Pitch Points fawns over RSL

Rounding up the latest in Nashville SC, US Soccer, and more. As always, hit me on the socials if you have a link you’d like me to dive into in one of these posts.

Facilitiessssssss. I’ve talked about Real Salt Lake’s palatial training facility in the past, but now that it’s open, it’s time to take another look:

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Courtesy USL

It’s the home of Real Monarchs, the USL affiliate of the team, which is relevant to our more immediate purposes. It’s also relevant to our longer-term purposes, for a bit of a measuring stick for what Nashville wants to do when it’s in MLS.

It also raises a discussion of what NSC wants to be when it arrives in Major League Soccer. We’ve seen clubs like LAFC or Atlanta go out and spend all the money they can to rack up talent and play exciting ball. On the other end of the spectrum, RSL is dumping money into its academy to develop talent that way. (Of course, it’s worth noting that’s an extremely long play with the MLS rules making it less profitable to develop and sell). Which serves Nashville best?

Obviously somewhere in between those extremes is going to be the goal: Nashville has a booming tourism industry that can help attract signings. It is also a smaller-market city (No. 27 in the country, though presumably that’s growing just as fast as the city itself). How will the vision for facilities, academies, USL/PDL affiliates, play into that identity of what the club wants to be? There’s no way to answer just yet – and in-season is probably not the time to get too deep into the thinkpieces on it – but it’s definitely a topic the club itself (as well as fans) should have in the back of the mind for now.

Speaking of topics better approached in the offseason. Hey y’all, want to have some pro/rel discussion? No? Okay!

First, Rocco Commisso’s letter. Not a genuine attempt to make an offer, but rather to get attention for himself (and it should be treated as such). It’s important to look at what’s actually on offer, though.

Commisso is not saying he’ll invest in US Soccer (or the lowercase ‘s’ meaning of that, either) if the federation meets his demands. He’s saying he’ll invest in the NASL, which it must be noted, is his business. Essentially, he’s refusing to invest what he believes to be necessary funding into his own business unless he can hold other people hostage over it.

He is a failure: his business failed because he failed at running it. He wants to shift blame off himself for that, and is looking for a scapegoat. It really is that simple. (Stop me if this act sounds familiar).

There are arguments for and arguments against trying to implement promotion and relegation in our country. I remain unconvinced that it’s a panacea (or even necessary) when it comes to development, but can definitely see the thought processes behind it. I also think its advocates are all too willing to ignore that “relegation” is half of the damn name, and will result in a whole lot of soccer businesses ceasing operations when it happens to them.

The thing I know deepest in my heart of hearts, though, is that people like Rocco Commisso (and especially Ted Westervelt) are absolutely, zero questions asked, more damaging to the pro/rel movement than they are advancing it. I remain convinced that Westervelt is a plant to turn people off from the movement by constantly acting like an idiot.

I do think folks like Beau Dure are doing a heck of a lot more good (while being accused of being some sort of MLS plant by Westervelt) on that front, if you’re an advocate for the movement. Even while coming off as a skeptic, he’s more willing to engage in honest, pragmatic conversation on the topic, something that can’t be said for folks on either extreme on the issue (and especially on the pro/rel zealot side).

The accidental juxtaposition between my first two headings here makes you go 🤔

Jesse Marsch has ambition. That ambition? To coach in Europe. I understand the sentiment – proving oneself at the highest level, and all – but at this point, it’s not a priority to me for soccer specifically in the United States.

“I know enough of them to know they are very ambitious and it’s not just thoughts of the national team, but it’s beyond that. That can only help our sport back here,” Marsch said. “The more that we get exposed to, and the more our eyes are open, to high level football thinking and leadership and tactics, it can only lead to better things I think for football in our country.”

Yes, there are benefits there. For now, I’d focus on accessibility to USSF coaching courses than worrying about a guy hopping planes to Scotland at the conclusion of games he’s coaching.

It’s a laudable long-term goal for the country to have coaches in Europe. For the time being, it’s more an ambitious goal at the individual level, rather than a priority nationally to me. I’d rather raise the average level of coaching quality (something that I think is very important) rather than focus on the top.

Always glad to see coaches pursuing further education (and have long felt that teams need to do a better job helping players transition into coaching once that career ends, without waiting until it has, you know, ended).

