and on the road. 

Austin averages two goals per game. In 180 minutes against Nashville, Los Verdes managed just a single score. Sure, it’s a small sample size. But it is not as if Austin were particularly unlucky having created loads of chances with nothing to show for it. In two games, Josh Wolff’s side produced only 1.6 xG. The majority of this production came from set pieces.

Austin fired off only nine shots from open play over the course of the home-and-home series.

Those nine shots from the run of play generated only 0.48 xG, with a third of that total coming from Moussa Djitté’s late effort at the edge of the box on a Sean Davis giveaway. Djitté’s hattrick heroics from Wednesday aside, I will gladly allow him to be the recipient of Austin’s best scoring opportunity.

In two games, Austin collected just one genuine half chance, not from set pieces. Simply incredible work from Nashville’s defense to limit mistakes and keep Austin away from dangerous areas. If these two sides meet again in the playoffs, Nashville will enter with loads of confidence that it can limit Austin’s attack.

A set-piece lapse again haunts Nashville

Nashville’s open-play defense is elite. The set-piece defending…not so much. Austin’s lone goal and most dangerous opportunities came directly off Verde set pieces.

We will start with the Sebastián Driussi goal. 

Austin begins its set-piece routine with four men clustered around the penalty spot. The runners overloaded the central two, Jack Maher and Dave Romney, of Nashville’s zonal defenders. Moussa Djitté is given a free run and forces Daniel Lovitz to abandon the back post and put a body on Djitté. Lovitz accomplishes that goal and forces the header wide, but it leaves Driussi unmarked on the far side as the ball lands at his feet.

My only answer here is that Nashville needs to mirror and match the opponent’s setup. If there is no one immediately threatening either Dax McCarty or C.J. Sapong for a near-post flick-on, then the zonal five defenders need to shift slightly further back before the corner is taken. It would put Romney in a position to deal with Djitté leaving Lovitz on the back post to handle Driussi.

As we saw earlier in the match, Lovitz protecting the back post can make all the difference. 

In my view, there was not much Nashville could do differently to prevent the shot on goal. Shaq Moore fills his role by getting a body on Jhohan Romaña to the point that Romaña’s momentum is taking him away from goal. Maher is too far away to get a head on the ball so he joins in on the shoving match as well. Maybe Sapong needs to ensure that he gets a head to the ball. Honestly, it was just a hell of a corner kick dropped into a dangerous area. The whipped-in ball provided Romaña all the power, he just needed to redirect it toward the net. 

Los Verdes’ best opportunities to score two weeks ago in Nashville also came via set pieces. 

It’s the recurring theme of Nashville’s season. When the Coyotes limit set-piece opportunities, they can be incredibly tough to score on. But too often, stellar run-of-play defense is unraveled by conceding goals from corners and free kicks.

Mukhtar cements the MVP award

After Hany Mukhtar’s masterful two-goal performance in Nashville on September 3rd, Driussi needed a narrative-shifting night to recapture the pole position in the MVP race. Driussi found the back of the net with a 61st-minute equalizer. However, it came after Mukhtar had already initiated a one-man counterattack and penalty finish to give Nashville the initial lead.

Driussi’s goal was too little, too late. Both the teams and the MVP candidates played to a draw as Austin was unable to knock Mukhtar off his lofty pedestal.

Mukhtar’s performance all but cements him as the winner of the 2022 Landon Donovan MVP Award. 

He will become the first Nashville athlete, in any sport, to capture an outright MVP award in a major sport. Former Titans quarterback Steve McNair earned an MVP award in 2003, but he shared the honors with Peyton Manning.  

It is a big deal for not only Mukhtar but Nashville soccer, Nashville sports, in general. A Lyft ride this weekend in Austin provided me with some perspective on how an MVP race can generate in-market relevancy. My Lyft driver admitted that he knew nothing about soccer, but he was aware that Austin FC had a player chasing an MVP award and expressed interest in checking out Q2 Stadium for himself. 

Mukhtar will provide a similar lift in the Nashville market. When Mukhtar is eventually awarded the MVP award, it will feature prominently in the sports sections of the area’s print and television media. Those stories keep NSC relevant in-market and may entice newcomers to GEODIS Park.

Bonus thought

There is a difference between seeing out a game and parking the bus. 

I heard plenty of groans from the Nashville faithful when Eric Miller entered the match in the 86th minute. Miller’s inclusion pushed Nashville into a five-defender formation to see out the remainder of the match. To some, it was a sign of Gary Smith parking the bus in the final minutes. However, watching from Q2 Stadium, I didn’t see it that way. 

Last week, I was critical of Gary Smith’s decision to try and milk out a win against the Galaxy with a 5-4-1 formation, and it may sound hypocritical. But I see a fundamental difference between the approach Smith took against the Galaxy and how he adjusted late against Austin. 

At home against LA, Nashville left Hany Mukhtar alone up top expecting him to shoulder the load as a safety valve and target forward. Nashville’s defensive lines became too compressed and the team could no longer build and retain possession. 

Against Austin, Smith simply shifted to the 5-3-2 formation that served as Nashville’s base setup for nearly a year. Yes, Nashville took off an attacker and brought on a defender, but it did not sacrifice its ability still generate dangerous opportunities. The Coyotes had the far more threatening sequences in those final minutes in Texas.

Author: Chris Iveyis a senior writer covering Nashville SC. His work includes his "Three Thoughts" piece after every Nashville match that highlights the important storylines and incorporates key video clips from the match. Chris' other articles often navigate the complexity of roster building around the myriad of MLS roster rules. Outside of Broadway Sports Media, Chris resides in Knoxville and is a licensed attorney serving as in-house counsel for a large insurance company. Beyond NSC, he is always willing to discuss Tennessee football and basketball, Manchester United, Coventry City, and USMNT.

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