Ivey’s Three Thoughts: Nashville SC’s loss to Toronto

On Saturday night, Nashville SC dropped all three points as the Coyotes were outclassed by the likes of an immensely talented Toronto attack. For neutrals, I am sure it was an immensely entertaining affair worthy of the #MLSAfterDark hashtag.

Here are my three thoughts on the match:

Conceding goals through the run of play

In their short MLS history, Nashville have earned a reputation as a defensively stout side that made life difficult for the opposition. That trademark trait was staggeringly absent Saturday night. 

Recently, the defense in the run of play has been stout, but set-piece defending routinely failed the Boys in Gold. Prior to Saturday’s meeting with Toronto, the last three goals conceded by Nashville had all come from set-piece situations. It created a false sense of hope that if they straightened out the set-piece woes, the defense would begin pitching shutouts again. After Toronto carved Nashville apart on the way to a four-goal match, you have to wonder if that hope was a mirage.

Now, Toronto’s four goals certainly outpaced the Red’s 1.9 Expected Goals. But the Reds are a talented side that can make teams pay dearly for giving an extra foot of space. 

It started with Jonathan Osorio’s first goal on the night. The Canadian national teamer chopped Dax McCarty at the top of the box while Walker Zimmerman sat back. It gave Osorio all the room he needed to fire off a shot that easily found the bottom corner of Joe Willis’ net.

Toronto and Osario’s second goal resulted from brilliant play from the visitors in overloading Nashville’s backline.

As the ball is played to Richie Laryea on the right wing, it drags Dave Romney away from the center of Nashville’s defensive structure. Toronto then overloads Walker Zimmerman with three different runners; Lorenzo Insigne, Jonathan Osorio (red arrow), and Jesús Jiménez. Zimmerman cannot possibly deal with all three.

Judging by his reaction as the ball was played in, I don’t think he was aware of the position taken by Osorio as he stepped toward Jiménez. If he goes toward the ball, he likely doesn’t reach it anyway. It was a wonderfully threaded pass from Laryea.

With Zimmerman occupied, Shaq Moore must close in to assist. He’s accomplishing nothing by hanging out in that space. There’s no hidden attacker just off-screen for him to mark. For the vast majority of the match, I thought Moore was tremendous and you certainly must give Toronto their kudos for a brilliant team goal. But Nashville needed to have recognized the danger posed by Osorio.

While scored from the penalty spot, Toronto’s third goal was born from Richie Laryea’s run at Daniel Lovitz in the box. Touches generated from the run of play that deep in the box faced up to goal can cause a load of issues. Laryea terrorized Nashville’s defense all night and was awarded for his stellar play.

The final goal, Lorenzo Insigne’s curler from distance, was a worldie. But it demonstrates the danger of failing to close down an elite attacker. It highlights the changing nature of MLS – even in just the few years since Nashville’s arrival to the league. In just the last few months, the league has added the likes of Gareth Bale, Lorenzo Insigne, Ricard Puig, Federico Bernardeschi, Cucho Hernández, and Xherdan Shaqiri.

The league is fundamentally changing before our eyes. MLS has a long history of pulling established stars from Europe. But the incoming crop is getting younger and younger with each passing season. They are arriving still in their prime rather than on their last legs. The tactics and positioning of yesteryear may no longer be effective against a rapidly improving league. 

Nashville’s defense has not looked nearly the same this season. On a per-match basis, the Coyotes have conceded more goals and more Expected Goals than either of the club’s first two seasons.  

Goals AgainstxG Against
20221.361.14
20210.911.04
20200.961.09

A variety of factors play into that. One of them may just be bad luck given the delta between the goals conceded and the expected tally. Whether luck or something else plaguing Nashville, a reversal of fortunes is needed as the Coyotes head down the stretch run.

Everything to play for despite a rising temperature

The flame underneath Gary Smith’s coaching seat was already warming. The calls for “GARY OUT” have grown considerably more frequent across the concourses of GEODIS Park and social media platforms. Another home loss added fresh fuel to the fire.

Nashville’s home record is absolutely abysmal. It may sound blunt. But there is no room for mincing words when the club is just 3-3-5. At 1.27 points per home game, Nashville’s record is the third worst in the league only eclipsing bottom dwellers D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City. 

GEODIS Park, once dubbed the “Castle”, looks made of sand. Its walls are easily breached by things like tides, small children, and soccer balls kicked by non-playoff teams. 