Etc.: Former Michigan defender signed by the New York Cosmos. … Always love me some tactical talk. … Hard times in Charlotte (yes, I came across this because of the MLS mention). … ASN on a potential Olympics roster. I’m working on a project with a bit more on that event myself. … Narrowing in on a USMNT general manager, hopefully making the hire before the World Cup. … College soccer being dragged, kicking and screaming, toward an improved product. … Get on board with PrideRaiser campaigns.

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Pitch Points pays solidarity

Welcome to Pitch Points: rounding up links of interest in Nashville, US Soccer, and other topics of interest. Don’t forget to follow the site on Twitter and Facebook, where you can always drop links to share in one of these posts.

Development. This one snuck through (as in “I had a tab for it open and totally forgot to include it”) last week’s links post, but it’s très intéressant. New England Revolution is basically starting solidarity payments unilaterally.

Recognizing the important role alliance clubs play in nurturing young talent, the Revolution Academy is investing back in the soccer communities that develop Homegrown Players for the Revolution’s first team and has established a scholarship program for Academy Alliance Partners. The scholarship will be awarded when a partner club’s former player signs a first team contract with the Revolution and is intended to recognize the role the alliance clubs provide in developing players who join the New England Revolution Academy.

I’ve made it very clear that solidarity payments are an important part of reducing the importance of pay-to-play in our country (truly original idea, that), and while it’ll never completely go away – as long as there are folks willing to pay to get their kids another bit of coaching, onto another club team, etc., there will be pay-to-play mechanisms – allowing a wider range of players (in terms of SES primarily, but geography, ethnicity, and other delineating factors, as well) will naturally improve things.

That’s one of multiple initiatives mentioned in that release, which also includes free ID clinics conducted by the club. The more development pathways, the better.

There’s some form of great exodus from Girls’ DA to ECNL, which… I don’t really know how to read too much into it: I haven’t paid enough attention to the conflict to know the motivations, the differences between the two (my understanding had been that ECNL existed instead of Girls’ DA, then the federation launched a competitor to what had been a partner), etc. Just something to pay a bit of attention to, I guess.

That’s always a good time to focus on the core product of youth sports in general (H/T Beau Dure on Twitter).

#MLS2Cincy? Plenty of developments in the Queen City’s push for an MLS team in the past week-plus. FCC got approval for its preferred West End location for its stadium. MLS owners met about it, didn’t say anything specific about their opinions. Local media in Cincinnati is waiting with bated breath nonetheless.

The MLS website did a straight news story about the stadium developments, but the official statement was entirely unenlightening. I’m still expecting that we’re in a “dot i’s cross t’s” situation nonetheless.

(I’m still absolutely dumbfounded that the Detroit papers – one of which I used to freelance for, in the interest of full disclosure – are absolutely clueless about the fact that the Gilbert/Gores decision to make Ford Field their site absolutely ended any chance of their bid being chosen. You can’t hurt chances that already stand at zero).

Tactical talk. I’m always interested in a little bit of work on the chalkboard (as you all know). Here’s an interesting one: Atlanta United has made basically the opposite shift in philosophy that Nashville SC has, and both changes have spurred decent runs of form for their respective teams.

As we all know by now, Tata Martino shifted Atlanta United’s shape after a dismal start to the season in Houston, moving from his usual 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2. Yours truly and our own John Fuller covered the manager’s formation change last month. And the move sparked the team’s current five-match unbeaten run, seeing AU shift into a more direct, counter attacking side in recent weeks.

Without knowing too much about the way the games for Atlanta has played out – or, honestly, the strengths and weaknesses of their personnel outside of what I saw in First Tennessee Park two months ago – I couldn’t say if the opposite directions (with similar results in the table) are a matter of the competition played, individual fit, or what. I do know that it’s a little tidbit of interest.

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Screencap courtesy Dirty South Soccer.

 

It’s also an indication that there’s more than one way to skin a cat: NSC has gone from a seemingly defensive 5-3-2 to the 4-4-2 and remained defensively stout while adding a little more attacking punch. Atlanta has gone in the opposite direction to shore up its defense while remaining a threat going forward. They obviously have the players (and wage outlay) to play a little differently than Nashville does.

