Project 2019: Identifying and addressing last year’s weaknesses

Nashville SC had, by all indications, a solid debut season. Could it have been better? Sure. The team was as high as second in the Eastern Conference in the USL Power Ratings (whether a simple projected final table based on games played, or on strength of results), but finished eighth. They also had a fallow period in the middle of the season with just 14 points in 14 games, seeing them slip from lofty positions both in the ratings and the table proper.

Want to have a better season? There are generally three ways: 1) look at what you did well, and do it even better, 2) identify aspects that you didn’t even consider last year, or 3) look at what you did poorly, and improve it.

Let’s take a look at the third one, with a focus on a few specific categories.

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This team didn’t finish well.

The Problem: Nashville SC was 13th of 16 Eastern Conference teams in conversion rate (goals per shot), due to multiple factors. Simple shooting or finishing ability is probably the most obvious one to address. By putting 12.40% of shots in the back of the net, they were in the same stratosphere as Penn FC and Atlanta United 2, rather than regular-season champion Cincinnati and USL Cup champion Louisville City.

The Solution: Add firepower.

Nashville added the league’s single-season record-holder for goals, Cameron Lancaster, signing him away from Louisville. He banged home 26 scores with a very impressive 23.64% conversion rate. If you put him in position to get a shot off, he’s nearly twice as likely to finish it as Nashville was last year.

That wasn’t enough, though. The team also added the second-leading scorer from last year’s league, Daniel Ríos. On loan to North Carolina FC, he scored 20 times on a 32.79% conversion rate (nearly three times Nashville SC’s average last year!). Now he’s been signed by Nashville’s MLS outfit with a season-long loan to NSC in the cards.

Fixed?: Assume that, instead of 12.40%-caliber finishing, 171 of Nashville’s 434 shots had been taken by a combination of Lancaster and Ríos (without even assuming that their movement would allow them to find even more shots). Their combined conversion rate of 26.90% would be pretty welcome there – 46 scores between them is more than Nashville’s entire team scored last year.

The defense couldn’t cope with a key injury

The Problem: Bradley Bourgeois dealt with a nagging hamstring injury during the year. His time being completely out of the lineup or limited from late June to early August was in the midst of NSC’s fallow period. A combination of London Woodberry and Ryan James couldn’t provide the same caliber of play, and Nashville suffered two of its worst defensive performances (giving up three goals to Ottawa Fury and Toronto FC II) with Bourgeois hampered and out completely, respectively.

The Solution: Add one all-USL defender and another who would have been if not for minor injury problems of his own.

Darnell King was second-team all-league last year for San Antonio FC (despite a poor year for the team on the whole), and can play as a right fullback or, like Bourgeois, a slightly undersized centerback. While he’ll mostly play the former, like both Woodberry and James, he can fill in at the latter. His presence has to be considered an upgrade.

Better yet, Penn FC’s Ken Tribbett is known for his set-piece scoring and ability to get forward, but he’s also a defensive stalwart. He was on-pace for a first-team All-USL honor last year, but missing 13 games over the course of the season saw him fall by the wayside in the eyes of the voters, to some extent. While you can’t count on him to be fully healthy all year – at least until proven otherwise – he can start when healthy and provide an option off the bench when not at 100%.

NSC has also added centerback/fullback Malcolm Stewart, and while he’s probably deeper a type of depth (he hasn’t played a competitive game in a couple years), he is an athletic, technical piece who can grow into the game.

Fixed?: Nashville SC may regret only signing David Edgar to a short-term deal last year, because the Premier League and MLS veteran played well when he was available, and after his departure, Bourgeois’s injury couldn’t be handled with the same caliber of player. Now, though, the likes of Tribbett is a younger piece, and the overall depth can be considered an upgrade. This only takes a very good defense a little ways higher, but there was only so much upside to add here, and NSC has done a very nice job of finding a piece to fill in.

However, if they go to primarily a three-man backline this year – as seemed to be the preference at the beginning of the year, and then when the rubber hit the road in the playoffs – there’s not yet a lot of injury cover aside from shifting players in from other positions.

Matt Pickens’s form faded mid-season

The Problem: This one is going to be a little bit more anecdotal, because the data show that, while he did swoon a bit after mid-June or so, it wasn’t a huge difference from earlier in the season (albeit against mostly easier competition in the second half), and of course he remained among the league’s best front-to-back:

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Over the course of the season, with a significant dip at the end.

The anecdotal evidence is, while slightly subject to our minds deceiving us, a little more significant. He wasn’t giving up a goal like this at the beginning of the year:

Nor would you have expected him to concede a penalty like against Tampa Bay, clear into an opponent for what was basically an own goal against Charleston, or give up a soft late equalizer against an impotent Toronto FC II.

