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.

 

Lebo Moloto named second-team All-USL

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Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

An honor for one of Nashville’s most consistent offensive threats. From club release:

NASHVILLE (November 5, 2018) – Nashville Soccer Club’s dynamic attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto was named to the United Soccer League (USL) All-League Second Team on Monday afternoon. The honor is the first for both a Nashville SC player and for Moloto in his professional career.

“Lebo has consistently shown that he is one of the top creative talents in USL,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “His exciting and effective displays have been a catalyst for the team and an immediate connection for the fans.”

Despite missing the final six games of the season with a knee injury, Moloto appeared on the scoresheet more than any other player on Nashville, compiling seven goals and five assists. The seven league goals were tied for second-most on the team, while the five USL assists were tied for the team lead.

“Lebo has proven to be one of the premier playmakers in the USL,” said Nashville SC technical director and VP of soccer operations Mike Jacobs. “Even with his season cut short due to injury, it’s nice to know that his consistent performance in 2019 was appreciated.”

A native of South Africa, Moloto was one of Nashville SC’s foremost inaugural season acquisitions when he came to SC in a trade with the Swope Park Rangers in the offseason. Moloto more than showed his value, playing in all 28 USL games prior to his injury, starting 25 of them. He created 51 chances in those 28 appearances, most of them from his regular “No. 10” positon as the orchestrator of Nashville’s attack.

A deserved honor. Although Nashville’s offense seemed to run a bit smoother in the final few weeks without him, that was more likely a result of a change in emphasis brought on by the necessity of not having him available. He was the primary creative offensive threat for the vast majority of the year. Moloto finished tied for second on the team with seven goals, was a member of a three-way tie with five assists, and his 51 key passes were second on the team behind only captain Michael Reed.

While off-field accomplishments aren’t a factor in the All-USL teams, certainly his charitable efforts are another feather in cap for any skeptic about whether he’s deserving of postseason honors.

Moloto’s late-season injury may result in needing a bit of time to work back to full health, but a version of the talented midfielder who begins the year having built up chemistry with some of his teammates could be an extremely dangerous piece in the 2019 USL side.

Lebo Moloto giving back to his hometown

As soccer fans around the United States engage in arguments about what’s wrong with youth soccer in our country (with plenty of focus on how the pay-to-play system manages to shut talented players out of the US Soccer system), it’s easy to forget that not everyone even comes from a place where the opportunity for that argument even exists. Players in developing or recently developed countries like South Africa may need the game to simply survive.

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Aspiring young footballers in Moloto’s hometown. Courtesy Lebo Moloto

Nashville SC midfielder Lebo Moloto, a native of Chebeng, South Africa (a village outside the city of Polokwane), is one such player. He managed to parlay his soccer skill into a college degree and a professional career in America, and wants to give other young people from his hometown that opportunity. He was lucky enough to grow up with parents who believed in his talent and – yes – sent him to a pay-to-play academy. He eventually turned that shot into a scholarship and degree from Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky.

“For me, what happened was I was playing grassroots on the dirt, and somebody saw me,” he explained. “I went to an academy that my parents had to pay, but they were able to do that because it was something that I wanted to do – I think it was like $30 a month. I had better coaching, I had better facilities, there was grass, and that’s where I got my first soccer shoes. [Before that], it was barefoot, or there would be like shoes my mom bought that I’m supposed to dress up in and I’d mess them up playing. Or sometimes, it’s not uncommon to borrow people’s shoes. So we’d like rotate shoes.

“What happened was the fact that somebody saw me play there, and they gave me an opportunity. They said, ‘let’s go to Johannesburg for a tryout.’ We had a tryout and I got selected, and that’s how I got out of that situation. We had a tournament in Cape Town and there was an American coach that offered me a scholarship. I was like, ‘you know what? That’s a good opportunity.’ I took it and I don’t regret it.”

This December 23, Moloto will host the Chebeng Cup, an opportunity for young boys in his hometown (he’s hoping to add a girls’ division in future years) to realize that there are opportunities outside the village they live in. An area that has a high incidence of truancy and drug use among the youth could use a little inspiration to stay on the straight and narrow.

Moloto’s path is obviously one that has seen him succeed. It was the birth of his son Josiah this Spring that further inspired Moloto to take a long look at life, and changed his perspective. He’s always had hopes of being a positive influence on his hometown, but having a child of his own was what gave him that push to get the Chebeng Cup off the ground.

“At the age 12, 13, 14 you either go left or right,” Moloto said. “I think if before they go left or right we say, ‘hey, there’s opportunities; you’re not alone and there’s hope. There’s opportunities out there, but guys you have to meet me halfway.’ What I’m going to do next year is for you to be able to participate in this, we’re going to team up with schools and see if they can give us registration books. I’ll say, ‘if you miss more than five school days without a reason, you don’t play. If you fail, you don’t play.’ Eventually, hopefully we’ll grow and we’ll grow and we can be able to provide free tutoring once a week.