Brazil’s first division getting going. The opening of this story takes a nice little (deserved – I’ve voiced some of my concerns with the book before) shot at Soccernomics, but the content of the story is interesting nonetheless: why Brazil doesn’t have a national league that sports globally competitive clubs.

There are multiple reasons, of course, some of them political, many of them economic, plenty of them related to talent acquisition (would you rather move to Brazil and get murdered or, like, Italy?). We shall see if corruption cleanup is enough to change the status quo in a major way.

Etc.: Idea: let’s not do the homophobia thing anymore. Cool. … American Soccer Now with the projected roster for the next USMNT friendlies. The list of scheduled games now includes England, by the way. … The ESPN+ launch has been interesting, to say the least, though Pravda has a different take on it. … The official Nashville SC site profiles Kosuke Kimura.

Pitch Points has fingers crossed for 2026

As always don’t forget to follow For Club and Country on Facebook and Twitter. Catch anything in the wild that you want me to share in one of these posts? Send me a note through either of those channels.

Interesting times for World Cup 2026. The process for winning the World Cup is semi-complicated (to say nothing of errors leaving Nashville-based media scrambling to fact check and get official comment on MLS items). Here is how it works, with a warning that the process appears to be pretty overwrought for no reason (the reason is helping obfuscate corruption). Here’s Morocco’s take on the matter:

I’ve been pretty surprised that this Kyle Martino point – one I’ve made before – hasn’t been a major topic of discussion: Morocco is going to bankrupt its country to build stadiums if it wins the bid. The United States, Canada, and Mexico are going to have to do some infrastructure/capital improvement work, no doubt, but already have a surplus of big stadiums available. If FIFA wants to not be an organization running countries into the ground (note: it does not want this, or to be more precise, doesn’t care whether or not it is), Morocco is not only the lesser choice, it’s an outright irresponsible one. Of course, FIFA’s only desire is “help FIFA executives get lots of cool stuff in bribes,” so here we are, world.

Also interesting times for stadium discussions. Readers here (or anyone paying attention to the soccer world) is well-aware that the majority of “move MLS stadium” talk is not done in good faith. I’m well aware that I’m preaching to the choir here, but there’s… this:

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MMLSSTMC, Inc. is not a group of people who want the MLS stadium in a different part of town: they are people (or more accurately, one person) who don’t want a stadium or soccer team at all. (Nor could I find any evidence that they’re legally incorporated in Tennessee, in case you were wondering how deep the lies run, it’s “very”). Alas, we live in an era where you can lie to the faces of the public, as long as you shame those reporting the opposite in a louder voice (and with a catchier term). Being an outright liar is a way to succeed in America in 2018, unfortunately. It’s the responsibility of the media to not fall for that lie, but as a member of the media who has watched his industry go in the tank over the past several years, well, responsibility in the press is not at an all-time high.

The other part of this particular meeting is one Metro Councilman (DeCosta Hastings) who is trying to look out for his constituents after embarrassing himself with a lack of reading comprehension – or maybe memory – at a previous council meeting. A bit of face-saving and “I’m looking out for you” PR, aided by some disingenuous people whose goal is to submarine a stadium in general, and you have a weird perfect storm of ugliness.

It’s extremely unlikely that anything jeopardizes the stadium (which has already been voted upon and approved by the council, with Hastings among the yes votes), but certainly remaining vigilant won’t harm anything.

(Meanwhile, Phoenix Rising is taking steps toward an MLS stadium of its own).

A second Pulisic in Nashville this season. Surely, you were blown away when Pittsburgh Riverhounds assistant Mark Pulisic stalked the sidelines in Nissan Stadium a couple weeks back? You’ll probably be more excited when his son is here this Summer.

Liverpool Football Club will play Borussia Dortmund this July in Nashville, Tennessee in a friendly match that will see the return of Jürgen Klopp to face his old Bundesliga club, according to a World Soccer Talk source. The match, scheduled to be part of the 2018 International Champions Cup, will be played on Sunday, July 22.

NSC is away July 21 and home (First Tennessee Park) July 25, so no potential conflicts there… wonder if it would make sense to move the Atlanta United 2 game to a field that’s already going to be set up for soccer? And find some other interesting friendlies (Just one guy out here thinkin’) to host in that stadium?

