Nashville SC announces returning players

From Club release: NASHVILLE (November 14, 2018) – The majority of the main contributors of Nashville Soccer Club’s successful inaugural season that finished in a USL Cup Playoff appearance this season will be back for 2019, pending USL and federation approval. Each of Nashville’s 12 highest minutes-played contributors will be back next year, including all four primary defenders and starting keeper on the league’s second-best defense.
Matt Pickens and Alan Winn are two players who return under contract. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
Returning under contract in 2019 will be keeper Matt Pickens, defenders Justin Davis, Liam Doyle, Bradley Bourgeois and Kosuke Kimura, midfielders Michael Reed, Matt LaGrassa, Bolu Akinyode, Taylor Washington and Lebo Moloto, and forward Alan Winn. Forward Tucker Hume and midfielder Ramone Howell have been re-signed by Nashville SC. Hume will return after scoring seven goals in the final three months of the season to propel SC into the playoffs. Howell, meanwhile, made his first two USL appearances as a rookie in Nashville’s final regular season game and playoff game, both against FC Cincinnati. Finally, forward Ropapa Mensah has been purchased from Inter Allies FC in Ghana following a season-long loan in 2018 with Nashville SC. Mensah became Nashville’s first-ever goalscorer when he struck against Atlanta United FC of MLS in Nashville’s opening friendly at First Tennessee Park. The club would like to extend its sincere gratitude to every player on the 2018 Nashville SC roster for each of their contributions on and off the field, making for a successful inaugural season for Nashville SC. That means your departures are as follows (in order of minutes played): F Brandon Allen, D London Woodberry, D Ryan James, M Ish Jome, GK CJ Cochran, M/F Kris Tyrpak, M/F Robin Shroot, and D Jordan Dunstan. And several players who never saw the field in USL play (alphabetical): GK Micah Bledsoe, D Michael DeGraffenreidt, M Josh Hughes, M Blake Levine, and M Ian McGrath. Very few surprises there. See here for my predictions. I was wrong on Bledsoe (thought he’d be kept for depth), James (thought his versatility would keep him around one more year), Cochran (really thought he’d have a chance to compete for more minutes with Pickens beginning to transition into coaching), and Tyrpak (the spark he provided late in the season seemed worth keeping around). Four incorrect calls, two on backup goalies, is hardly something to be ashamed of, no? See some of my predictions/ideas for who might fill in the roster here and here.
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The graphical: Nashville SC 2018 player radars

We’ve reached the end of the USL season – though Nashville’s been done for nearly a month – so let’s continue wrapping things up by a graphical representation of the players’ 2018 performances.

A few notes here:

  • Field players only. I’ll consider doing something for keepers in the future, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that makes sense without broader comparisons.
  • I used a cutoff of 600 minutes played (because otherwise sample size errors would be even greater than they ended up), which removed Jordan Dunstan, Ramone Howell, and Robin Shroot from consideration.
  • I also took out Michael Cox and David Edgar, because they played the majority of their minutes with other teams (St. Louis and Ottawa, respectively), and the way the USL website presents the data, there’s no way to separate that out. Neither would have played over the 600-minute threshold for NSC, anyway.
  • That leaves a pool of 17 field players.
  • Keep in mind that some of these factors are an indication of quality, others are a description of style. “Was in more duels” is not necessarily synonymous with “better,” just a different type.
  • That said, I’m not happy with a couple of the metrics representing the sort of thing I wanted them to. Specifically, duels are not as indicative of a defensive mindset as I’d thought (particularly because aerial duels went mostly to Tucker Hume on longballs, etc.). I’d re-calculate the data, but I got way too deep into the process before realizing it, so it’ll have to wait for another time.
  • Since I’m using limited software here (Google Docs, actually), the wheels are a bit tougher to interpret, with no raw numbers. Everything is scaled from lowest on the team (0) to highest on the team (1), without regard for how it’d stack up to the rest of USL. For example, Brandon Allen had the best finishing rate on the team (30.3%), so he’s represented by a 1. There were plenty of USL players with higher marks (such as Cincy’s Danni Konig at 37.9%), but they’re outside of the sample size.
  • The stats are divided into four categories, starting with usage in the upper right, and going clockwise through shooting, passing, and defense. Each category includes four metrics, though as mentioned above, I’m not super-happy with how representative they all are of what I’m going for.

