Nashville SC suffered a disappointing home defeat at the hands of their rivals, FC Cincinnati, on Matchday 5 of the MLS season.
Here are my three thoughts on the match.
FC Cincinnati is simply the better team
It’s probably time to retire all the Wooden Spoon memes and references. FC Cincinnati is no joke.
In the abstract, we knew that already. They made their dramatic turnaround in 2022. It is quite another thing to witness this new FCC up close.
The guests controlled the majority match in GEODIS Park. Nashville had a few bright moments in the first half. Yet for all of their attempts on net, it was Cincinnati’s Brenner with the best opportunity to score in the first 45 minutes.
In the second half, while trailing by a goal, Nashville went 36 minutes without registering a shot. As the match wore on, the one-goal lead allowed Cincinnati’s defense to sit deeper to cut off lanes for counterattacks. Without their bread and butter available, the Boys in Gold had zero clear ideas on how to unlock Cincinnati’s defense.
Frankly, Nashville was fortunate to not concede a second. As they became more and more stretched in search of an equalizer, FCC exploited space in behind Nashville. If there was a goal to be had in those final 10 minutes, the guests were much more likely to have found it.
All credit goes to Cincinnati. They’ve built a formidable squad. The prowess of the attacking trio of Brenner, Brandon Vazquez, and Luciano Acosta is well documented. There may not be a better forward line in the entire league.
Behind them, Cincinnati’s front office has quietly built a solid spine that has fixed the problems of old. Obinna Nwobodo is one of the best #6’s in the league, and Matt Miazga gives them a fiery leader and stout aerial defender. His aerial duel win percentage actually exceeds Walker Zimmerman’s rate.
Chris Albright, FCC’s General Manager, has made some heady pickups to augment that pair. Roman Celentano, selected in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft, is already providing competent goalkeeping at a yearly salary of just $99,000. Yerson Mosquera, a loanee from Wolverhampton, has slotted in next to Miazga to strengthen FCC’s defense. Those are two starters with a minuscule budget impact.
Make no mistake, this Cincinnati squad is built to contend. After two weeks, they stand in second place in the Eastern Conference, four points clear of Nashville. Unless something drastic changes, I expect that relative hierarchy to continue.
They are who we thought they were
Preseason expectations pegged Nashville as a back-of-the-pack playoff team. Five games into the 2023 season, it’s hard to argue with that assessment.
Nashville SC’s early-season schedule flattered them. The Boys in Gold scored early wins against New York City and CF Montréal with a road draw at the New York Red Bulls. Looking back, those results were not anything indicative of an improved Nashville side.
NYCFC has since added Santiago Rodríguez and James Sands. Montréal is a shell of its former self and sits bottom of the Eastern Conference. Even the New York Red Bulls have not been all that impressive to start the year. In totality, the results suggest that Nashville is the high-floor, low-ceiling team that many predicted.
On the field, the chief concern entering the season has continued to beg questions. Outside of Hany Mukhtar driving at opposing defenses, this team lacks clear ideas in the final third.
Yes, Jacob Shaffelburg has enjoyed a positive start to the season. However, both of his goals came by virtue of Mukhtar sucking all attention his way. It is Mukhtar, as the team’s sole creative force, that made those moments.
Perhaps when Randall Leal returns from injury, some of that creative burden will be lifted from Mukhtar’s shoulders. For now, without the Costa Rican, Nashville struggles to generate any menacing movements outside of a counterattack.
To Gary Smith’s credit, he recognizes the lack of clear-cut scoring opportunities. In his post-match press conference, while discussing the last two defeats, Smith stated:
“More importantly, not getting on the sheet. Not really creating enough clear-cut chances. And if you look at the stats, whilst the efforts on goal look encouraging again, same as last week. What we’ve actually achieved to trouble the goalkeeper has been minimal. Three shots on target out of, I think, 17 efforts. That’s got to be improved.”Gary Smith Press Conference, 03/25/2023
When Nashville concedes the opening goal, it heightens the concern. It’s never been a squad particularly adept at creating chances against a low block and lacks threatening bench pieces that can change a game.
Help wanted sign
Saturday’s match highlighted the continued need for Nashville to find additional depth pieces.
Nashville still lacks an attacking piece with real creativity off the bench.
At center back, Nashville could have stood to benefit from a trustworthy third option as it was clear that Walker Zimmerman was a step or two slower than his normal self as he continues to recover from illness.
On Cincinnati’s goal, Zimmerman allowed Álvaro Barreal to cut inside and fire off an uncontested shot from the top of the box that resulted in Brandon Vazquez’s rebound goal. Any other night, Nashville’s captain closes in tighter creating a more difficult shot or blocking it altogether.
To Zimmerman’s credit, he dug deep and found the energy later on to make a crucial goal-stopping tackle.
But Zimmerman’s illness again highlighted the lack of depth created by Nick DePuy’s season-ending injury. With a reliable third center back, Nashville could have opted for fresher legs to deal with Cincinnati’s potent attack.
The Nashville-Cincinnati rivalry finally felt like an on-field rivalry. Tempers flared and plenty of shoving matches resulted.
Cincinnati’s mastery of the dark arts and late-game theatrics surely will not have engendered much love between the two sets of players. As this match becomes a much more regular fixture, the spiciness should only increase more.