Of course, I also encourage you to read the elder Pulisic’s interview on this very site. Some really good stuff about youth development from a man who knows as well as anybody.

Black soccer culture. Incredible video from Copa90 and Black Arrow FC about black soccer culture in Atlanta.

Very cool, and an outstanding display of diversity for a club (and a supporters’ culture) that has done a great job promoting it. Hope to see more of that here in Nashville going forward.

Etc. Should the US recruit dual-nationals? Why is this phrased like a question? The answer is obviously yes. … Y’all know I’m a sucker for a little tactical talk. … NCAA starting to get closer to international rules. … I wish Detroit City FC fans didn’t suck so bad, because otherwise I’d really like the club. … ESPN-Plus launching soon. … US Soccer looking at “bio-banding” instead of birthdate age groups. Funny, I heard a lot of complaints about the change to (FIFA-compliant) calendar-year age grouping from a lot of the same people who bitch about FIFA compliance in other areas. … Michael DeGraffenreidt’s twin brother signs with a new team. … A local take on Nashville SC’s newest signing.

Pitch Points really doesn’t like Bruce Arena

“Pitch Points” is a phrase which here means “Geoff Cameron.”

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Yes, it bothers the hell out of me that this isn’t centered, why do you ask? US Soccer Federation.

USMNTalk. New US Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro penned an open letter to the soccer community in our country:

With the election behind us, I want to help unite us as one soccer family.  The individual passions that fueled each candidacy can help us fulfill the vast potential for our beloved game in the United States. I believe that, playing as a team, we can be unstoppable.

In my remarks on Saturday, I made a pledge to all of you.  I will be your partner. I will listen.  I will be inclusive.  I will work with you to deliver the change we need, together, as one united soccer community.

Certainly, those are some of the things important to ask. There’s obviously a need to re-establish some unity in the United States, and that ranges from the lowest levels all the way up to the men’s national team.

What’s that you say? The USMNT doesn’t have a unity problem? (Side note: yes, I’m aware nobody said or thinks this). Geoff Cameron, for the second time in about a month, did some rantin’:

[M]aybe I’m not the guy you’d expect to be saying this, but it needs to be shouted from the mountaintops: The powers that be in U.S. Soccer have created a poisonous divide between the MLS players and the so-called “European” players, and until that culture is torn down, the USMNT will continue to slide backwards.

I wouldn’t say there’s been much mystery around that – and based on Cordeiro’s coming from within the US Soccer organization, I would assume that Cameron’s not a huge fan of how the election turned out.

I will say, however, that I’ve seen some “well, Cordeiro really was a reform candidate” takes in the past several days and dismissed them. Catching up on some old podcasts today though (I was focused on things like Speedway Soccer to make sure I didn’t fall behind on my Nashville SC media consumption as the season approached), I realized that there was more talk of that before the election than I’d realized. Certainly some of that was campaign strategy from the Cordeiro camp, but it certainly sounds like he didn’t see eye-to-eye with the man he’s replacing (his good friend Sunil Gulati) on a lot of things, including Soccer United Marketing’s relationship with USSF.

It’ll be interesting to follow and see how much is show and how much is legit policy planning. (For the record, everyone complaining about grassroots should know that even the established soccer countries have grassroots issues (not that England is the national team you want to try to match)).

MLS wyd bro? The MLS schedule only has the briefest of hiatuses during the World Cup: all of nine days (June 14-22). This, obviously, is stupid. I hadn’t previously realized that even the more extended breaks in the past still didn’t encompass the entire group stage, but what is the purpose behind that?

Give players a bit of an extended break, let American soccer fans watch the group stages (when they won’t be watching MLS games, whether or not MLS games are on television), have something like an East v. West All-Star game with only players under 24 (maybe only American/Canadian-eligible players under 24 – appeal to the USMNT fans who are dismayed about not making the World Cup and who are looking forward to the future) halfway through the break, and get back in action during the big gap between the end of group play (June 28) and the beginning of the knockout rounds (July 6).

Given that there’s at least one World Cup game every day for two weeks, play a fairly heavy schedule July 1, 3, 4, and 5 (a Sunday after two days with no World Cup, and then the three-day stretch spanning a major holiday), and you make up for some of the lost time that would otherwise see the season extend.