Here we go:

Primarily offensive players

Forwards, wide midfielders (minus Taylor Washington, who played wingback and fullback more than he played as an offensive-minded midfielder), and central attacking midfielders. Not sure whether to stick LaGrassa here because he also played significant amounts as a central defensive midfielder, but given his time as a winger and second striker, I guess I will.

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Winn’s role as an offense-minded winger was one that worked out pretty well for him as a distributor, especially. He barely edged out Kris Tyrpak for the mantle of “greatest percentage of his passes were key passes.” His finishing could use some work, and he was mostly a non-entity defensively.

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Allen’s role as a poacher and finisher cannot be overstated. Of course, there’s a bit of a confounding factor here: four of his ten goals on the season came from the penalty spot, and two of them came with the Bethlehem Steel before his transfer.

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Were it not for his season-ending injury, Moloto would have been one of the ironmen of this team. His conversion rate on shots was well-documented as being too low (though, as I’ve enumerated plenty of times in the past, that’s probably a product of feeling like he had to do too much with a whole new team, especially early in the year). His shots on-target rate indicates bad luck played a part, too. He was also one of the key creators for this team.

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LaGrassa played multiple roles for the team, as described above. His offensive numbers certainly indicate that he spent much more time in that CDM role (which I believe to be true, though I haven’t gone back and checked). His win rate on duels and tackles is certainly pretty good.

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Jome, like LaGrassa, played multiple roles, though his were a little less diverse: left winger, left fullback, and a little bit of central defensive mid. He pretty much got benched after getting a key red card.

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Hello, Mr. “tries shit.” If Mensah had been at full fitness earlier in the year, this team’s (often deserved) reputation for being a bunker-counter squad with little creativity in the final third might have been different. Mensah’s conversion rate wasn’t great, but to a certain extent, having him out there was not only a way for him to score, but to open things up for teammates.

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Extremely similar graph to Winn’s, save for the fact that Tyrpak didn’t join the team until August and only got into five games. A whole season with him available would certainly be interesting (though he and Winn have overlapping skillsets, to an extent).

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The “shoot only” version of an offensive player. You’d actually like to see at least the passes per 90 be higher, given that he’s a hold-up striker. If the key pass version of a hockey assist existed, though, he’d be much higher. Also: the graph that made me realize duels don’t belong in the “defensive actions” category.

Primarily defensive players

The rest of ’em. As you can figure from the above, there’s some overlap in the LaGrassa/Washington/Jomes of the world.

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The only player on the team (or at least among these 17 who got enough playing time to count) who didn’t register a shot. Solid defender and ground-coverer, and the majority of his key passes were crosses in from the wing.

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A lot of minutes played, solid defensive numbers (remember, we shouldn’t be holding a lack of volume in duels against him), and decent action going forward with key passes. Given that he played both centerback and fullback, the pass numbers generally get a little more impressive (aside from long passing, which you expect more of from a centerback).

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The most offensive of NSC’s central defensive mids, Reed made an offensive impact with line-breaking passes (that long pass mark is pretty nice, especially when considering how many of those passes turned into key passes, and how accurate Reed’s passing was overall). He didn’t get forward much until later in the year, which you’d like to see more of with a team that’s a bit more comfortable with each other next year.

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James didn’t play a ton to get much data on him. Non-entity offensively (unsurprising given that much of his time, especially late in the year, came as a third centerback sub). Was a very good ball-winner, though.

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Some eyebrows were raised about Doyle’s selection as the team’s defender of the year, but the graph is pretty impressive to me. Tons of blocks and clears, did a great job winning tackles, wasn’t a liability with the ball at his feet (completing a lot of passes despite simply booting many of them upfield), and was pretty much an ironman.

