Nashville’s struggling defense is negating their improved attack

Nashville SC in 2020 didn’t surprise many people with how they played. With a squad built on a defensive foundation of league veterans Joe Willis, Dave Romney and Dan Lovitz, plus the record signing of Walker Zimmerman, their backline was formidable. Not so much in attack, where they struggled to score goals for large chunks of the season. The strength of the team, the reason they were competitive throughout the season, was a defense that limited chances, eliminated mistakes, and didn’t concede soft goals.

Nashville SC in 2021 has been the opposite.

Their attack has been in fine form, with their 1.74 expected goals per match the second most in the league. They’re finding the back of the net more, too, averaging 1.33 goals per game instead of 1.04 last season. They’ve scored two or more goals in six of their 12 matches so far this season.

The problem isn’t with Nashville’s attack.

Nashville are finally creating consistent chances, and even with some finishing struggles, they’re finding the back of the net enough that they should be a much better team than in 2020. A slight defensive regression after last year’s exceptional 23 match season should be expected, but this is a significant regression. In 2020, Nashville conceded just 86% of their expected goals against. In 2021 (despite their xGA per match decreasing by an impressive 0.28 points), they’re conceding goals at a rate 129% higher than expected.

As MLSSoccer.com‘s Matt Doyle said, “last year’s Nashville team didn’t give up Route 1 goals. They’re just a little bit softer this year, and… that softness has cost them a bunch of points.”

Head coach Gary Smith had similar thoughts.

“I don’t base anything on luck. I think there’s some disappointing defending,” he said after the 2-2 draw with Atlanta. “I think we’ve squandered three, four, five points here [at Nissan Stadium]. Minimum. And if you want to draw the line and set your standards at; ‘ok, we’re going to be competitive,’ well, everyone knows we’re going to be competitive. I don’t think there’s a team in the league that doesn’t expect us to be competitive. But if you set your standards at being a top six team, challenging… we could have gone second [in the East] tonight. That disappoints me.”

Simply put, Nashville are regularly conceding the types of goals they rarely conceded last year.

Like Cincinnati scoring up the middle.

Long diagonals over the top that are allowed to bounce in the box.

Allowing runners to cut across goal unmarked.

Giving a DP striker three yards of space in the box.

Letting an attacker run 40 yards and get off a shot without closing him down.

Conceding a header from a near-post run on a corner.

Getting beat at the back post on a set piece.

Losing your mark at the back post on a corner.

These are the types of goals you didn’t expect Nashville to concede last year. You didn’t expect them to concede these coming into the season, and with the personnel they have on the squad, it’s surprising to see them still concede these with 35% of their season in the books.

Nashville have conceded a league-best 10.13 expected goals against. They allowed three goals more than that. Overall, there are plenty of positives in their play this season, and a lot to be optimistic. But the soft goals they’re conceding are significantly lowering their ceiling and undoing a lot of the progress they’ve made at the other end of the field.

“Everyone’s going to wake up in the morning and they’re going to look at my interview, and they’re going to go, ‘why is he being such a grouch?’” said Smith after the match. “There have been some really, really good displays out there tonight, which makes it all the more disappointing. You understand the frustration. We’ve been very, very good tonight in a lot of areas, and I’ve been really, really pleased with a lot of displays, but we still haven’t come away with all three points.”

Signing Aké Loba is a massive, massive step for this club, on and off the field. He’ll come into the side and instantly improve their attack. But that will only go so far to mitigate the issues. Loba won’t improve their points tally if they need to consistently score three goals to win a match.

There’s a common line of thinking that really bothers me, that somehow dropped points early in the season aren’t as consequential as dropped points near the end. Sure, you have time left to make up for your mistakes later on, but this rationale just kicks the can down the road. Dropped points in week one or week eleven impact the table just as much as dropped points in week thirty-two. Dropped points against Cincinnati or Montreal or Atlanta could be the difference between a home playoff match, or any playoff match at all.

Nashville’s margin for error is all but gone.

The frustrating part of all this is that the fix sounds flippant: just defend better. But it’s not an oversimplification. There’s not a glaring tactical issue that’s making them more vulnerable at the back. There’s not a clear need for upgrading the squad anywhere across the back four. The only obvious answer is mental lapses, the type that allow attackers an extra half yard of space or to get the first step on a defender.

“I think there’s some disappointing defending,” said Smith. “There may have been situations where guys were a tad more focused or sensed a little bit more danger. I don’t think the deliveries or anything that anyone is throwing at us are any different.”

The encouraging part is that it Nashville is doing a lot right. Overall they’re limiting their opponents to lower value chances than last season. Theoretically it should be a simple issue to fix, but the hard work has to be done on the training field and in the locker room to drill home being locked in defensively for 90 minutes, nothing less. The needed emphasis on attack cannot come at the expense of defensive focus.

Nashville have dropped 10 points at home this season. They’ve conceded first in five of nine home matches. The mental lapses cannot continue. The attack is doing its share of the work. Now it’s up to the defense to play up to their abilities.


Chris Ivey contributed to this piece.

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