It’s worth reiterating that he was among the USL’s best, no matter what (and was probably unfairly robbed of all-league honors). The issue to solve is probably more about keeping him fresh for the stretch run of the year. After all, he’s going to be 37 years old for the majority of the season.

He had a player who appeared to be a solid backup in CJ Cochran, but the youngster couldn’t get on the field in regular-season action except when Pickens took a bit of personal leave (his wife gave birth to a child) and also missed a contest with a wrenched back. He went on a loan stretch mid-season to Fresno FC, which has signed him.

The Solution: Nashville SC has signed Connor Sparrow, recently of both Real Salt Lake and their reserve team in the USL (Real Monarchs). You can read Sparrow’s accolades here. Former University at Albany keeper Danny Vitiello has also signed, though he, like Micah Bledsoe last year, appears to be pure depth, unlikely to see competitive action.

For the solution here to work out, there has to be another component at play: Sparrow has to take some minutes away from Pickens, giving the veteran a bit of rest (which means he’s better than Cochran or at least a little more trusted by the technical staff).

Fixed?: This one can only get an incomplete. We don’t have the body of evidence on Sparrow to know for sure whether he can compete at a higher level in the USL than Cochran, nor do we have a guarantee that he’ll get a little more time, keeping Pickens fresh late in the year (or possibly beating him for some minutes straight-up). It seemed the hope last was that Pickens would coach up the backups to take a little of the playing responsibility off the plate of his player-coach title, but it didn’t happen. With another year on his tires, you’d hope Sparrow can take to Pickens’s tutelage.

Playing down

The Problem: Nashville SC was pretty fantastic against the best teams in the Eastern Conference last year. In 16 games against fellow playoff teams, they averaged 1.125 points per game, and were the only team not to lose to FC Cincinnati. In 18 games against teams that missed the playoffs, they averaged 1.667 points per game. That may look quite a bit better, but you’d hope for the difference to be even greater.

Let’s put it another way: Nashville SC swept only two teams all year, and rightfully two of the bottom three teams in the East (Atlanta United 2 – against whom they played three games – and Richmond). They were swept by only one team, and while Indy Eleven was in the playoffs, they were the No. 7 seed, not one of the top couple. The only three teams against whom Nashville SC averaged less than a point per game (averaging a draw) were that Indy side and two teams – Tampa Bay Rowdies and TFCII – that didn’t even sniff the playoffs.

That mid-season swoon makes it hard to decide if the team played down to competition, or simply faded in form over the course of the year: with many of Nashville’s tougher games front-loaded on the schedule, it could be either.

The Solution: It’s tough to evaluate exactly what Nashville SC has done to address this specific issue. If it is indeed the legs giving out mid-season, improving depth would be one route to improving upon it, and the team has certainly done that (at least near the top of the roster – signings of bench-type players are still to come). Perhaps adding a bit more in the midfield would be important to solidify what they’ve already added.

If it’s truly a matter of having played down to teams, what is the solution? There’s no way to evaluate why that would be. Maybe they weren’t taking opponents seriously, maybe they got some folks’ best shot when they weren’t expecting it, there was certainly some bad luck in some instances (a travel fiasco for the road game against Toronto comes to mind), etc. etc.

Fixed?: Without being able to put a finger on the underlying cause, there’s no choice but to call this incomplete. One potential cause – quality depth – has been addressed, but others will have to be evaluated when the season rolls around.

Lack of chemistry

The Problem: Some of Nashville’s goal-scoring issues last year (see above) were attributed – by both players and head coach Gary Smith – as being a result of the team needing time to get to know one another. Off the pitch but far more importantly on it, knowing what a teammate is going to do when presented with a given look by the opponent, or a situation with the ball at his feet, or the opportunity to make a run… Nashville SC had just a few weeks to try to build that, and you may fairly say it didn’t really come together in time for the season to turn out the way many wanted.

You could also say that some personnel shifts during the year (Michael Cox and David Edgar departing mid-season, Brandon Allen and Kris Tyrpak among those who signed well after the year had begun) played a role in that, though you can hardly blame the technical staff for wanting to mold the roster to the best possible group. Formation shifts during the year (starting in a 5-3-2, going to both a 4-4-2 and a 4-4-1-1, ending in a 4-3-3, moving back to a 5-3-2 for the playoffs) probably also played a role – as did the impact that had on settling a starting lineup.

All told, though, there were certainly times where the team didn’t quite seem to sync.