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I’m actually fairly surprised Bourgeois’s long passing rate wasn’t higher, because there was a stretch in the middle of the year where it seemed like he was just instinctively banging it upfield. He would have been one of the minutes leaders if not for a mid-season injury, he would have had a ton of minutes, too. Glad to see him get a couple goals in there, as well.

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Played multiple positions, scored on one of just seven shots on the year. Wasn’t super-involved on or off the ball, based on the graph, but was good when called upon.

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Hello, weird graph for a central midfielder. Akinyode was very good defensively (upper left quadrant) and got plenty of playing time (upper right). The bottom two portions are where it gets interesting: he was a non-entity offensively – aside from one absolute banger against FCC, of course – and his passing chart shows a guy who was similarly not involved either getting forward or moving the ball into the offensive third. “Guy who doesn’t mess up with the ball at his feet” is certainly an asset for a team, but I’d like to see more (or, if he’s not going to produce going forward, a couple fewer situations where he was jogging back in defense while his guy scored or set up a goal).

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Woodberry actually had the ball at his feet a lot for a centerback. He was fairly solid blocking shots and clearing them with regularity (perhaps there’s something to be said for that), though the other centerbacks had a bit more. Anecdotally, he did have a game-losing own-goal, of course.

What we learned

Aside from “let’s make sure we understand what part of the game duels demonstrate before chopping up the data,” I think a lot of what we see here either follows with what we saw on the field (“Ropapa tries to make things happen,” “Akinyode may not be physically capable of a pass longer than eight yards”), or taught us something that we might not have otherwise realized (“Hume’s shooting was actually more important to the team than his hold-up play,” “Winn and Tyrpak were far and away the most important setup men”).

Again, some of the graph is on a scale of “bad to good” while other parts are simply stylistic measures, so there’s a bit of mining you can do with these.

If you have any suggestions for how to make the graphs more enlightening, or a question/suggestion/etc. otherwise, let me know in the comments or drop me a note on the social channels. I’m all ears, and trying to get as much information displayed in an interesting and informative way as possible.

 

Breakdown and player ratings: Nashville SC 3-0 Atlanta United 2

A major bounceback game for Nashville SC was spearheaded by some familiar faces. How did NSC get back on the right side of the ledger?

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MOTM performance from the young winger. Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country

Quick note: my ratings are score-based after a film review, and on a scale that… there’s technically no range but anything over 15 is generally good and under 9 or so is bad for a full game worth of performance. Community ratings are on a traditional 1-10 scale.

Formation and tactics

Nashville went with its 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 (with Lebo Moloto sinking into more of a midfield role) throughout the game. NSC’s gameplan was very clearly to catch Atlanta United being aggressive down the flanks, and countering in behind their fullbacks with runs from the wingers and from their own fullbacks. It worked well!

The middle of the pitch didn’t get much love: thanks to the style of play by Atlanta, the cetnerbacks and central midfielders had mostly a spectator’s role (though the CDMs did push out toward the sideline a bit to get involved defensively). Don’t take low scores in my ranking system as an indictment here: they just didn’t see much action on this day, and for defensive players, that’s a good thing.

Gary Smith’s substitutions were solid to me, though I might have liked to get Alan Winn out of the game a little early after he took two yellow card-worthy fouls (shockingly, neither of them actually drew even a whistle from the ref, who had a real struggle with this game). I’d also like to see Ropapa Mensah come on a little earlier – 13 minutes pre-stoppage is not much of a run, though the five minutes of stoppage time in a 3-0 game that already saw the team who was down starting to get really chippy (again, the ref had poor control of the game here) gave him a bit more.

