Nashville SC is on the cusp of being a contender, but poor finishing may hold them back

Let’s get this out of the way off the bat: Nashville SC are one of three teams in MLS who haven’t lost a game. After six games they’re in fourth place in the East. They’ve kept four straight clean sheets and haven’t conceded a goal in 435 minutes. Their defense is one of the elite units in the league, and raises the level of the team to potential contenders. Through six games the pros outweigh the cons.

But the finishing is… worrying.

Pros

It’s not all doom and gloom in the final third. In a marked improvement from last season, Nashville are creating chances. They’ve taken double digit shots in all six matches this season. Their 16.8 shots per match is the second highest in MLS. Their 1.8 expected goals per match are the third highest in the league.

They’re creating high quality chances at a consistent rate.

Cons

Nashville haven’t found the back of the net nearly as much as they need to. They average 1.17 goals per game, 14th in the league. They have a -3.8 G-xG (goals minus expected goals), the worst in MLS. The only two sides who come close to that are 13th placed Chicago and 12th placed Minnesota, both with a -3.5 G-xG.

When you boil it all down, Nashville have been wasteful.

The chances

We’re going to look at 12 Nashville shots here to understand what’s going wrong. Opta measures Nashville with 14 shots with an xG value of 0.30 or higher (meaning that shots from that position are scored at least 30% of the time). Nashville’s scored just two of these.

For added clarification, I’m including xG values from both Opta and American Soccer Analysis (ASA) for each shot, as their models differ slightly and assign different values based on shot location, pattern of play, goalkeeper positioning, etc.

Hany Mukhtar | Nashville vs Cincinnati | 0.35 xG (Opta), 0.17 xG (ASA)

This is a difficult finish, with a driven delivery from Leal and a bit of a weird take from Mukhtar. You’d ideally see a DP go far post here, but this isn’t one of the worst misses on this list. The ASA data reflects that.

Handwalla Bwana | Nashville vs Cincinnati | 0.46 xG (Opta), 0.25 xG (ASA)

Sapong sees a 0.35 xG chance saved initially, but it’s a tough angle with a lot of contact from the defender, so it’s hard to fault him too much. Handwalla Bwana comes in with a wide open net and puts a lot shot right at Przemysław Tytoń. Bwana was the first to admit after the match that he should have done better with the finish.

Jhonder Cádiz | Nashville vs Montreal | 0.41 xG (Opta), 0.20 xG (ASA)

This one is admittedly a difficult finish, but Cádiz certainly has a window to fit it in at the near post. It’s not as egregious as others on this list, but you expect to see a DP striker hit the target. This is another instance where I think the ASA data better reflects the difficulty of this chance.

Jhonder Cádiz | Nashville vs Montreal | 0.68 xG (Opta), 0.55 xG (ASA)

Once again, Muyl gets the short end of the stick. He’s in prime position for a tap in and a goal hungry striker gets in front of him and misses the target.

Still, though… it’s an unmarked header for Jhonder Cádiz two yards in front of goal with the ‘keeper stranded on the far post. Both xG models agree here, though: that has to be a goal, and it would have resulted in three points for Nashville.

Randall Leal | Nashville vs Montreal | 0.32 xG (Opta), 0.24 xG (ASA)

This was some of the best combination play we’ve seen yet from Cádiz, and an exceptional run from Leal. In fairness, Leal has been Nashville’s best player going back to the second half of 2020, and he’s scored twice from much lower-value chances. But at the same time, a DP in as good a run of form as Leal should do better here. Diop isn’t in great position, and a bit better placement should see this curled to the far post.

Hany Mukhtar | Nashville vs Miami | 0.35 xG (Opta), 0.17 xG (ASA)

Joe McCarthy does well here to cut out the angle, but Mukhtar takes an extra touch that gets him too close to the ‘keeper. We’ve seen him score from similar positions plenty of times. It’s not as easy as it looks, but one that you’d like to see him at least try to take on the left foot a step earlier.

Dan Lovitz | Nashville vs Miami | 0.07 xG (Opta), 0.08 xG (ASA)

First off, the 27 pass buildup is absolutely gorgeous from Nashville, and shows how much emphasis they’ve placed on breaking teams down with the ball this year. The passing is crisp and the off-ball movement is really well done here.

The actual chance is the lowest percentage on this list in terms of xG value, but it’s pretty inexcusable to not even hit the target. Lovitz gets the ball stuck under him a bit, but a cleaner first touch should at least see a shot on target here. And with the time and space he has, it’s hard not to think it should have been a goal, and one that resulted in three points instead of just one.

CJ Sapong | Nashville vs Austin | 0.81 xG (Opta), 0.80 (ASA)

This is a set piece routine we see fairly often from Nashville. McCarty flicks a ball to the near post for a tap in. It’s how Dom Badji scored against Atlanta last season. And against Austin, it absolutely has to be a goal.

Sapong has the ball on his favored foot a yard away from goal with the ‘keeper nowhere to be seen. He should put that on target. He should also be aware that Alex Muyl is in even better position directly behind him. In terms of xG, it’s the worst miss of the lot.

Dom Badji | Nashville vs Austin | 0.32 xG (Opta), 0.20 (ASA)

This is an excellent breakaway from Nashville. Luke Haakenson bypasses two defenders with a great pass, and Dom Badji shows off his pace and absolutely breezes by them. In xG terms, it’s not one of the highest value chances here, but you expect a striker to do better here. Credit to Brad Stuver for the kick save, but it probably should have been a goal here.

Hany Mukhtar | Nashville vs Austin |

This one doesn’t have a shot value, because Mukhtar doesn’t get the shot off here. We’re seeing this more and more from the DP; he can tend to hold the ball and wait for the perfect opening when a bit more ambition would result in a better chance.

On the break with a great shooting angle, he should take this on his left foot and drive a low shot to the far post. Instead, he tries to cut back on his right foot, but allows Matt Besler to close him down and clear the ball. That has to be better.

So what?

Just from the above chances, Nashville have left between two and four goals on the table (3.77 per Opt, 2.66 per ASA). Three of these matches were draws, and it’s hard not to argue that they deserved to win over both Cincinnati and Montreal. That would put them tied with New England at the top of the East with a game in hand.

It didn’t cost them against Austin, but Jared Stroud’s disallowed goal was a reality check for a side that was pretty blatantly wasteful in front of goal on the night.

The point of this is not to drag individual players, or to convey an overly pessimistic view of this team. I actually think we should be really optimistic about Nashville’s start to the season and their outlook for the rest of the year!

But (and it’s a bit but), it will cost them if they miss chances like this against good teams. Austin, Cincinnati and Montreal won’t punish you if you score half as much as you should. Atlanta, Red Bulls and Toronto will. With a road-heavy second half of the year on the horizon, Nashville have to start burying these chances.

Right now, after six matches of a 34 match season, Nashville look like they’re a step or two away from being one of the better sides in MLS. Finishing chances is a major step forward. If they don’t improve, or somehow regress, things will go south quickly.

I’ll leave this on a positive. Creating chances is the hard part. Nashville couldn’t do that for two thirds of 2020. They’re creating boatloads of chances now. They just have to find that final touch.

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