Nashville SC played Atlanta United to a 2-2 draw Saturday evening after a lengthy lightning delay. It is a bitterly disappointing result for Nashville. The Coyotes held a one-goal lead for a large portion of the match only to concede an 88th-minute equalizer.
Here are my three thoughts.
The game of inches sinks Nashville
Soccer, like most sports, is a game of inches. That is true of the first minute all the way through second-half stoppage time.
Physical attributes like sprint speed certainly make the difference in the game of inches. But more often than not, the advantage comes down to mental speed. Who is switched on? Who recognizes the space first? Who reads the next move on the proverbial chessboard? That mental edge creates that half-yard of space that makes all the difference.
After a nearly three-hour weather delay and 87 minutes in the books, tired minds have a tendency of dropping that mental edge. For Nashville, it proved deadly.
Watch the video of Atlanta’s second goal. The first few times, watch Daniel Lovitz. He fails to recognize Brooks Lennon’s run and was slow to react to the danger. Then shift your focus to Jack Maher as he marks Dom Dwyer. As Thiago Almada pings the ball to Lennon, Dwyer immediately plants his outside foot, flips his hips, and starts his run to the 6-yard box. The veteran reacts instantaneously. Maher is a step slow.
Soccer is a game of inches. Late in the match and trailing a goal, Atlanta United found that extra half-step by being mentally switched on to recognize space.
Three times is a pattern for Joe Willis
Once is a chance. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a pattern. It is now three straight matches with a Joe Willis error leading to a goal.
Nashville officially has a goalkeeping problem on its hands. The gravity of the problem remains to be seen. Let’s call it moving to Defcon 4. A change between the posts is not imminent, but Mike Jacobs and Gary Smith need to be on alert.
What makes Willis’ errors even more troubling is that they have come in all different aspects of a goalkeeper’s job. Against Houston, Willis stuck too close to his line and failed to sweep away a dangerous ball. At home facing Montréal, Willis bungled a collectible cross pushing it right into Kei Kamara. Now, a poor passing decision gifted Atlanta United an easy goal. Sweeping, Claiming, Passing. Three different phases of the game for a goalkeeper and three types of errors from Willis.
Beyond the errors, Willis has failed to impress in key analytic measures. According to American Soccer Analysis, Willis has posted a per 96 minutes Goals Added (g+) figure of -0.08 this season.. It ranks 17th among 26 qualifying goalkeepers.
While his shot-stopping has yet to produce any blatantly obvious errors, the underlying numbers suggest that Willis has conceded more than he should.
In the age of Expected Goals (xG), one of the best measures of a goalkeeper’s shot-stopping capability is Post-Shot xG Minus Goals Allowed (PSxG +/-). There are a few components here. First, it measures the Post-Shot xG of all shots a goalkeeper faced after it leaves the attacker’s foot. This considers the pace, trajectory, distance, and a host of other factors to determine the average likelihood of the shot reaching the back of the net. Once that number is established, it is then subtracted by the number of goals actually conceded by the keeper. A positive PSxG +/- figure indicates that the goalkeeper is stopping a higher number of shots than what would be expected. A negative number implies that the keeper is conceding goals worse than expected.
Based on StatsBomb’s calculations, Joe Willis’ 2022 PSxG +/- is currently -1.8. The numbers suggest Willis has conceded 1.8 goals more than expected based purely on shot-stopping.On a per 90 minutes basis, Willis ranks 22nd of 29 keepers.
Where does Nashville SC go from here?
Right now, nowhere. Willis is going to be given every opportunity to work through this spell of mistakes.
Behind Willis is Bryan Meredith. The veteran goalkeeper has been around MLS since 2012. But he has never been a first-choice keeper, having not logged more than 1,000 minutes in a single season. Moreover, he has not seen game action since the 2020 season while with the Vancouver Whitecaps. Meredith is not a threat to take over the goalkeeping gig any time soon.
If the Willis errors continue, Nashville could consider recalling Elliott Panicco from loan. Nashville drafted Panicco in the first round of the 2020 MLS Super Draft after the team had selected Jack Maher and Alistair Johnston. In 2021 while on loan with Austin Bold, Panicco finished with the second-most clean sheets in the USL Championship. This season, Panicco is on loan with Indy Eleven where he has posted a Goals Added (g+) tally of + 1.36 (8th best).
If Willis’ woes continue, Nashville could always look outside its complex for competition. However, the mid-season MLS trade market will be thin, and a foreign signing would likely throw a wrench in Mike Jacob’s summer plans to address other spots on the roster. The ideal scenario is to do everything possible to get Willis feeling confident and back on track.
Juice added to a budding rivalry
As much as MLS headquarters loves to shoehorn rivalries, they take time and organic history to develop. After two thrilling matches in just a week and a half’s time, there has been some real added history to a budding Nashville-Atlanta rivalry.
Less than two weeks ago, it was Nashville scoring a come-from-behind win in extra time over the Five Stripes in the U.S. Open Cup. This week, Atlanta spoiled the after-hours party with a late equalizer.
Beyond late goals, these matches had that extra flavor of memorability. Two-goal comebacks and three-hour rain delays are the types of spice that help these matches stick around in the collective psyche of both fanbases.
It lacks the on-field animosity between the players of Nashville’s matchups with Orlando City and NYCFC or the organic history with FC Cincinnati for it to truly have arrived. But it is no doubt growing. The rivalry still feels more like one forced by media and geography, but it is starting to rise among the fans.
Speaking of rivalries, Nashville have a quick turnaround with a U.S. Open Cup tie away to USL-Championship side Louisville City on Wednesday.
It is a familiar foe to Taylor Washington, the coaching staff, and long-time Nashville SC supporters. For those newer to the Nashville SC party, Louisville consistently ranks as one of the best-run clubs in the lower league and will surely relish the opportunity to knock off an MLS club.