Since I’ve broached the topic of officiating: calling off the goal by Michael Reed was the right decision, not because keepers deserve more protection, but because it was an obvious foul by Reed no matter who the player was. You can’t shove a guy in the box and then score a goal (the contact was significant enough that it probably would have been a penalty if a defensive player had given that amount of shove, and we all know how conservative officials are whistling penalties on set pieces). Nashville committed one or two fouls that probably could have been carded but weren’t. Not giving the penalty when Brandon Allen was swept from behind with a wide-open goal was unconscionable. That’s “you don’t get assignments for a little while even though you’re not officially suspended”-level bad. Then, after missing both takedowns of Winn, he did give a yellow card on a hard tackle from behind of Lebo Moloto, but given the… attitude with which Atlanta was approaching the end of the game, there’s a chance it was red-worthy. Certainly came as an indication that there was no need to give five minutes of stoppage time in the game. Awful performance from the man in the middle, and Nashville only got the slightly worse of it.

Anyway…

Gary Smith community rating: 8.71

Community comments:

  • Not the toughest team to bounce back against, but getting the job done is getting the job done.”
  • “Navy uniforms at home gets a 0.”

Midfield

Ladies and gentlemen, your Man of the Match:

Alan Winn 19.60 (66 minutes) – Community rating: 9.57

That Winn racked up such a huge score in only 2/3 of the game speaks volumes to what he contributed. His speed up the wing (especially against a team that’s really vulnerable in that area) is a game-changer when he’s fully healthy, and he appears to be just that. Notably, he’s more comfortable making plays for teammates now, and I was really impressed with his desire to make an impact defensively. If we get more performances like this (probably not too many: Atlanta was particularly vulnerable to his skillset), the sky is the limit on this season

Community comment: “Alan Winn looks back to form, and it came at a really good time.”

Taylor Washington 15.54 (76 minutes) – Community rating: 7.86

Washington had a lot of success for some of the same reasons Winn did: his speed down the flank is able to exploit a particular weakness of this Atlanta United 2 team. He was pretty involved offensively for more than just crossing (which he’s done well in recent weeks, but we need more than just that), and he’s a good defender for a midfielder – we saw midweek he’s just an OK one as a pure fullback. He took a couple shots, and was unlucky not to score one of them. He doesn’t combine with Justin Davis quite as well as Jome, which meant less Davis involved in the offense, but clearly NSC didn’t need the left-sided fullback to get forward.

Michael Reed 11.32 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 7.86

Again, remember that the center of the defense was left mostly alone by ATL UTD 2, so while his score in my system is low, that’s not because Reed had a poor performance. He was his usual self… there was just less of it. He did have the foul on the would-be goal (though he wouldn’t have been able to poke the ball home without fouling the keeper, so it is what it is), and was a little hesitant to rip a shot late in the game even with a numbers advantage and his team comfortably winning the game.

Bolu Akinyode 10.83 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 7.71

 

Akinyode suffered from the same problem as Reed when it comes to high scoring: a simple lack of volume. One of the main weaknesses of his game (tracking back in defensive transition) didn’t make an appearance because the Baby Five Stripes didn’t want to attack that way. He remains hyper-conservative on the ball, and doesn’t get his head up to survey options even when he has plenty of time and space. The back-passes are better than the alternative of a turnover, but especially against a team whose attack was so toothless, I’d like to see more aggression in the passing.

Matt LaGrassa 1.97 (23 minutes) – Community rating: 6.43

A decent bounceback game from a guy who’d struggled in the previous few outings. Having Atlanta players barreling straight at him actually seemed to help: while it led to some mistakes, there was also an element of “play, don’t think” added to his game where he wasn’t overdoing it on the mental side of the game. He did get smoked in a man-to-man mark on Lagos Kunga, but also made an extremely nice run that Ropapa Mensah reward with a long pass, though the final product wasn’t there in the end. I’d still like to see him play centrally a little bit, but he showed he can hang on the wing in the right situation.