The Solution: Continuity is key here. It does appear the team will still be tactically flexible (one of the biggest offseason signings, Kharlton Belmar, is a pure offensive winger, while the coaches molded returning player Ropapa Mensah into one toward the end of last season). I don’t expect the same formation or even philosophy in every single game. However, many of the established principles within those multiple philosophies will remain the same.

The team also brought back 14 players from last year’s team, including the top 12 in minutes played (striker Tucker Hume and box-to-box midfielder Ramone Howell were Nos. 14 and 23 in minutes last year). That’s some serious continuity between the teammates, and some chemistry both on and off the pitch. Too often, it seemed like that extra pass was taken when the intended recipient expected a pass, or vice versa when a run was wasted. Now that the players know each other, there should be less of that unfamiliarity harming the team.

Augmenting a well-established core with some top talent around them was probably just the offseason recipe needed.

Fixed?: It’d be unfair to say the only problems with chemistry were a lack of familiarity: there’s a chance some players didn’t quite fit into roles they were given at times, or couldn’t execute a certain pass that would have worked perfectly within the system, etc. However, there’s not a whole lot else the staff could have done than keep that continuity going to help.

This aspect can only be evaluated when we see the product on the field, but I’d expect it to be much improved in 2019.

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Nashville SC plus/minus for 2018

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Ramone Howell (4) led the team in plus-minus, albeit in a very limited sample size. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

As we trudge through the offseason, let us not forget through all the player acquisitions and scheduling announcements that the 2019 season will be built from a baseline that was established this Summer.

Certainly everyone is entitled to an opinion about the relative quality of certain players (and I have mine, too), but as I’ve tried to do in the past, some sort of objective measure of contributions is always worthwhile. No single statistic or group of statistics can tell the whole story, but the larger the body of data we build, the clearer the picture we have.

One measure that I find potentially useful – with some significant caveats – is a hockey-style plus/minus number. The calculation is pretty simple: goals when a given play is on the field minus goals against when that player is on the field. Unlike hockey, there are limited substitutions in soccer, so it’s both a little easier to calculate and carries a slightly different meaning (and can also be normalized to a number per 90 minutes played). Since man-up and man-down statuses are rarer in soccer, I also ignored those situations rather than excising them from the number like they’d be on the ice.

Without further ado:

Screen Shot 2018-12-21 at 12.28.02 PM.pngRamone Howell’s team-leading +6.66 per 90 is a small sample size distortion: with only 27 minutes on the field, he was playing during game-tying goals against Cincinnati in the regular-season finale and the opening round of the playoffs.

With 3,180 minutes played for the team (35 matches plus 30 minutes of extra time in the playoff match), your mileage may vary in terms of how many minutes a player needs in order for the number to be meaningful. I would handicap it at about 1,000 just based on the eyeball test, even in the situations where the expectations somewhat match up to the observed value.

Ryan James probably falls into that range (at least for me), as well. James’s situation does point out one of the weaknesses of a plus-minus in soccer, especially with limited substitutions: especially late in the year, he was mostly coming onto the field late in games with a lead, so his team wasn’t trying to score in most of his time on the field. Obviously that they got scored on in some of those situations is less than ideal, but the leading game state doesn’t lend itself to a positive plus-minus.

Indeed, game state is something that I’d be more interested in exploring – and would have, but the spreadsheets were going to get really complicated really fast, and quite honestly I wasn’t sure how I’d like to handle it. Certainly it’s fair to say that a defender who is getting a bunch of +/-0 while playing mostly when his team had a one- or two-goal lead is a heck of a lot better than a striker ending with +/-0 coming onto the field when his team is down by a score and looking for a goal.

So, who are some of the other surprises? Ish Jome certainly stands out to the positive, and I’d say both Bradley Bourgeois and Bolu Akinyode are lower than we’d have expected. Jome’s season did include a silly red that may have cost his team a result against Bethlehem Steel, and he faded after that – including being benched over the next four contests. In his first several games, though, he was a very solid performer. It’s possible that the way we remember his quality over the course of the season is unfairly tainted by the way it tailed off.

Bourgeois to some extent suffered from the same condition as James, making only late-game appearances early before supplanting London Woodberry, and then for a couple games late when he was working his way back to fitness after injury. A fully healthy Bourgeois who begins the year in the lineup is probably a little higher up the chart.

Akinyode’s low number is interesting to me because he played so much of the season that his plus-minus is pretty representative of his time on the pitch (with the caveat that he’s not the sole driving force behind a number ending up where it did, of course). He also happened to miss one of the worst results of the year – a two-goal loss to Ottawa, which Michael Reed also missed the action in with an early injury – due to international travel issues. He finished +5 on the year, so his number is hardly damning, but per-90, it’s the lowest of any returning player.