And yet, Nashville still have everything to play for. A home playoff match still remains in reach as the Boys in Gold sit just three points off third place Real Salt Lake and have the most remaining home matches of any Western Conference team. 

After the match, Gary Smith defended his comments from a week ago stating, “If we’re above the (playoff) line at the end of this season, it will be the biggest achievement of this group since I’ve been here.” 

I compared Smith’s comments to the press conferences of Butch Jones for a good reason. The former University of Tennessee football coach was memorably questioned for a set of press conference remarks that seemingly excused away elimination from an SEC East title by declaring his players as “Champions of Life.”

It was a tone-deaf comment that did not match the fanbase frustrations, but more importantly ignored the forest for the trees. A trip to the SEC Championship was no longer in the cards for the Vols that season. But selection into a highly coveted New Year’s Six bowl game was still in the cards which would have been a big step up for a program that had seen it reach its lowest ebb in school history. Jones’ press conference was a chance to express his disappointment along with the fans while also focusing on a new goal that would have still been a positive step for the program. Instead, his comments felt like a capitulation.

Smith’s comments felt and continue to feel the same. Now is not the time for declarations that making the playoffs would constitute a historic achievement. Everything is out in front of the Boys in Gold, including a home playoff game. 

Supporters, on a whole, can be understanding of changed circumstances that may affect the trajectory of the season. The move to the Western Conference creates extended travel and awkward time zone changes, an early season glut of away matches makes a scorching Nashville summer more difficult to manage, and a rash of midfield absences disrupts continuity. 

But no matter the circumstances, qualifying for the playoffs must remain the expectation. In MLS, 50% of teams make the postseason. A single point above average gets you in. Even with travel, injuries, and adjusting to a new field, reaching the playoffs is the minimum goal each year. Pre-season comments from across the club echoed that this season would bring unique challenges but that the target was to build on last year’s success. 

A top-two finish in the Western Conference is no longer reachable. That’s okay. A third or fourth place finish would still, on an overall basis, reflect an excellent regular season. Even making the playoffs as the seventh seed is acceptable. It is a whacky league and anything can happen once you make the postseason. Smith knows that better than anyone from his 2010 MLS Cup title run. 

With nine matches remaining, everything is out ahead of the Coyotes. Even if the seat has gotten a little hotter.

Make-up calls balance out the week 

Saturday night is a reminder that, over time, the favorable and unfavorable calls tend to balance themselves out. 

Wednesday night in Portland, Nashville found themselves on the unlucky end of a pair of penalty shouts that went the Timbers’ way. Against Toronto, the soccer gods restored the karmic balance. Nashville received the benefit of two incredibly close calls that were ruled in the Coyotes’ favor on the field. When the standard of review for reversal via Video Assistant Referee is “indisputable video evidence”, the on-field decision determines whether a 50/50 call goes your way.

The first decision that went Nashville’s way was the penalty call for Aljaz Ivacic clipping C.J. Sapong in the box. Sapong’s attempted chip over Ivacic trickled wide of the net, but the referee signaled to the spot as Ivacic appeared to catch a trailing leg of Sapong. If the official does not immediately point to the spot, the video evidence may not have been sufficient to reverse the call. Sapong’s shot is always heading wide of goal. Moreso, I am still not convinced that Sapong doesn’t extend his left leg looking to draw the foul. It is a heady, veteran move. But Nashville still caught the break of a 50/50 decision on the field.

The second call that went the Coyotes’ way was the onside/offside decision on the Teal Bunbury goal. Below, is a screenshot as the ball came off Dave Romney’s head. I am going to be honest. I think Bunbury is offside. If the linesman flags Bunbury, I have yet to see the video evidence necessary to definitively reverse that call. 

We’ll chalk up both Sapong’s penalty and Bunbury’s goal to a karmic make-up call. Over the course of a 34-game season, calls will go against you and for you. But they tend to balance out over time.

Bonus thought

Hany Mukhtar found a new way to show himself as the best player in MLS.

Although, I am not quite sure that I want to keep seeing Mukhtar in the free central attacking midfield role. Other than the penalty kick, Mukhtar finished with just one shot attempt. It might sound ridiculous on a night when Nashville scored three goals, but Nashville is still dependent on Mukhtar’s scoring.

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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