Nashville SC put on an impressive performance Wednesday night, defeating FC Dallas 2-0 in the Round of 32 of the U.S. Open Cup.
Here are my three thoughts on the match.
B+ lineup, A+ results
With the matches coming thick and fast, Gary Smith opted for a nearly 100% roster flip from the weekend. Newcomer, Lukas MacNaughton was the only starter carried over.
While the squad may have featured heavy rotation, it included the return of Randall Leal. It was the Costa Rican’s first action since succumbing to injury on Matchday 1. More than two months later, Leal returned to serve as the understudy in Mukhtar’s attacking role.
On the other side, Dallas brought a nearly first-choice lineup.
In light of the lineup differences, it makes Nashville’s win all the more impressive. Nashville always controlled the match and never seemed truly in danger of conceding.
It was the type of performance that we have come to expect from Nashville’s first-choice XI. Each member of this B+ squad stepped up and filled their roles, especially in the defensive structures.
You have to know that Gary Smith is thrilled with a performance like that. He gets to rest the bulk of his starters while also advancing to the Round of 16.
More diamond discussion
Look, I’m going to keep discussing the midfield diamond. It’s a significant tactical evolution from Gary Smith that may be here to stay.
Rather than just a brief 15 -30 minute cameo, Nashville played out of a 4-4-2 diamond for the entire match against FC Dallas.
In a lot of ways, it is a natural evolution for Gary Smith. For a manager that stresses defensive solidity and clogging the central areas of the pitch, adding an extra center mid makes all the sense in the world.
It makes me think back to an old Sean Dyche video about protecting “the V.” As the opponent progresses the ball, Nashville’s diamond can collapse down creating a block of three center mids aligned at the top of the box to protect “the V.” Good luck trying to play your way through that mass of bodies. It is this type of structure that makes it so difficult to score on teams coached by the likes of Dyche and Gary Smith.
Beyond deep defensive solidity, Nashville showed how the diamond grants license to the midfielders to pressure the ball higher up the pitch.
In the below clip, ball pressure forced Dallas to play back to the keeper. As the ball was swung out to the right center back, Anunga charged forward, dispossessed the man, and sparked what had been one of the most dangerous moments to that point in the match.
However, what Nashville wasn’t as effective at on the night was pressure from opposing goal kicks.
In the clip below, Nashville pushed up its lines and triggered the press on a goal kick. Dallas was able to quickly play around it based on two factors. First, Paxton Pomykal provided an outlet by dropping deep to receive the ball. Ján Greguš followed, but Pomykal quickly played it back. Second, Dallas’ third center back created a 5 – 4 numerical advantage and allowed Los Toros to quickly play out of danger.
Three center-back formations saw a resurgence in the last decade, in part, as an antidote to this exact type of pressing structure.
Ultimately, I’m enjoying Nashville’s tactical evolution based on how it affects attacking sequences.
One of the biggest benefits of the 4-4-2 diamond has been that the setup often results in more opportunities for three runners, rather than two, on the counterattack. This is because the tip of the diamond, usually occupied by Hany Mukhtar, is given greater freedom to stay higher up the pitch during out-of-possession sequences than the wingers in Nashville’s “Empty Bucket” 4-4-2.
Even if no pass is made, having runners draw a defender’s attention for a brief moment can create enough space to fire off a shot – as it occurred with Nashville’s opening goal.
Garber’s comments on the U.S. Open Cup
Last week, MLS Commissioner Don Garber appeared at the United States Soccer Federation board meeting and shared some frustrations regarding the U.S. Open Cup.
The crux of those concerns was: 1) broadcast partners are difficult to find, and 2) the playing surfaces are subpar. Overall, he summarized that the Open Cup is “not the proper reflection of what soccer in America at the professional level needs to be.”
I do share the Commissioner’s dissatisfaction with the broadcast partners, not from an ease of access perspective but rather a quality of coverage concern. However, I want to quickly address Garber’s second point regarding playing surface quality.
The comment feels like an unnecessary potshot at lower-level soccer. As they say, don’t throw stones from a glass house.
MLS is not immune to its own pitch-quality issues. Six clubs play on synthetic surfaces and another, in the nation’s biggest media market, plays its home matches on a baseball field.
Frankly, I’m okay with that. Soccer in the United States is still growing. Increased investment is continuously improving the playing surfaces and facilities across the American soccer pyramid. But it takes time.
For the same reason that I won’t fault those clubs, neither should Garber fault the lower-league teams for their playing surfaces and facilities.
This is not some uniquely American problem either that highlights investment disparities brought on by a closed system that lacks promotion and relegation.
The problems of adequate stadium facilities and playing surfaces are felt as high up as clubs challenging for Premier League promotion in the EFL Championship playoffs.
Luton Town will reportedly need to spend £10 million to bring their home ground, Kenilworth Road, up to Premier League standards should they achieve promotion.
Meanwhile, my beloved, Coventry City was forced to reschedule three home matches due to pitch conditions after the stadium hosted the Commonwealth Games. The Sky Blues were handed a suspended five-point deduction due to the issues and were forced to sell a starting center back to fund rapid relaying of the playing surface.
These playing surface and facilities concerns pop up all across the soccer universe. It is not just an issue in the United States and certainly not just an issue with USL Championship and USL League One clubs.
To be fair to Garber, he did commit at the board meeting to lending league officials to a summit on how to improve the Open Cup.
However, doing so after taking a shot at lower-level competition without recognizing MLS’ own shortcomings will rub people the wrong way.
Personally, I hope MLS makes the right call by investing its time, money, and support into this tournament, which should only help to grow the game across the pyramid leading to better infrastructure for soccer as a whole in this country.
Attention Nashville SC content managers!! I want to see Jacob Shaffelburg’s timed forty-yard dash.
You can even have him race club owner Derrick Henry. This is the content we all want want and need.