Nashville traveled to Portland and picked up a 1-1 draw. It was a vitally important result as the Coyotes maintained their one-point advantage over the Timbers in the MLS Playoffs race.
Here are my three thoughts on the match:
It’s past my bedtime
The headline says it all. It is way, way, way, past my bedtime.
Perhaps the worst part about Nashville being moved to the Western Conference this season is a midweek night game in the Pacific Time zone. It is one of those moments where MLS schedule makers sit back and just laugh at the notion of building viewership.
It is especially cruel for those of us in the Eastern division of Tennessee. With a 10:30pm ET / 9:30pm CT kickoff, I cannot fault any casual supporter for not tuning in. I am old man. I am usually heading to bed by the time this match started. But I am also a degenerate soccer fan, so here I am on a Wednesday night / Thursday moning writing about a Nashville draw.
Hopefully, these nights will be a thing of the past in future seasons. St. Louis City joins MLS next season with Las Vegas heavily rumored to follow, both of which should allow Nashville to return to its more natural home in the Eastern Conference.
Beyond future expansion, next year’s introduction of Apple TV as the principal broadcast partner for MLS will also reduce the number of midweek match windows. I do not mind an occasional late kickoff if it falls on a Saturday night. Afterall, late night matches are much more enjoyable when you can knock back a few adult beverages without work the next morning.
Until then, we will just continue to suffer in the dead of night. Luckily, the match brought plenty of entertainment to keep everyone awake.
Entertainment in lieu of caffeine
The first half packed end-to-end action, a goal for each side, and plenty of big chances on either end.
Teal Bunbury opened up the scoring with a tidy finish off a secondary ball following a Nashville corner. Bunbury is on a heater and it could not have come at a better time for Nashville. WIth C.J. Sapong having not found the back of the net in a couple of months, the need for secondary scorers to shoulder some of the scoring load has been at the top of minds for supporters. As of right now, Bunbury is simply undroppable. Not something most would have thought possible earlier in the year.
Portland’s opening goal came from a Santiago Moreno volley in the middle of the box. It was another set-piece adjacent goal conceded by Nashville. Unlike most prior situations where I feel compelled to break down the goal frame by frame, you can chalk this one up to bad luck. The initial short ball stretched Nashville’s defenders out to the right flank leaving just Nashville’s last line in front of net. The 50/50 ball is dealt with well, but the ball fell straight to Moreno’s feet and he took care of business.
Nashville generated a few big opportunities late in the second half to recapture the lead. Bunbury had a memorable moment alone in front of the net, but Aljaz Ivacic smothered the shot. Bunbury may have been better served with a first-time shot or a chipped effort, but it is easy to [Thursday] morning quarterback those chances.
The first half chance that really had me buzzing was Hany Mukhtar’s effort at the edge of the box. It was not the shot itself, we are used to seeing Mukhtar drop dazzling efforts from distance, but the well-executed high press that generated the opportunity.
Nashville did well to cover up passing options and eventually swarm Larrys Mabiala when he found himself in a compromised position. The Coyotes hunted in a pack, picked Mabiala’s pocket, and then fed Mukhtar at the top of the box. I have said it a few other times this season. I love when Nashville pulls the high press out of their back pocket. It continues to generate dangerous chances. The hope is that we see more of it down the stretch with Nashville’s return to a more attacking lineup.
The second half brought the entertainment as well. The energy remained high, resulting in an up-and-down soccer match.
Controversy came in the 60th minute when Hany Mukhtar was issued a yellow card for simulation in the box. It was an unlucky call that went Portland’s way. The Timbers unquestionably bumped Mukhtar from behind and Mukhtar certainly attempted to make a meal of it. Penalties have been given for less contact. If a penalty had been the call on the filed, it would have assuredly been upheld by the Video Assistant Referee. Sometimes the breaks just do not go your way.
In the 73rd minute, Gary Smith made his first round of substitutions I was encouraged by the moves made. While Shaq Moore’s minutes still need to be managed, Smith opted to maintain the 4-2-3-1 formation rather than pull an attacker and switch to the back five. It was the opposite decision of what Smith made on the weekend against Vancouver, which drew criticism in my Three Thoughts after the match. After playing it safe and still conceding the equalizer, it was encouraging to see Nashville still seeking a go-ahead goal even on the road.
The 78th minute brought further entertainment….and rage. Who needs late-night coffee when you can make full-throated penalty shouts at your television screen? Alex Muyl’s shot in front of net was saved only to fall toward the feet of Teal Bunbury. But Nashville’s goalscorer was denied the opportunity to play the ball as he was arm tackled from behind by Dario Župarić. Can you blame Župarić? I am sure he was just excited for the return of the American football season as the first preseason game comes this evening.
With the Bunbury penalty shout not going Nashville’s way, it was pretty clear that a win was simply not in the cards for the boys in blue. Thanks to some late-match heroics from Joe Willis, Nashville maintained the draw. One point earned in Portland is not a poor result, and at least the match was not a snooze fest, even if our eyes grew weary from the late hour.
Attacking help on the way
On Tuesday, Nashville finalized a loan with purchase option for Toronto FC winger Jacob Shaffelburg. The move should help add some much needed attacking depth to the roster.
Shaffelburg, 22, is a versatile and pacey wide player that can play both as an advanced winger or as deep as a fullback. Think of a younger Taylor Washington with more skill in the final third. He also brings a touch of international experience having picked up three caps for the Canadian Men’s National Team, including two World Cup qualifiers.
While Shaffelburg can play in more defensive roles, his best play comes from operating as an attacking winger that can stretch opposing backlines.
According to American Soccer Analysis, Shaffelburg produced 0.26 goals added (g+) per 96 minutes in 2021. Among all qualifying MLS wingers, it was the 18th best mark in the league. This season, deployed in a more defensive role, his numbers have dropped to 0.10 g+ per 96 minutes.
Shaffelburg’s impressive numbers as a winger do not stop there. In 2021 among wingers with at least 1,000 minutes logged, he finished 12th in xG; 10th in xA; and 24th in Key Passes (all measured on a per 96 minutes basis). It is really quite baffling that Toronto would let him go. But when you sign a bunch of sexy Italian wingers in their prime, I guess there is no use for talented homegrowns.
Nashville’s hope is that by playing Shaffelburg in his much more natural position, he will continue his trajectory towards becoming an above-average MLS winger. And Nashville certainly could use the help. The club clearly needs to find an offensive spark.
The best part about the acquisition is that Shaffelburg is a relatively low-risk move. Nashville is acquiring the Canadian’s homegrown rights. This allows Nashville to pencil him into one of the Supplemental Roster slots. These roster slots do not count against a team’s salary budget.
Nashville could still stand to acquire another attacking option or two to help augment the roster. But I really believe the Shaffelburg trade will prove to be a shrewd piece of business from Mike Jacobs.
Well, I know what I will be humming all day long.