Nashville SC’s late-match game plan hasn’t been good enough

Nashville SC came into their match against the second-seed Orlando City looking to steal a big postseason win as the underdogs on the road, a role they’ve played consistently since their debut in MLS back in 2020.

Unfortunately, they weren’t able to complete that task.

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Not only was Gary Smith’s side unable to come back from being down 1-0 after a 40th-minute crossbar-seeking shot from Wilder Cartagena bounced down and into the net, but they were unable to consistently generate high-danger chances, which plenty of frustrated fans noticed over the back half of the match.

As much as Smith’s tactics have brought Nashville a relatively high amount of success as (still) a new-ish club, they are starting to wear on the supporters. Sometimes referred to frustratedly as “Gary Ball,” the style of play that Nashville employs doesn’t allow for generating lots of offense outside of counterattack chances and crosses into the box that hopefully find the head of Walker Zimmerman or, now more importantly, Sam Surridge.

Usually, if Nashville can earn the lead quickly and convert on the chances that they do end up getting, this style isn’t a problem. However, against a very speedy and creative Orlando squad whose players love making one-on-one moves against their defender and using their creativity to get in the box and create chances, they needed to find other ways to try and come back after going down late in the first half.

It’s important to mention that the issues from the first of a possible three games in this series didn’t just come from the team’s effort to try and score in the waning minutes of full-time. The issues also stemmed from the fact that players couldn’t convert the few quality chances Nashville did manage to create, most notably when Surridge couldn’t put away an excellent cross from Jakob Shaffelburg in the 19th minute of the game.

However, even with those missed chances, the opportunities that Nashville sought within the last 10-15 minutes weren’t good enough and didn’t make the defense work.

So, what happened?

Spanning from the 78th minute all the way to the 97th minute, there were lots of the same actions by lots of the same players.

In that time, Nashville produced only one or maybe two chances that were of any influence on the game and the defense, which came in the form of a back-heel touch off the foot of Surridge–accompanied by a great save made by Orlando goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and an impending offside call–and a rush down the far right wing by Fafà Picault that created a corner for Nashville. The corner was launched well over every gold jersey, and Orlando were able to rush the other way on the counterattack.

Even after Orlando switched to a back five with 10 minutes remaining, Nashville weren’t able to get anything of note within the box or even outside of the box. All Nashville could do was cycle passes around their backline, which the Orlando forwards didn’t have to react to because there wasn’t any apparent urgency.

Dan Lovitz sent a handful of crosses forward from seemingly everywhere on the pitch, whether it was from his own half or on the left wing after pushing up the pitch, but none of them connected with the head or body of a Nashville player. Instead, they were sent over the defensive line entirely or easily sent away by the Orlando defenders.

Other than Lovitz, there weren’t many others that tried sending the ball up the pitch into the box from the backline. Hany Mukhtar had a couple of chances to make a move closer to the box and become an even bigger scoring threat, but he decided instead to shoot from far out or try and send the ball in.

No matter which player had possession for Nashville and no matter the situation, it felt like they were always going to default to one option. There was zero creativity, the passing along the backline was methodical and didn’t force the defense to commit. There was almost no penetration of the defensive lines, which makes everything easier for Orlando in terms of structure.

Where does Nashville go from here?

If you couldn’t tune in to the game and reading that sequence of events bored you to death or even ignited a bit of anger, then you know exactly how everyone watching felt. It was a painful display of a team trying to minimize risk while only being down a goal in a huge opening playoff game.

There are some advantages to the kind of soccer that Smith’s Nashville team plays.

First, they’re very structured without the ball. Their defense has allowed the second-fewest goals since their expansion season (only Philadelphia has been better), and that’s for a good reason. It has helped them win plenty of games against stronger opponents.

Second, there are players on the roster who can counterattack out of that structure, which, as we’ve seen, is necessary for them to succeed. Hany Mukhtar’s 2022 MVP-winning campaign largely stemmed from that structure. However, at this juncture, it feels as if there are more drawbacks than positives. Every team that they play is going to be tactically sound and likely, more offensively inclined.

Not only is Nashville’s style frustrating to watch much of the time, especially when the players up front can’t convert on chances that they should, but it’s currently up against a system (and will be up against other systems if Nashville manages to find their way around Orlando) that take advantage of space, utilize individual creativity, and are also strong on counterattacks.

As much as it’s fun to have the potential of a playoff run, it’s hard to be confident in the team’s ability to make that happen after watching the final minutes of the last game against Orlando. It simply isn’t good enough.

That’s not to say that the team can’t turn things around. Their current opponent is one of the hottest teams in MLS and one of the most talented across the board. There were times during the game that Nashville had the opportunity to take a one or two goal lead, but they didn’t capitalize on them. The chances were there.

And as much as this team can be frustrating to watch when they attempt to get back in a game, it’s not entirely on the Gary Smith or his system if the players can’t finish the golden chances they’re being afforded. On Tuesday, in a must-win match, Nashville can’t miss again.

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Author: Jeff MiddletonJeff is a sophomore at Miami University double majoring in Journalism and Sports Leadership and Management. He is just stepping into the soccer writing world but has been writing about sports for four years. From writing about the NHL (Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators, Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche) to MLB (New York Yankees) and the Miami University hockey program, he has gained valuable experience writing about sports, learned from the best writers in those media markets, and continues to learn as he builds his soccer portfolio

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