EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re excited to have Jeff Middleton write his first piece for Broadway Sports Media as a guest contributor. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @jjmid04.
If you watched Nashville SC’s run to the Leagues Cup final last month, you probably wouldn’t guess that they were struggling to earn a win in regular season play.
Beating the Supporters Shield-leading Cincinnati FC in penalties is impressive in itself, but topping Club América in penalties, crushing Minnesota United, and finally, edging out a win against Monterrey that consisted of a Sam Surridge goal and a Fafà Picault tally in the 96th minute to move on and face Lionel Messi and Inter Miami in the final is not an easy task.
Despite the tough loss in the final, there was hope that NSC could carry the momentum of holding the greatest player of all time to only one goal and *almost* winning a game that came down to goalkeeper penalty kicks back into the regular season. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case at all.
Instead of rebounding with a win against club rivals Atlanta United, Nashville lost 4-0, the worst result in club history. Instead of beating a scrappy but struggling Charlotte FC at home, Nashville lucked their way to a draw.. Even in their 0-0 draw at Miami, which is a huge result in itself, the primary goal (especially in the first half) was clearly “prevent Messi from getting on the scoreboard.” In the second half, they did generate some offense but were unable to score while remaining very defensively conscious.
With these results and the team’s attacking malaise, this international break could not have come at a better time. They’re stumbling right now. It may cost them a valuable playoff position and home-field advantage, something both fans and pundits realized could be a considerable advantage given NSC fans’ showing in their home-heavy run to the League’s Cup Final.
The international break gives the players some time to rest and regroup. A clean slate can be the difference between bottom-of-the-barrel performance and top-of-the-ladder performance. With their next match against Sporting Kansas City on September 20th, the Boys in Gold have time to heal from injuries, spend time with family, and take their mind off the game. That is, if you’re not Randall Leal and Aníbal Godoy, who were both called to their respective national teams.
Of course, this break isn’t just good for the players to relax and move away from the MLS landscape one way or another, but it’s good for the coaching staff as well because it gives them time to reconsider or even re-coach some of the tactics.
So, how does Nashville flip the script?
Get Mukhtar and Surridge on the same page
Smith acknowledged this factor as well. “There will be some work to try and enhance the Hany [Mukhtar]-Sam [Surridge] relationship,” he told reporters after Nashville’s 1-1 draw against Charlotte FC.
Against Charlotte, Surridge only touched the ball six times in the first half. He’s not the kind of player who will carry the ball as Mukhtar does, but for a top-tier number nine in this league, six is absurdly low and completely unacceptable, even in a dry offense. Mukhtar had his chances, so it wasn’t like the duo was completely ineffective. Still, Surridge isn’t useful when Mukhtar is the only one who can generate any offense against a team not in the playoff picture.
For more context, look at how small Surridge’s circle is on the left through 56 minutes of play:
Develop buildout from the back
Watching NSC goalkeepers launch long ball after long ball and not succeed might be one of the most frustrating things about the current tactics, primarily when the team’s counterattack isn’t resulting in anything. In the match against Charlotte, they had just over a 19% long pass rate.
Of course, long balls as a concept aren’t inherently wrong, and considering the speed that Nashville has up in the front of the formation, it’s a strategy that can work (and has worked as recently as the game against Minnesota). However, instead of building up through the defense to midfield and lobbing a ball over the defense or penetrating through the middle of the pitch, it mainly consisted of kicking the ball to midfield from the box and hoping a player was in the surrounding area to retrieve it and create from there.
If Nashville is going to keep building from the back and using the long ball as a strategy, they need to continue to develop it. They don’t need to move away from it totally, but long balls to space in the middle are not working at this point.
Clean up the defense
Some changes could also be made to the team’s defense, both with how they play and the intensity that they play with. Of course, it’s important to note that it’s hard for any defense without Walker Zimmerman, a team captain and arguably the best defender in MLS, to truly be at its best.
Nashville is perfectly content without having the ball in their possession. That’s a known fact and is evident in most of the games they play. However, if their defense gets dissected, it becomes a huge problem. As of late, it has been very easy for opponents to possess the ball between the lines of NSC’s 4-4-2 structure or even for the ball carrier to break through the lines like what Thiago Almada did here:
Of course, some of it comes down to sloppiness in its truest form. A break can help fix that, fortunately. Poor touches that destroy the potential for a counterattack, or awful passes that lead to a counterattack for the opposition like this one against Atlanta:
The big picture
Nashville’s form post-Leagues Cup has been poor on almost every level. The offense is stagnant, creativity outside of Mukhtar and occasionally Jacob Shaffelburg is incredibly limited, counter attacks have been abnormally ineffective, and most importantly, the defense has been inconsistent. A regroup is necessary, and this international break could not have come at a better time.
The final seven matches of the regular season have huge implications on the line (four of them are against teams with more points than Nashville). Nashville needs to get things together to have an outside shot at home-field advantage in the postseason.