Added benefit? Those internationals who will make their nations’ World Cup squads miss less time – especially if they crash out after the group stage, though they’ll almost certainly take a few additional days to recover anyway – so the amount of diluted product you’re giving to fans is reduced.

Since I have this MLS section, here’s an MLS-related tweet I very much agree with:

Giving the casual fan the ability to watch games (or even stumble upon them) more than a couple times a week is an extremely important step for the league. That wasn’t a possibility with the proprietary platform – which also happened to be a lot more expensive for a lot less content. I’m extremely interested to see what other soccer leagues end up on ESPN Plus.

Gary in Nashville. Nashville SC coach Gary Smith and USA Today Network Tennessee‘s Joe Rexrode tour the city. It’s not particularly good #content, but you get to know coach a little more. The resulting column is a lot more enlightening.

Etc.: When hosting World Cups is primarily about being the best at bribing, well, you end up playing in places that are human rights nightmares. Good on you, FIFA. Nailed it. … I’ve talked MLS academies before and I’ll do it again, but for now, just read up on Atlanta United’s vision. … “Four guys who could be the next Jonathan Gonzalez” seems like a pretty depressing sales pitch for a story. … Never accuse DeAndre Yedlin of setting the bar too low. … Who’s trying to donate to a GoFundMe to send your humble writer to Ireland? Or, uh, North Carolina? … Same.

From the film room: Brandon Vazquez scores on the Boys in Gold

Please drop me a line here or on Twitter about how I can make this feature even more useful for you. I want to be as helpful as possible in helping folks understand what happens on the pitch, and why those things happened. Thanks to Robbie Melton for the suggestion of narrating the video.

If you want to read/watch something a little more pleasant, I direct you to the first goal in Nashville SC history breakdown from yesterday. Today, however, I take a look at what went wrong when Brandon Vazquez put Atlanta United back on top (for good) Saturday afternoon.

Here’s the video with the chalk talk built in:

And if you want a better look at the moment of truth:

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Michael DeGraffenreidt passes off to his fellow defenders, but nobody stops ball.

So, despite my sterling narration, there are still a few things to unpack here. First and foremost, this happened in large part because Nashville SC was pushing forward to try to get a winner, and there was a turnover in the midfield. That prevented Taylor Washington from being involved in the play, and it seems likely that the NSC defenders are a little more comfortable with their five-man backline, and didn’t properly execute the fundamentals expected with just two centerbacks (and there could be an argument that Washington shouldn’t be quite as high up the field without defensive cover with fewer players back).

Of course, this doesn’t turn into a quick counterstrike if not for a turnover, so remove that giveaway and there’s little to worry about. If Akinyode and Hughes are able to track back a little faster (it seems the main reason that at least Akinyode wasn’t back is that he was man-marking Kratz and didn’t see the urgency when his team had a significant numbers advantage).

Lastly, the communication and fundamentals between DeGraffenreidt, Doyle, and Dunstan needed to be better. From my perspective – and I won’t claim to know the specific coaching points in NSC’s tactics, but speaking generally – DeGraffenreidt did the right thing by forcing Nagbe to cut to the right (where there was help), then passing him off to the centerbacks in order to follow Williams. With a numbers advantage, Doyle sinks into a pure sweeper spot, and that’s where Dunstan needs to step to the ball, even if it’s generally risky (remember, less so in this situation with a sweeper next to him). Attempting a tackle gives you a chance to stop Nagbe, sinking deep allows you to prevent a cross or get in the way of a shot… he was caught in no-man’s land.

The good news? These are correctable errors, mostly through simple repetition in training sessions (remember, NSC has based out of a 5-3-2 and probably reps it much more; we don’t know how significant a part of the plan a four-man backline is in the long run anyway). Getting those game reps against outstanding competition – Dunstan probably didn’t see many Darlington Nagbe-level talents in the NPSL last season, just a guess – will prepare NSC for the USL slate. That’s why you play live friendlies in preseason, to get ready.

Take it, learn from it, and get better from it. I’m confident NSC will be able to do just that.

From the film room: The first goal in Nashville SC history

Nashville SC scored its first goal as a professional club Saturday. How did it happen? Let’s take a look. Here’s Ropapa Mensah’s tally from four broadcast angles (at once!):

A long ball from Liam Doyle, a head-on from Tucker Hume, plenty of room to run for Alan Winn, and a cool finish over the top of the Atlanta United keeper.