Ish Jome 0.73 (33 minutes) – Community rating: 7.14

A second straight quiet game for Jome, though this one was less troubling to the eyeball test: it was more about coming on well after Nashville had a 2-0 lead and was willing to pack things in and counter intelligently (which prevents a player with his skillset from being super-involved, since he’s a gifted offensive player). He did run out of ideas breaking into space down the left channel a couple times, which also plagued him in other games where he struggled, but he showed more offensive diversity at other times. Just not a lot for him to do in this one.

Forward

Lebo Moloto 17.18 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 8.71

I know there’s been discussion (including the latest Soccer Speedway as well as a complementary piece on Golden Goal) about who Nashville SC’s MVP to date is, and Moloto is one of only two options that’s remotely reasonable (the other is Pickens – guys like Winn or Mensah aren’t a big enough piece of the whole picture, even though they have exciting moments). He dominates so much on the ball for Nashville, and is such an important part of creating what offense they do have – though the wingers are starting to play a bigger role lately. He’s also an effort player defensively, including high up the field. For a guy who has near-ironman status, you can’t ask a whole lot more. He didn’t create the goal he scored, but it was a nice reward for a guy who does basically everything else right.

Brandon Allen 8.99 (81 minutes) – Community rating: 8.14

Allen dunked one Alan Winn cross home, should have earned a penalty on another, and hit a post and then suffered a diving save on the rebound on a third. That’s pretty good production for a striker (especially one with a poacher reputation/style). He’s also a guy who came in with a reputation of not having any effort defensively, but I’ve been impressed with how hard he works there. The negatives? His full-90 fitness is poor, and I think he should have been taken out of the game sooner, not least of which because the replacement is a good one in Ropapa Mensah (and while the big Ghanaian also doesn’t have 90-minute fitness, certainly he’s capable of at least 30-45 minutes). Allen had a great score at the half, but had a negative score for each of the three divisions (coming out of the break, then after each of the two substitutions that came before he was taken out of the game) before being subbed.

Ropapa Mensah 3.82 (18 minutes) – Community rating: 7.57

I’ve encouraged patience on the Mensah hype train multiple times, not because he’s anything other than an outstanding talent, but more because he’s a young guy prone to inconsistency (and with no ability to perform over a full 90 just yet). While there were mistakes in this game – his attempts to do something crazy result in turnovers, but sí vale la pena to me – the level of creation for a guy who’s mostly a pure striker is great. The long service I mention in LaGrassa’s section above was borderline jaw-dropping. He in no way deserved an assist on Moloto’s goal (an Atlanta player had a crappy clear that went right to Moloto, though Mensah was standing near him), but in terms of performance, it was a just reward. Give him another 20 minutes or so pls.

Defenders

Kosuke Kimura 16.90 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 7.29

While I thought Kimura had a good game, I was surprised to see the spreadsheet churn out a number quite this high. He was solid in positional defense, benefitted from Alan Winn’s increased comfort combining with his fullback, but to have one of the highest overall marks on the field? It’s interesting. He did seem to be highly involved though, and defending in the half-spaces and higher up the pitch can help rack up a high number. I doubted Kimura very early in the year, and he continues to excel to prove me wrong.

London Woodberry 11.07 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 7.43

Woodberry was the more aggressive – yet less mistake-prone, though those seem to end up being opposites more often than not – of the centerbacks in this game. He took away a lot of shooting angles (which, yes, Atlanta United 2 also managed to do itself), and deflected a shot or two, made a lot of simple clearances. I was a little surprised to see him score this highly in my system nonetheless.

Justin Davis 10.44 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 7.71

Davis would have been higher-graded than Woodberry but for the late stages of the game. He got a little more involved in the offense (honestly, it seemed almost “I’m bored, let’s goof around a bit – though the insertion of Jome plays a role there, since they like to combine with each other) and had a couple mistakes with the ball. While that’s generally a problem for a defensive player, the game situation makes me sort of shrug at it. Before that, he was solid in his positional defense, had a few patented slide tackles, and generally looked like himself.

