Ivey’s Three Thoughts: Nashville SC’s emphatic win in D.C.

Nashville SC righted the ship with a big away win at D.C. United on Saturday. While D.C. is by no means a juggernaut, winning matches on the road in MLS is never an easy task. The 3-1 scoreline was an emphatic win for the Coyotes on heels of a disappointing run of games. 

Here are my three thoughts on the match:

A quintessential Nashville performance

As far as wins go, this was a quintessential Nashville performance in a number of ways. 

First, despite mustering just 41.8% possession, it always felt as if the Coyotes were dominating the proceedings. If you take away D.C. United’s lone goal, the Black-and-Red managed only 0.35 xG – an absolutely paltry sum. Under Gary Smith’s defensively organized approach, Nashville can choke the life out of opposing offenses. They did so again against D.C. United.

Beyond how the game played out, it was a quintessential Nashville performance by delivering a bounce-back win following a rare loss. 

Lastly, Saturday provided a quintessential Hany Mukhtar performance. Nashville’s talisman bagged a brace. It was his eighth two-goal performance since joining the club. While a brace may be a seldom occurrence for most, Mukhtar has made a habit of scoring goals in bunches for the Boys in Gold.

Randall Leal was pulling strings in his return

Randall Leal returned to the starting lineup for the first time in 50 days following an ankle injury sustained against Real Salt Lake. There was zero evidence of rust in the Costa Rican’s game. Leal finished with one natural assist and a hockey-style secondary assist, which counted in the official MLS record books. 

Let’s discuss that secondary assist in the lead-up to Nashville’s second goal. 

Leal takes control of the ball and immediately finds himself in an Advanced Platform (AVP) beyond D.C.’s midfield and running straight at their disorganized backline. Leal’s driving run puts pressure on Brandon Hines-Ike to stop the run which creates space for a slipped-in ball to Dax McCarty. The real key to the entire action is the timing of Leal’s pass. Any earlier and Hines-Ike recovers to close down McCarty. Any later and Leal risks McCarty drifting offside or not having enough space between him and the goalkeeper to make the square-ball pass to Hany Mukhtar. 

Nashville’s third goal came from Leal immediately picking up where he left off in his chemistry with Hany Mukhtar. Leal’s pass splits two D.C. defenders and puts Mukhtar in a position to shoot at the top of the penalty box. Mukhtar benefitted from a fortunate deflection, but he never geths that opportunity without the interchanging play with Leal. 

Leal is still returning to full fitness, but it is abundantly clear how much he adds to Nashville’s attack. It has been his vital link between Nashville’s deep-lying midfielders and the forward duo up top that has been missing from the Coyote’s attack for the past month.

Data courtesy SofaScore

Leal’s absence led to inconsistent results. With his return to the starting XI, Nashville’s offense is clicking once again. 

Alex Muyl still looks lost in the defensive third

Alex Muyl has performed admirably to plug the hole created by the offseason Alistair Johnston trade. Muyl is a tireless runner that is never going to be beaten for lack of effort. But there is a lot more to operating as a last-ditch defender than just willingness to track back. It takes instincts and experience to recognize the danger as it develops and position oneself correctly. Saturday proved, yet again, that Muyl looks lost in Nashville’s defensive third. 

Let’s look at three examples from Nashville’s win against D.C. United and make a comparison with a much-discussed transfer target. 

In the 37th minute, Muyl cleared a cross beyond the goal line and conceded a corner despite having time and space to kick the ball out sideways for a throw – a less dangerous opportunity. The mistake left Walker Zimmerman visibly frustrated. 

Earlier, in the 8th minute, Muyl was caught flat-footed allowing Brad Smith to be played in over top. Muyl recovers and prevents a cross, but the sequence still earns D.C. United a set piece. Muyl is beaten because of poor positioning and a failure to recognize the most dangerous ball. It was like watching a high school level defensive back in football. Instead of mirroring and matching Smith’s run, Muyl committed the cardinal sin of squaring his hips to the ball. At that point, he was toast. Smith had a step on him and was in behind Nashville’s defense – TOUCHDOWN WASHINGTON COMMANDERS! Luckily though, Alex Muyl plays soccer rather than American football. He was able to make a recovery run to extinguish the immediate threat. But the larger point remains.  Muyl’s movement and positioning as a pinned-back defender leaves a lot to be desired and creates dangerous moments for the opposition. 

On D.C. United’s lone goal, they finally made Nashville pay for slow defensive diagnostics. Muyl failed to step to the danger created by Taxi Fountas’ position squarely in front of the goalmouth. To be completely fair, Muyl is not the only Nashville defender that failed to respond to the danger. Dax McCarty not picking Chris Durkin’s near-post run forced Jack Maher to step to Durkin which ultimately resulted in Fountas being left unmarked in the middle of the box. But Muyl needs to recognize it simultaneously with his defensive partner.

A lot of summer transfer talk has centered on USMNT right back Shaq Moore. He is a fullback by trade and possesses the years of experience that helps snuff out these types of dangerous opportunities. While Muyl has been a solid replacement for Johnston, a Shaq Moore signing would still provide a significant upgrade for Nashville’s defense. 

Bonus thought

FC Barcelona maintains the famous club motto “mes que un club” – translating to “more than a club.” The same motto can be said of the Nashville SC community this week. In the midst of an unimaginable tragedy, the entire club community made an effort to let one of their own know that they stood in support of him and his family. I hope the supporters, players, and club officials never lose sight that this club goes light-years beyond just a silly game of a soccer. 

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