Nashville SC drew LAFC 1-1 on Saturday night. It was a tale of two halves for the Boys in Gold. A wonderful first-half display was undone by LAFC’s dominant second half. By the end of 90 minutes, Nashville, even as the home team, hung on for dear life as the visitors continually threatened to find the winning goal.
Here are my three thoughts on the match.
First half on the front foot
While it may go unforgotten because of the second-half performance, Nashville SC played some of its best soccer for large stretches of the first half.
This was especially true immediately following Hany Mukkhtar’s 35th-minute goal. The Coyotes’ confidence skyrocketed. The defense and midfield aggressively hunted the ball pressing LAFC into turnovers.
Nashville was flying high and unlucky to not have bagged a second goal. While Nashville was unable to find the second goal, the final fifteen minutes of the first half were incredibly encouraging.
The Coyotes’ first-half success, in part, was fueled by a tactical wrinkle sprung by Gary Smith. Nashville came out in a 4-4-2 Diamond, a formational setup that Smith has deployed a few times in recent years.
On Saturday, Dax McCarty operated as the single pivot at the base of the diamond. Aníbal Godoy and Alex Muyl filled the shuttler roles. Hany Mukhtar dropped a bit deeper to play at the diamond while Fafà Picault and Teal Bunbury sat at the top of the formation in the dual forward positions.
In defense, this allowed Nashville to defensively align in a 4-3-3, an unusual setup for a Gary Smith side that most often defends in a 4-4-2 or 5-3-2 block.
With Mukhtar able to push forward and add a third defender to the top line, it gave Nashville a pressing structure to wreak havoc on LAFC’s buildup. When the Coyotes dialed up the temperature of their ball pressure, the visitors struggled to build out through Ilie Sánchez. Hany Mukhtar may not have been specifically man-marking the Spaniard. However, Smith’s placement of Mukhtar at the top of the diamond put him into Sánchez’s space. It cut off passing lanes and created problems for LAFC to solve.
Any longtime readers of this column will know that I absolutely love when Nashville plays this more aggressive brand of soccer. I never want to see them morph into an Energy Drink style of soccer. However, this team has been highly effective when they push the line of confrontation and press immediately after a loss of possession. Think more of Jim Curtin’s Philadelphia Union rather than Gerhard Struber’s Red Bulls.
For a team that overly relies on counterattacking opportunities for goals, sprinkling spells of high pressure can be a partial answer to the goal-scoring woes.
As great as Nashville SC performed in the first half, they looked equally as bad in the second half.
Walker Zimmerman’s early substitution due to muscle tightness plunged Nashville’s defense into disarray.
The change forced Daniel Lovitz to shift inside to play as a center back. Lovitz has featured as a center back at times in the past, but usually as one of a three-man backline. A two-man partnership requires a whole other set of positional understanding which neither he nor Jack Maher had developed together.
Within mere minutes of Zimmerman’s substitution, LAFC capitalized on the lack of cohesion. Maher and Lovitz each thought the other would close down Denis Bouanga’s run. Neither did and Bouanga happily fired off a wide-open shot past Joe Willis.
For the rest of the half, LAFC relentlessly attacked Nashville’s shaky backline leading to a multitude of chances for the visitors.
Zimmerman’s early exit from the match highlighted a key depth concern for Nashville. This offseason, the club traded away stalwart Dave Romney and replaced him with Nick DePuy. However, DePuy never featured for Nashville and has been ruled out for the remainder of the season following surgery. The injury has left Gary Smith with no experienced options behind Zimmerman and Maher.
Late last week, Nashville acquired an international slot. A move that usually precedes a signing.
With MLS’s primary transfer window closing at 11 pm CT tonight (April 23), it would not be shocking to see Nashville add center-back depth before the window closes.
Set-piece defending nearly sinks Nashville
A week after conceding a soft set-piece goal to Maxime Chanot and NYCFC, Nashville’s woeful set-piece defending nearly cost the Boys in Gold a point against LAFC.
Set-piece defending is a long-running theme of this column, but that is because it is a long-running issue.
In the 86th minute, Jose Cifuentes’ header narrowly missed the goal. The Ecuadoran international was left unmarked. It allowed him an unimpeded run into the six-yard box where he rose above Nashville’s stagnant backline to meet the ball at its highest point.
Nashville SC typically lines up in a hybrid man-zone concept to defend set pieces. There are four or five defenders (typically the tallest and most aerially dominant players) lined up in a semi-circle at the six-yard box. They are responsible for zonal marking anyone who arrives in their area. Around the zonal defenders, a few additional defenders man-mark runners into the box attempting to body them off their runs.
On Cifuentes’ near goal, no one picked up his run. Jacob Shaffelburg may have had responsibility, but he was likely tasked with checking for pullbacks to the top of the box. LAFC occupied the other man-marking defenders (Godoy and Washington) creating a runway for Cifuentes.
Last year, Nashville struggled to defend set pieces. In 2023, they have not yet figured out a solution.
This week, all MLS clubs donned the Adidas “One Planet” kits. The official release describes the kits as:
Made entirely out of Parley Ocean plastic – a recycled material created from reimagined plastic waste – the hand-drawn kit design pays homage to the ocean floor each jersey aims to protect. Blended into the swirling print, the repeating wordmark “End Plastic Waste” serves as a call to action uniting each club in the collective stewardship of our planet.
While it is certainly a laudable initiative, the irony of selling these kits and immediately sticking them in single-use plastic bags is downright laughable. It is greenwashing at its best.