James was only joined in the negative by London Woodberry (I’d say his negative number was fairly reached, with a red card in the Ottawa game that facilitated the Fury’s second goal, and the only own-goal of the year, in a one-goal loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies), along with Robin Shroot and CJ Cochran, who both suffer from small sample size, though you could also say they didn’t earn a larger slice of playing time with their performances.

Going forward, it’s worth noting that, aside from Jome and David Edgar (or depending on how you want to look at it, Jome and Akinyode’s finish below Edgar), every returning player finished with a better number per-90 than every player who will not be back with the team in 2019. Nashville SC has consolidated the best performers on the roster – with the same caveats about the limited meaningfulness of the singular number – and let the other guys seek other opportunities.

The players added this offseason are safely assumed to be upgrades: the top two scorers in the league, an all-USL defender, and two highly successful guys who didn’t quite earn league honors. That’s pretty solid. Building on the core that was established last season, trimming those who don’t play up to expectations, and adding highly successful talent to the top of the roster could just be a recipe for an exciting 2019.

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.

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.

 

Video: Gary Smith, Ish Jome, and Bradley Bourgeois discuss win over NCFC

Nashville SC pulled out a win at the death against North Carolina FC. Hear what gaffer Gary Smith and two of the game’s key performers – midfielder Ish Jome and centerback Bradley Bourgeois (who assisted on the game winner) had to say in the aftermath.

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Presser transcript: Gary Smith, Bradley Bourgeois, CJ Cochran pre-Louisville rematch

Nashville SC gaffer Gary Smith and two of his players met with the media in advance of the team’s rematch against Louisville City FC. Here’s what they had to say.

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Gary Smith

How difficult has the road stretch been?

“It’s not over yet either, is it? We’ve still got two very very difficult games after this one. I think I’ve said before, we look to this stretch in a particular way. Certainly, hopeful that we can pick up points on the road and keep ourselves in a position to strike as it were, as we come into a better home run of games. We’re doing a reasonable job of that. I’d love to have been two points better off. I’m almost certain that the two games just recently away from home, we could have converted into a win out of one of those, given the chances we had. But we are where we are.

“We’re very, very pleased to come back home. Only one game at First Tennessee Park in our first eight, so it’s brilliant to be there and be back in front of the fans, and I’m sure everyone will be absolutely revved up to get behind the team because they just haven’t seen them for so long. What we know is, there’s plenty of work to do beyond that, as well. It couldn’t be a more straightforward saying than, ‘we’ve just got to take every game that comes ‘round.’ If I’m looking at Open Cup, Pittsburgh, Charleston away from home – who themselves are in good form – then I think we run the risk of really overlooking good teams. We’ve got a very good team in front of us at the weekend. There’s specifics in our team that we have to nail down and perform well in certain areas, otherwise the game will get away from us again.

“The one thing I will say is, we’re a different group than they played first game of the season. Not just in the way that we play, possibly one or two personnel changes, but also, I think confidence-wise, we’re growing all the time. This will be a very very good test for both of us now, I would think.”

Takeaways from first game against Louisville

“I’m not sure it’s just the game we played against them. I know going into that, that on their home field, they’re as tough if not tougher than anyone. They play that field extremely well. The shape, the style of their team suits that narrow and difficult surface. But I honestly think, a lot of people misjudge the quality that they have in their side. I’ve watched them away from home, and they’re more than capable of maintaining the ball and working teams over. They’ve got a very very good togetherness, something that you would expect, and only maybe expect from a team that have won something. It’s an in-built mechanism for players that have been champions, that have won silverware, that are playing together again – there’s an inner confidence, and they’ve got that. They’ve lost one game this season, they’re rightfully in the top two of the league if not top based on games played. I honestly see these – along with maybe one or two other teams – as the best teams in this Eastern Conference.”

The offense seemed to be more open and productive against NYRBII than previously

”When you don’t end up winning a game and you create those chances, you always try to take some solace in other areas: all coaches do it. Definitely, we came away with mixed emotions. Great point, a very difficult venue against a very difficult team. But with chances to win the game ands come away from there feeling very very good about ourselves. The good thing is there’s a very good development line in the team: not just in the way that we’re creating, in the way that players are combining, and some of the relationships that are forming. Ropapa [Mensah]’s now scored three in four, we’ve got a much better dimension to this team than we had at the start of the season. We look like we’re capable of solving some of the questions that people pose us in their shape and the way they play.