How did Doyle have so much space to send the long-ball, though? And why was Winn so wide open on the flank? How did Winn and Mensah end up with a two-on-one against a defender who was then beaten by the cross?

Let’s take a look at the ol’ chalkboard:

You’re probably going to want to be ready to replay it several times. Here’s a basic breakdown of what happens:

  1. NSC is in a four-man backline and either a bit of an unbalanced 4-3-3 or – more likely the desired shape here – a 4-4-2 with two box-to-box midfielders and two wide midfielders. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s formation has basically fallen apart: their two centerbacks are marking NSC’s two up top, but they are basically all alone back there, and – very importantly – central defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz (who is the primary Five-Stripe responsible for this goal) is way out of position, leaving Brandon Vazquez (19 – though I couldn’t see the number on the broadcast, he and Gressel may actually be flipped) in a ton of space marking left back Taylor Washington and left winger Winn at the same time.
  2. Michael DeGraffenreidt at right back starts with the ball in a bit of trouble. Forward Romario Williams goes to help defender Jose Hernandez, giving DeGraffenreidt an easy outlet to Doyle.
  3. Doyle takes a nice first touch to set up his left foot, sees all the space on the left, and bombs it deep. As you can see on the chalkboard here, basically every NSC player is being man-marked by an Atlanta United player. Larentowicz, however, is doing… something. He’ll continue not helping his team’s cause throughout the course of the play.
  4. Striker Tucker Hume, with a nice piece of target-forward savvy, heads the ball onwards into plenty of space. Winn, all alone, can run onto it. The ball is far enough ahead that centerback Sal Zizzo can’t catch up with Winn.
  5. That means the other centerback, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, has to leave Williams to try to prevent Winn’s free run and at the very least try to prevent the cross.
  6. The inability of Zizzo and/or Larentowicz (or left midfielder Chris McCann, who leaves NSC’s Ramone Howell to try to recover numbers) to get back in time to either prevent the cross or mark Mensah means he has a one-on-one with the keeper.
  7. Winn’s first-touch cross and Mensah’s cheeky first-touch chip finish combine to put the ball in the back of the net.

So what did we learn here? This was a pure counter-attack goal. Atlanta was pressing high to try to win the ball back in their offensive end, while (at least) one player missed his assignment, giving NSC an odd-man rush. Atlanta United could never recover numbers, and that was all she wrote.

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Wynn (left) and Mensah celebrate the goal. Courtesy NSC

It shows the importance of center backs who are comfortable receiving the ball under (potential – remember, Williams had left Doyle alone in trying to double DeGraff) pressure, and can pick out players downfield. It shows that a target striker can use his head not just to bang in goals off service from the wings, but also as a quick-strike version of hold-up player. It shows that speed on the edge can be a difference-maker, and that Winn is very capable of finding space and using his speed to take advantage of it. Most importantly (and perhaps underrated here), it shows off clinical finishing skill from Ropapa Mensah.

Winn and Mensah in particular showed very nice things on this play (though DeGraff, Doyle, and Hume all had important contributions, as did the pure luck of Atlanta United overloading one side to try to press). They’re two guys who hadn’t practiced with the team as much as most of their teammates – Mensah had a travel delay, while Winn was a new signing last week – and stand to only get better after being halftime subs, rather than starters. A scoring corps that seemed pretty thin has a couple extra important bullets in the chamber.

It’s the nature of soccer that any goal is going to require a bit of luck, whether in the form of poor play by an individual (Larentowicz here or DeGraff on the final Atlanta goal), multiple players breaking down (look for an analysis of Atlanta United’s Nagbe-assisted finish for their second strike a bit later on), or simple nature (the opening goal of the game). The trick is to put yourself in positions get lucky, and to take advantage of what avails itself to you.

It’s looking like Nashville SC will be able to do that. If they can do it against the most expensive side in MLS, certainly there will be opportunities against USL sides.

Just how settled is Nashville SC’s starting lineup?

We saw the first starting lineup in Nashville SC’s history Saturday afternoon, and it came with a few surprises. There was also heavy rotation (including a wholesale line change at the half), so what should we expect going forward? More importantly, what will the first-team eleven look like?

