Nashville SC: struggling or unlucky?

If you just look at the stats, you’d expect Nashville SC to be towards the top of the Major League Soccer table after two matches.

First in the league with 5.81 expected goals.

First in the league with 49 shots.

Fifth in the league with 1.69 non-penalty expected goals against.

First in the league with a 4.12 expected goal difference.

First in the league with 4.86 expected points.

And yet, Nashville are currently in seventh place in the East with just two points through two matches. Why?

Two slow starts have tarnished otherwise impressive displays thus far. In both matches, Nashville have dug themselves into a hole, spotting Cincinnati and Montreal two goal leads before finally mounting sustained pressure. It’s uncharacteristic for Nashville, who conceded multiple goals in just eight of their 26 matches last season.

“Are there flaws in our game? Are we conceding too many chances?” asked head coach Gary Smith after the Montreal match. “I’ve got to say: their conversion rate was pretty good at one point: they’d had four shots at goal and scored twice. I think any team would be delighted with that. So I don’t see too many major issues with the group.

“Getting the balance right is what every team’s after. You go too far one way, you become porous and easily concede goals. You go too far the other way, you become a group that sits in and is comfortable just absorbing pressure. We’re finding our way to be that balance. Last year, certainly in the early stages, we were far too committed to not concede. This year? Maybe there’s a point that we’re too committed to score.”

To his point, Nashville have been unlucky to an extent. Not including Cincinnati’s penalty, they’ve given up three goals from 1.69 expected goals. The two goals they conceded against Montreal had xG values of 0.363 and 0.308. While the Boys in Gold absolutely bear responsibility for the slow starts, their opponents have finished their chances exceptionally well.

On the other hand, Nashville haven’t. According to SofaScore, Nashville have missed nine “big chances”, the most in the league. So far in 2021, MLS teams have scored at a rate 103% better than their expected goals tally. Nashville are at 69%. While the chance creation has been impressive, and four goals in a two goal period is a solid return, the finishing should be better.

It took Nashville four matches last season to reach their current shot total. The chances they’re creating are a significant improvement. And while they’ve conceded four goals, the chances they’re giving up haven’t been abnormally poor.

“I think over time you get what you deserve,” said Smith. “We deserve more than we’re picking up at the moment, but the circumstances of any game are huge.”

He’s absolutely right. Expected points will tell you that if Nashville played these two matches over again 1,000 times with the same quality of chances, they’d have between four and six points. If Nashville continue to create and defend like this over the course of the season, results will even out.

But the slow starts have killed them. Even though they’ve limited chances, they’ve dug themselves into a hole early in both matches. They’ve sacrificed three points both times after sloppy starts.

Nashville have loaded home schedule to start the season. After August 1, they’ll play just six of their final 20 matches at Nissan Stadium. To make the playoffs, they have to take advantage of these early home matches, especially against teams like Montreal and Cincinnati, both of whom finished behind Nashville in 2020.

It’s not time to panic. In fact, if the stats continue to play out like this, Nashville should be a really good team this season. But they have to start on the front foot and begin to find the first goal. Gary Smith knows coming from behind won’t be sustainable.

“To be honest, that’s going to prove far too difficult a hole to keep dragging ourselves out of.”

In Inter Miami, Smith’s side will face the best side they’ve played yet this season. Another slow start will likely be too much to overcome.

Nashville must being taking control of matches early. The margin of error to make the playoffs is too thin to continue dropping points.

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