“New York were very different to the teams that we played previous in Indy and Penn. Technically, very very good. Threw caution to the wind in their attacking in the first half, and were very exciting. We were able to keep them at bay as it were – to one goal – and in the second period I thought we got stronger and stronger, and really looked like there was only going to be one winner. So, there are a lot of areas that we’ve improved, and I hope continue to. There are players in this group and certainly the 11 that will start at the weekend, that are desperate to get that W on the schedule again, and on the results sheet. They deserve to have had one before now, but unfortunately, this game’s about being clinical and showing a ruthless edge. Until we get to that point, we’ll just be one of the average teams in the league who are battling away every week. I certainly think we’ve got enough quality, we’ve got enough character, and there’s enough ability in this team to continue on a good run and start to add more points to the board.”

Are you looking forward to the derby game Wednesday?

“I watched the game mid-week. Honestly, I’ve not thought about it too much, as I’ve said. It’s great that Inter have got through. No doubt that they will be absolutely frothing at the mouth to get at us and try and win the game. Our job after Sunday is to be ready for that, to fulfill the potential that the team has that I put out, and win the game. We need to go into the next round, that’s it, simple as that. It doesn’t matter what they do, or how they do it, it’s about what we do. Levels of soccer are there to prove that teams, players, and mentalities are at another level. The players that play on Wednesday will have to prove that in my group.”

On just two days’ rest, how do you manage personnel for that game?

“I’ve got a bit of a shadow group that I’ve put down. Like all teams, we’re training throughout the week and there are certain guys that I saw that are getting through games and might need a little more rest. There are certain areas of the field that I may not have as much depth and players may need to be turned out again. There is obviously a very tough game at the weekend that we need to get through. At the end of Sunday’s game, I’ll have the clearest picture of who’s fit, who’s going to be in a good enough physical shape, what is the right team mentally, physically, and tactically to put out to win against Inter. My sole focus on Wednesday is to win the game. If we win that game 10-nil, it’s going to make no difference to me than winning it 1-nil. It’ll just make my life easier on the touchline. As long as we’re in the hat for the next round, I don’t mind how we win it: we just win it.”

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Bradley Bourgeois

Being back home

“Extremely happy. We’ve just kind of been on the road a lot – had a couple off weekends just to rest – and we’ve just been itching to get back. Especially coming back home for Mother’s Day, it’s going to be fun.”

Long road trip

“It’s made us come together as a group. We’ve really had to come home and ask ourselves a bunch of questions, and see what we really need to work at. But that’s what happens when you get tested early, especially when you go on the road consistently. I think it only makes us better in the long run, especially toward the end of the season.”

Lessons learned in the first Louisville game

“You know, it was the first game of the season. There was a bunch of questions that we needed to answer for ourselves, but we also didn’t really know what they were going to do. If you play that first game against anyone, you’re not really sure, and now that we’ve had a look at them, this is kind of a vengeance game for us. Hopefully we can have some revenge, and go out and take three points.”

Does having a game under the belt against them help?

“I think it’s just coming together more as a group and enduring tough times, just in case something does happen. We’ve seen them, they’re an offensive power: they score goals, they finish plays, they’re very aggressive through the wings and they like to get crosses in. I just think defensively, we’ve been together as a group now, and I think it only makes us stronger; I think we’re prepared for it this time.”

Are you more comfortable with the four-man backline after playing Louisville with five at the back the first time around?

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s more of what they do, I think it’s just about us. That’s just something that comes down to what maybe fits the group a little bit better, especially just some of the games we had early on. You never know: we could switch back and play five at the back again. As of right now, I think moving forward, the four at the back has been working well for us.”

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CJ Cochran

Road trip

“Just being away from home in general. Home games offer up a bit more with home support and your home routine, whereas on the road, it’s just being a little bit different. I don’t know if it’s difficult, I mean, we’ve all played plenty of road games before. But when you put two or three back-to-back, it becomes a little bit of… not a struggle, but just something that you have to deal with.”

Being the No. 2 keeper

“I think I try to take the same attitude as Matt would. Justx that I need to prepare for every game as if I’m playing. Recently, Matt’s been doing that really well during the week to be able to perform during the game. You see it all the time where a goalkeeper gets in for whatever reason. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to start on that weekend, but it happens, so you just always have to be ready, and I think Micah takes the same attitude as well. If the decision comes up or circumstances arise, any one of us would be able to perform in the game.”

More ready for Louisville the second time around?

“Absolutely. Being the first game at the defending champs’ home field, I think it offered up a lot of challenges. It was a good first game for us: we learned a lot about how we’re going to play, and a lot about this league in general. I think we’re really excited to get them back at home in front of our fans on our field, and really give them a much better game, and hopefully get a win.”