Liam Doyle 6.67 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 7.14

Doyle had a questionable play or two on which he stepped up improperly (or overly aggressively, you could say), springing a player in behind. Fortunately, ATL UTD2 is generally not good enough to take advantage of that, though Matt Pickens was called into service on one such occasions. His other main negative was a little bit of composure lost on the ball when the Baby Five Stripes tried to press high: there were a couple opportunities to play out of the back, but he saw the pressure coming and just booted aimlessly upfield. With his leg strength, it’s hardly the greatest sin. As mentioned above, just not a lot for the players in the center of the pitch to do.

 

Goalkeeper

Matt Pickens 11.60 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 8.00

Pickens had basically nothing to do. He was credited with five saves, two of them legit (very early in the game, he pushed one out for a corner, then he came off his line to cut out the angle on the aforementioned Doyle play), and three of them just letting a 25-yard attempt slowly dribble into his arms. He still ended up with a decent score in my system because his distribution was mostly good, and making no mistakes (he had one goal kick go out of bounds only) is a good way to be.

Thanks for participating in the community ratings. Check back after each USL game for your opportunity to participate!

The Graphical: Nashville SC 3-0 Atlanta United 2

Welcome to The Graphical, in which I mine the Opta data for insights as to how Nashville SC’s most recent result came about. You can also see more conventional game coverage from the big win here at For Club and Country, and don’t forget to vote in community player ratings before the deadline, coming tomorrow or Wednesday.

An even matchup

Nashville ASC dominated on the scoreboard, but not nearly as much in the basic stats of the game:

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NSC (on the left) had a marginal advantage in possession and duels, but Atlanta United 2 won more aerial duels, intercepted more passes, and had more corner kick opportunities than Nashville.

They committed fewer offsides than NSC as well, though there are multiple ways to interpret that. First, it means Nashville was working hard to get forward (particularly on the counter when Atlanta was caught with defensive personnel upfield). However, it could also point to a lack of discipline, which you might expect from an ATL UTD 2 that was undisciplined in several other ways. Overall, it probably ends up being a wash.

So Nashville won in other ways

Yeah. Obviously, it’s possible to dominate in the relatively basic stats and still lose (Nashville SC had just done it a few days earlier against Indy Eleven). Playing a relatively even game in the stats and still coming away with a 3-0 win isn’t that out of the ordinary. So how did Nashville manage to not only find an advantage, but enough of one to win the game comfortably?

One way was by winning the ball farther up the pitch. Here is a look at each team’s defensive actions (minus clearances, which definitionally are going to happen close to the defense’s goal):

There’s not too much of a difference where on the field the key defensive events happened… but when you ignore the goalkeepers (44 in green is Justin Garces, 18 in black is Matt Pickens), there’s quite a bit more help in the box defensively on Nashville’s end. Obviously, you don’t want to have to be defending in your own penalty area a lot, but plenty of NSC’s success in 2018 has been attributable to the keeper not having to do it all on his own. When the game ends in a shutout, there’s little complaint about that pack-line being a result of constant pressure from the opponent.

Then, look at the other end of each graphic: Nashville doesn’t have a concentration more positive defensive actions as they enter the offensive third. However, they seemed to be far more comfortable converting that immediately into offensive pressure to get dangerous chances on net, whereas Atlanta’s slightly greater volume of shots taken wasn’t as impressive:

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Six from outside the box compared to Nashville’s three, none from within the penalty area inside the width of the penalty area (Zone 3 for all you xG-heads). You can fire a lot of shots and still end up with none of them having a particularly high likelihood of going in: Nashville was doing that through the first three or four games this season. Atlanta did it Saturday night.

Hashtag WINNing

Alan Winn has been working his way to full fitness, working his way toward full health after a foot injury early in the year, etc. It’s understandable why he hasn’t been starting lately (especially when you take into account that he’s still learning the professional game a bit). He was good in this one, though:

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He still has a tendency to drift the width of the field, but in this one he didn’t make his way all the way across (where he goofs up the spacing sometimes). He was able to be a menace in the opposing box, was consistent along his wing to provide lateral width, and dropped into his own end for some defensive actions or to come to the ball.

