On Monday night, Nashville SC lost to Orlando City in Game 1 of the First Round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. With an inability to generate and convert chances, the match mirrored Nashville’s post-Leagues Cup form.
Here are my three thoughts on the match.
The story of the night, at least from a Nashville perspective, centers on a pair of missed chances from Sam Surridge and Teal Bunbury.
The two sides finished even on expected goals (1.2 xG). However, only the hosts found that moment of quality necessary to light up the scoreboard.
Nearly the entire total of Nashville’s expected goals came from Surridge’s miss in the first half (0.60 xG) and Bunbury’s 75th-minute header that sailed wide of goal (0.46 xG).
Surridge’s miss, in particular, should leave supporters scratching their heads. Rather than attack the cross with his head, the English striker attempted a cheeky volley. With the fizzed ball at waist level, Surridge caught the underside of the ball and sent it sailing over the bar.
On the road in the playoffs against the second seed, you absolutely must convert the chances that fall your way. It is all the more important on a team that has struggled to score in recent weeks.
Nashville failed to take advantage of their opportunities. Now, the Boys in Gold must win two straight matches to advance out of the First Round.
Dropping too far deep
Unlike Nashville, Orlando found a bit of quality to score a decisive goal. Throughout the first half, NSC’s central midfield dropped incredibly deep, which invited pressure and shots from the edge of the penalty box. In the first half alone, Orlando fired off 16 shots at Joe Willis’ net.
The shot below highlights the issue well. Here, we see Sean Davis (#54) dropped as far deep as the penalty spot. With the centerbacks occupied with Duncan McGuire (#13), Davis tracked Facundo Torres (#17) nearly in line with Zimmerman and Maher. Nothing came from this attack, but it demonstrates the pockets of space that began to open for Orlando City.
Now, in a lot of ways, this is by design. Gary Smith’s teams strive for compact lines that limit space in the most dangerous areas and force shots from distance. However, in doing so, it gives time and space for the professionals on the other side of the pitch to wind up shots on net.
Nashville played with fire and eventually got burned.
Wilder Cartagena’s goal, of course, highlighted it best. As the ball is played toward the Peruvian, Sean Davis’ first instinct or instruction is to drop deeper. This defensive movement gave Cartagena time and space to pick out the far corner. By the time Davis recognized the danger and attempted to close down the shot, it was too late. 1-0 Orlando.
Even after the goal, Davis and Nashville did not make the necessary adjustments. Much to Joe Willis’s ire, Orlando were gifted time and space for a shot just minutes later. Davis dropped too far deep, nearly in line with Walker Zimmerman and Jack Maher. While he ultimately deflected the shot, it was a dangerous moment that could have easily resulted in a ricochet that wrong-foots Willis.
Nashville may continue to take the calculated risk of allowing those shots from the top of the box. However, don’t be surprised if Orlando makes them pay. There is enough technical quality to bury those shots if given enough opportunities.
Season on the brink
With the loss in Orlando, Nashville’s 2023 campaign is on the brink. It is single elimination for the Coyotes from here on out.
While the opening round of the revamped MLS Cup Playoffs allows for a mulligan, subsequent rounds return to single-leg affairs of years past. Therefore, Nashville has entered lose-and-go-home territory.
Perhaps the pressure will produce results. After all, Nashville thrived in tension-filled moments of the summer’s Leagues Cup run.
The stakes may also help motivate this veteran team. The collective edge of this 2023 team has appeared duller compared to prior seasons. In some respects, it makes sense. With the oldest and least rotated roster in the league, it can be difficult to find that extra gear during yet another regular season slog. This club has been there, and done that in terms of making the playoffs. Without much injection of new blood, you get the sense that it was title or bust for this iteration of Nashville SC.
If Nashville wants to survive another week in 2023, it must immediately rediscover the edge that fueled the team in Leagues Cup and seasons prior.
We have screamed it from the rooftops for a couple of years now. Nashville needed to add younger and more ball-progressing central midfielders.
Having failed to do so, NSC was left turning to Brian Anunga late in a playoff game in which the team trailed by a goal. Unsurprisingly, supporters voiced their displeasure.
Anunga is not necessarily a bad player. When given the right situation (ie. holding a lead), he makes a lot of sense as a substitute. However, he routinely ranks at or near dead last in ball-progressing statistics year after year. He’s not the type of player needed to bring on when trailing late in a critical match.
Heading into an offseason that could begin in just a week’s time, addressing the midfield has to be the chief concern this winter.