On Saturday, Nashville SC earned a hard-fought 0-0 draw against the New York Red Bulls. Nashville’s defense put on another strong performance, allowing only a couple of genuine looks at the net.
Here are my three thoughts on the match.
The boys drank their coffee
Nashville took their coffee like their kits, black. The Boys in
Gold Black seemingly came caffeinated, via the superior form of energy drink, and ready to battle one-on-one with the Red Bulls.
New York always presents a unique challenge. Their brand of soccer is physical, frenetic, relentless, and quite a bit different than a typical opponent. To earn a result against an energy-drink soccer philosophy side requires 90 minutes of laser-sharp focus as the best scoring opportunities come in a flash.
On Saturday night, Nashville was up for the challenge. It may not have been the prettiest soccer, but I doubt Gary Smith minds too much. It is a results-oriented business, and his team secured the away point.
For the second week in a row, Nashville’s defense strangled the opposition’s attack permitting only a pair of legitimate scoring chances. The Red Bulls’ 0.6 expected goals (xG) was their third lowest in a home match since 2020.
I understand why some supporters might be frustrated by the lack of attacking cohesion. The Coyotes failed to register a single shot on goal. However, it’s important to keep in mind the personnel and philosophies of the Nashville SC squad when evaluating their performance. This team has never been one to build out of the back in the face of a sustained high press. It is simply not the way this team operates.
That being said, on a different night, Nashville may have been able to secure all three points. Alex Muyl scored a goal that was disallowed due to an offsides call. The “Manhattan Messi”, returning home to play in front of friends and family, strayed just barely beyond the last defender. It was an unlucky break for Nashville.
The team also lobbied for two potential penalties, one for a trip and one for a push on Walker Zimmerman in the box. While Gary Smith believed the latter should have been awarded, there, personally, was not much in it for me. Zimmerman may have had more of a case for the earlier trip, but without a clear replay from the right angle, it is hard to say for certain.
Nashville certainly caught its own luck in penalty decisions on the night. The Video Assistant Referee took a long look at a possible penalty from a Dax McCarty foul in the box. That call broke Nashville’s way keeping the score deadlocked. Both teams will have left feeling equally undone by VAR.
Jack Maher’s night
In a scoreless draw, it can sometimes be difficult to find standout performers. Upon a second viewing, I made a point to keep my eyes focused on Jack Maher.
Maher has stepped into the shoes of Dave Romney, who departed in the offseason, as the left-sided partner for Walker Zimmerman. Maher’s performances in the last two seasons have earned him a larger role with the team, and it’s important to monitor how well he can fill Romney’s shoes.
Romney was a quiet but effective player, often handling defensive duties calmly and efficiently without drawing too much attention to himself. You did not always notice him on first viewing, but sometimes the best center-back play is dispatching danger before it can spark into a fire. After two matches as Nashville’s starter, Maher has demonstrated that he can seamlessly slide into that defensive role. He has provided a calm and composed presence in the back, much like Romney did.
It is not an easy assignment to partner with Zimmerman, who is a unique player with a high-energy approach to the position.
I do not recall who made this observation about Zimmerman and Romney (someone please let me know so I can give proper credit), but he approaches his job like a tennis ball-loving golden retriever. A ball high in the air, he is there to snatch it away with a header. A ball played to the feet of an attacker in between the lines, he is there chasing their heels looking to knock it away. It is a high-energy approach to the center-back role that has turned Zimmerman into the most impactful center back in MLS.
A great partnership requires balance. Any partner of Zimmerman needs to play a calm, reserved role ready to swiftly deal with any danger that slips in behind. In other words, they need to be the cat to Zimmerman’s dog.
After two matches, Maher has performed excellently. While it has not been perfect (more on that in a minute), he has been instrumental in helping Nashville start the season with two consecutive clean sheets.
In Saturday’s match, Maher led the team in clearances (6), interceptions (3), and progressive passes (4). Overall, Maher’s performance was quiet but efficient, which is exactly what the team needs from him in this role.
In addition to those statistics, Maher also led the team in aerial duels won (5/6) (83.3%). It is a key figure against the Red Bulls as they look to fashion chances out of knocking down and winning secondary balls.
Maher was excellent for Nashville, but it was not a perfect performance. The Red Bulls’ best chance of the night started with a sequence where Maher was caught between two minds.
As Elias Manoel receives the ball, Maher finds himself in no man’s land. He does not close down Manoel to cut off the through ball, nor does he fall back and help Zimmerman deal with the runners.
Lewis Morgan immediately recognized and attacked the space vacated by Maher. The centering pass fell behind Tom Barlow and ricocheted into the path of John Tolkin for a shot on goal. It was the Red Bulls’ best look of the night.
That one moment aside, Maher played a fantastic match. He was calm under pressure and handled everything that came his way.
Willis picked up where he left off
Joe Willis picked up where he left off at the end of 2022. In the final regular-season match last season, Willis stood on his head and shut out LAFC – winners of a domestic double. Willis has kicked off his campaign this year with a pair of clean sheets. It makes three-straight regular-season shutouts for Nashville and Willis.
A week ago against NYCFC, Willis enjoyed a quiet night. The defense ahead of him prevented the visitors from troubling their goalkeeper. Against the Red Bulls, Willis put in the work for his Man-of-the-Match honors.
His biggest save of the night came early, in the 12th minute, as he scrambled across his net to deny John Tolkin’s attempt.
I’ll be honest. When the ball left Tolkin’s foot, I thought New York had scored. I am willing to bet most Nashville supporters did as well. Willis popped out of nowhere to keep the score level. It was a wonderful piece of work to quickly reposition himself and stop the shot.
In the second half, Willis again came up big for Nashville. His kick save of Manoel’s low, driven shot denied New York a goal. As long as Willis continues to clean up these types of chances, Nashville will be incredibly difficult to beat.
Like Maher, it was not a perfect performance from Willis. A bumbled touch outside of his box could have led to a worse outcome than it did. Against an opponent like New York, that ball needed to be immediately launched long and far, far away. The energy drink soccer system thrives on goalkeepers and defenders, not as adept on the ball, taking one-to-many touches.
Other than the loose touch, Willis came in clutch for Nashville SC and played his part in securing the road draw.
I promise. The bonus thought is not going to turn into a tifo review section this season. However, I thought the Sopranos-themed display from the South Ward was excellent. It may not have been created as any sort of response to The Backline’s “Man in Black” tifo from a week ago, but the parallels were remarkable. Whereas Nashville’s man in black is a country singer, New Jersey’s men in black are a group of mobsters ready to whack and bury its next opponent.