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Robin Shroot and Lebo Moloto started Saturday… but are they locked in? Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

The base assumption here is that the primary formation we’ll see out of NSC this year is the 5-3-2 we saw in the first half, rather than the 4-4-2/4-3-3 that debuted in the second.

Locked in?

While CJ Cochran can certainly provide some good minutes between the pipes, Matt Pickens seems a very solid bet as the first-choice keeper. So too with Justin Davis and Kosuke Kimura in the defensive line ahead of him. Bradley Bourgeois is fairly close to this honor, as well.

the three midfield spots seem the safest of them all to remain relatively consistent, with Michael Reed and Matt Lagrassa (though LaGrassa had some moments to improve upon against Atlanta United) in the defense-oriented roles, and Lebo Moloto perhaps the closest thing to a lock at the central attacking position.

Relatively solid

With seven spots seeming safe, that leaves four roles in the starting lineup up for grabs, and only one of them seems like a guy who is looking over his shoulder, but not feeling the heat too much yet. That’s the final member of the center back trio, London Woodberry. Like several of the other guys in the previous category, he has a bit of MLS experience, and unlike most of them, he’s relatively young at 26 years old. There are still some good years ahead of him, and he was already good enough to earn a starting role for the first appearance of the team.

In a battle

Three players started Saturday, but may not be fully entrenched (or close to it) in their roles. The shakiest of them all is left back Ryan James. In practices open to the media, he’d been the top backup at both left back and right back, but he earned the starting nod Saturday, over Taylor Washington, who had been neck-and-neck with him as the left back. The left-footer Washington has a different skillset than James, so there are some matchup considerations to make, but either way, there’s still a healthy competition for minutes there.

The other two players who seem to be in real battles are those who started up top: Robin Shroot and Michael Cox. While one of them is likely to remain in the starting lineup, it’s too early to say which for sure – the offensive output in the first half certainly wasn’t as impressive as it could be. Attacking talent in the form of target-man Tucker Hume, left winger Alan Winn, and striker Ropapa Mensah all combined for the first goal in NSC’s history as a professional club.

Indeed, it seems likely that Mensah may have already been in the starting lineup if not for arriving a week late to training due to travel snafus (and Winn’s signing wasn’t even announced until the day prior to the game, so he’s behind, as well). While Shroot and Cox both bring serious ability, there’s just far more attacking firepower than we might have expected prior to Saturday’s game.

Challenging from behind

I already mentioned Cochran, and there’s a decent chance the 26-year old can learn from his elder statesman enough to make this a little more of a goalkeeper rotation than a starter-backup scenario at times this season. Cochran certainly has the opportunity to be in the long-term future of the club.

The wholesale changes on the defensive lineup didn’t just give Washington a chance to continue competing fo a starting role against James: it also showed that there are other players ready to get minutes. Centerbacks Liam Doyle and Jordan Dunstan, and right back Michael DeGraffenreidt had some sketchy moments, but Doyle was one who had been rotating with the first team in the training sessions open to media, and all three showed signs of life (and obvious things to improve, not least of which “play on a drier pitch”) against Atlanta United. That was also the case for defensive midfielder Josh Hughes and Bolu Akinyode. Hughes’s back-pass through a puddle led to the first Atlanta United goal, yes, but he provides more in terms of pace and workrate than a lot of the other options in the position group.

Several backup midfielders got a bit of time in the offensive end as well: Martim Galvão, Ramone Howell, and Ian McGrath got their first taste of the field with NSC, and there’s no guaranteeing than one or all of them cant break through into heavy rotation. Of course in the case of Galvão, the former U-23 standout is a fan favorite and could be an impact sub late in games when the competition level isn’t quite “the most expensive team north of the Rio Grande.”

Wait-and-see

While the majority of the healthy players got time against Atlanta United, we’re still waiting on NSC debuts from a couple rostered players. Don’t assume just because they weren’t on the pitch a couple days ago that they’re nailed to the bench all season (or even all preseason):

  • Goalkeeper Micah Bledsoe (signing announced the day before the game)
  • Midfielder Charlie Dennis

Here’s hoping they manage to show their stuff in the preseason in hopes of getting time down the line.