Nashville SC escaped Banc of California Stadium with all three points on Decision Day. The hosts, LAFC, peppered Nashville’s net with chance after chance. Somehow, the Coyotes managed to keep a clean sheet and steal a win on the road. The win did not push Nashville any further up the table, but it should serve as a confidence boost heading into the playoffs where Nashville will find itself on the road.
Here are my three thoughts on the match:
Falling short of expectations
Nashville finished the regular season in fifth place in the Western Conference with 50 points. A year after a third-place Eastern Conference finish with 54 points, this season marked a slight step back for the Boys in Gold.
Based on the collective preseason predictions, failure to secure a home playoff match is a disappointment. The Speedway Soccer crew all forecasted a top-four finish for Nashville.
- Chris Ivey: 2nd in West
- Lucas Panzica: 2nd in West
- Davey Shepherd: 2nd in West
- Jonathan Slape: 2nd in West
- Andy Simmons: 4th in West
- Ben Wright: 2nd in West
The lofty expectations did not just come from those in Tennessee. The national media at MLSsoccer.com all predicted that the Boys in Gold would earn another home playoff game as well.
- Charles Boehm: 1st in West
- Tom Bogert: 2nd in West
- Matt Doyle: 2nd in West
- David Gass: 4th in West
- Sam Jones: 2nd in West
- Joe Lowery: 2nd in West
- Greg Seltzer: 3rd in West
- Andrew Wiebe: 2nd in West
The backward slide is uncharted territory for this club and its supporter base. Prior to 2022, Nashville SC had improved year-over-year with each season. Luckily for Nashville, the regular season is just one half of the equation. A deep run in the MLS Cup playoffs will make a disappointing regular season a distant memory.
Let’s be clear, the margins between meeting expectations and falling short were razor-thin. In a way, coming up just shy is emblematic of the season at large. When Nashville needed to secure points at home, too often they came up short.
A win last week against Houston would have been enough to finish third place. More poetically, Nashville would have swapped positions with the Galaxy had Nashville not conceded a stoppage-time penalty to LA in the September 10th meeting. That’s how thin the margin is. One goal separates the perception of success from failure.
Having failed to secure a home playoff match, Nashville’s path to MLS Cup has the Coyotes maintaining residence in Southern California. A trip to Carson awaits this weekend. If Nashville tops the Los Angeles Galaxy, a return to Banc of California Stadium will be on tap as Nashville faces LAFC for the second time in 14 days.
The back-and-forth travel to the West Coast is the price Nashville pays for dropped points earlier in the year. But if there is any club ready for the challenge, it is this one. Gary Smith’s men have been road warriors ever since entering MLS.
Nashville provides the blueprint, but the performance is not repeatable
Speaking of road warriors, Nashville did it again. They soaked up pressure on the road, grabbed a goal, and stole all three points. A classic smash-and-grab victory.
If anyone is to topple the LAFC juggernaut in the playoffs, Nashville provided the blueprint. Steve Cherundolo’s collection of stars out-talent any side that will step on the field against them. They will control possession and finish with a lion’s share of the chances. It will take a stellar defensive performance, clinical finishing, and a dash of luck to defeat the Supporters’ Shield champions.
Nashville’s win at Banc of California Stadium will buoy the hopes for other would-be giant killers, including Nashville themselves in the second round. But there is little hope of a repeat result if a team concedes that many chances.
LAFC generated 4.0 xG on the night. Anecdotally, I cannot recall another match with such a high expected goal output that never yielded a score. Allow that team of stars 4.0 xG again and they will bury multiple goals on you.
If Nashville meets LAFC again, the Coyotes must exert greater control of the midfield and eliminate the direct balls played in over top that generated some of LAFC’s best opportunities. Twice in the second half, Ilie Sánchez picked out Denis Bouanga on long balls that left Nashville scrambling.
Nashville rarely gives up these types of opportunities. If they have designs of making a deep playoff run, they cannot allow LAFC to pick them apart vertically.
It’s just one of many examples from Sunday that demonstrate why Nashville’s performance is not repeatable. On another day, LAFC converts one of these shots into a goal. The blueprint for victory has been written, it will need a better performance from Nashville if they are to win again.
The first job of a goalkeeper is to stop goals
In modern soccer, it is in vogue to discuss a goalkeeper’s ability to play out of the back with their feet. It is a goalkeeping trait that has utterly consumed U.S. Men’s National Team conversation over the last few years. But for all the talk it garners, a goalkeeper’s number one priority remains stopping goals.
On Sunday, Joe Willis struggled mightly to pass out of LAFC’s relentless press in the first half. Giveaways led to additional opportunities for the Black and Gold to put the screws to Nashville.
The passing struggles mattered little where it counted. Willis maintained a clean sheet by acing the number one duty of a goalkeeper – stopping shots.
Willis faced 25 shots and made 14 saves on the night. As mentioned earlier, LAFC compiled 4.0 xG, but Willis kept out everything that came his way. It was a historic night for Willis that should go down in the annuls of MLS history as one of the best goalkeeping performances ever.
I am not going to clip every one of his saves. It would literally take me all night. Instead, I give you a save with each body part.
Willis was absolutely fantastic in filling the number one role of a goalkeeper, keeping the ball out of the net by any means possible.
The MLS scheduling gods must not pay attention to college football. With the biggest college football game in the State of Tennessee in over two decades slated for Saturday afternoon, I will be working double TVs to keep tabs on both NSC and the Vols.
I know I am not the only one. I can only imagine that Nashville SC radio voice Wes Boling, another diehard Vol fan, is feeling my pain.
Here’s to hoping that Saturday gives us double reasons to celebrate.