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A speculative shot from wide (a header, so it’s hardly damning that it was off-frame) and a couple incomplete passes in areas where Atlanta could potentially make some danger. Yes, those are negative, but I’d say the assist, goal, and otherwise flawless day passing make up for that.

“He came off because he’s not had bundles of football,” Gary Smith said. “He had a terrific hour and it was time to really inject some energy.”

Get up to 90-minute fitness so there’s not the late fade (or expectation of a late fade), and there’s a lot to work with.

 

Thanks as always for reading FCAC. Please feel free to share our social media posts with a friend who is interested in learning about the team and reading in-depth coverage of Nashville SC.

Boys in Gold can build from bounce-back win

Don’t forget to vote in the community player ratings to have your voice heard!

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From file. Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country

NASHVILLE – A resounding win (indeed the biggest winning margin in club history) felt pretty good for Nashville SC Saturday night. The group knocked off Atlanta United 2 by a 3-0 scoreline, with three different goal-scorers finding the back of the twine. For a side coming off just one win in their past four games across all competitions, it was a welcome change.

“I felt from start to finish, we had the right attitude, attacked the game from the outset, which was very much a point that was put across in the days between a defeat here to Indy on Tuesday and today,” head coach Gary Smith said after the game. “I just felt we’d come away from what we were about and what we’ve created. Those opening exchanges showed again that they dynamic of the group, purposeful play, energy, spirited, not just individuals, but spirited teamwork found some reward against a talented young side.”

Atlanta United 2 hardly provided the stiffest competition: in contrast to their parent club, the Baby Five Stripes are struggling as much as almost anyone in the USL’s Eastern Conference (Toronto FC II, another MLS reserve team, is in a category of its own as the worst fully professional team in North America, and by an extremely wide margin). While they boast some talented young prospects – who were able to put together a few exciting moments – breakdowns in the team’s shape happened on the regular, and Nashville probably could have added another goal or two.

Nashville put just four shots on target, scoring on three of them, but had ten key passes in the contest. That was just the semifinal product on a performance that saw them possess in midfield and comfortably counter time and again when Atlanta United 2 turned the ball over.

The return of winger Alan Winn to the starting lineup was a breath of fresh air for a Nashville team that has struggled to consistently produce in the final third over the past few weeks. He helped open the scoring in the 19th minute by sliding a pass across the face of goal for striker Brandon Allen to easily slot home. He score one of his own shortly before halftime, taking a long feed from Lebo Moloto and cutting to his right foot for the solid finish.

“It was off a free kick and I headed the ball off the top of the box and I tried to get another header out and Brandon stepped up and it deflected off him to Lebo and I was there off the counter,” he said, before adding with a chuckle. “It was a tight space and my left foot is not as good as my right, saw an opening and took the shot.”

Smith was impressed with the youngster’s game – which saw Winn named Man of the Match by fan vote.

“Alan was terrific, he was very positive, involved in an awful lot of creation and of course got an assist and a goal,” he said. “I’m not sure I could have asked for much more of a performance.”

His assist was a thing of beauty as well – and showed just how much success he had working down the right flank. The goal-scorer says that it was important to knock that one in and set the tone.

“I think in every game getting the first goal is important. Obviously in the last two games we haven’t managed to get the first goal and fortunately tonight we were able to get the first one and get the three points.”

With the win, Nashville rises to third in the USL East, eight points behind conference leader FC Cincinnati, with two games in hand on the best team in the division. That sets up a blockbuster match next weekend at Nissan Stadium, where the Boys in Gold will be hosting FCC with plenty on the line. A Nashville win could bring the team within five points of first place (still with the two games in hand) before getting into an easier stretch of the schedule. A loss would give their rival a chance to run away with the lead for the conference title.

The two MLS-bound sides (FCC will join in 2019, Nashville in 2020) have proven to be among the top teams in their conference, and settling the pecking order at the top would go a long way toward telling the story of the 2018 season.