“Every time I’ve been home, there’s been situations where I’ve seen kids that – young kids – they’re sitting on a corner, doing drugs. I look back and I’m like, ‘when I was that age, we had a soccer team.’ We didn’t have a lot, but we had a few balls that we could train with. Now you look at it and you say, ‘what can I do to make a difference?’ I think also just having a baby changes your perspective on life. I think that might be the main push, because I’ve always wanted to do it. It was just a matter of the right time, and I think this was the right time.”

Those who know Moloto aren’t surprised that the 28-year old would want to give back to the community that he grew up in. Indeed, the entire Nashville SC organization tends to have a philanthropic bent, and Moloto’s love for – and desire to help – his hometown fits right in with his personality. A charitable initiative doesn’t surprise NSC head coach Gary Smith one bit.

“Honestly, I think we have a fabulous group of human beings here, and that’s really what it boils down to,” said the gaffer. “You’ve got players in this group that have in some cases come from difficult surroundings, and they want to give back. It’s down to the person: Lebo’s one of those guys. We have numerous individuals that want to try and immerse themselves not only in our community, but maybe from the backgrounds that they’ve come from or others that are not quite as fortunate.”

Those who wish to contribute to the cause can donate material goods or with financial support at the event’s official GoFundMe page here.

Certainly, any assistance, monetary or otherwise, is appreciated in the effort to provide as much help to Moloto’s community as possible. In a village that only recently added running water – Moloto previously paid for his family to bore a well – the opportunity won’t be taken for granted.

“I think to be honest, it’s to try to give them hope,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are playing professional soccer football in South Africa that I’ve invited. I sat down and I looked at it and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s enough. I don’t think bringing these guys here is going to have an impact on them. We’ll see if we can take them out of where I grew up, and give them an opportunity to go and play a team like Kaiser Chiefs in Johannesburg.’ I think that’s bigger than just inviting professional soccer players.”

Certainly, there’s one professional soccer player who has their futures in mind. Donate to his cause to help Lebo Moloto make a difference.

Please donate to Lebo’s cause. The link is above or can also be found here.

The Graphical: Nashville SC 2-0 Ottawa Fury

Welcome (back) to The Graphical, in which I mine the Opta data for insights as to how Nashville SC’s most recent result came about. 

Your shift is on my team sheet

This was the second game in a row where Nashville reverted back to the 3-5-2 that they’d started the year playing. While they announced a 4-4-2 lineup, check out these average positions:

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Nashville SC is in black

That’s Liam Doyle (5) in the dead center, with Justin Davis (2) and London Woodberry (28) playing left and right centerback positions, respectively. Taylor Washington (23) and Ish Jome (11) are your wingbacks, while the three central midfielders actually remain relatively closely bunched – albeit with Lebo Moloto a touch ahead as the No. 10 in jersey and in role – and the strikers are close together, as well.

Gary Smith ran out this formation for much of preseason and then the first two regular season games… but scrapped it when the offensive output was struggling. He wanted to create more width, connecting through the midfield, and space to roam up top in the 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1) that became the formation du jour.

So, why does it work to actually reinvigorate the offense at this point in the year? Let’s go to a few other illustrations to figure it out.

Making the most of Lebo

We know Lebo Moloto can shoot the ball, and shoot it pretty darn well at times. However, that’s actually not the strength of his game, and playing him as the second striker sort of forces him into that role: he has to shoot, because there’s only one option that’s going to be in a more dangerous position than him on a regular basis.

Here’s a little chart of my own, rather than one directly from Opta:

Year Goals Shots Key Passes Assists
2015 6 19 ?? 7
2016 1 28 ?? 1
2017 7 51 52 4
2015 5 46 40 4

As you can see, this is on pace to be one of his best years (almost certainly THE best, which is notable given he was a key player on the USL runners-up last year), but certainly with a bit of a different style of play: he has skewed toward scoring more than ever before.

Here’s what his game against Ottawa looked like, as he moved back to a No. 8/10 role with two true strikers ahead of him:

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That’s much more in line with what he’s done in his previous three USL seasons. Given that his best season came under current Nashville SC Technical Director Mike Jacobs when Jacobs held the same position at Swope Park Rangers, it’s more likely the role he was brought in to play from the get-go: he’s a creator, rather than a pure out-and-out scorer. (That also explains part of why it’s fit better to slide him to the wing and play two strikers when still using the 4-4-2, as well).

 

What else changes?

It should come as no surprise that, with two wingbacks who are tasked with staying wide and getting up and down the field (but with more freedom on the “up” part than they have in the 4-4-2, and also more responsibility to create the width that is sacrificed without wide midfielders), Nashville SC’s gameplan involved a lot of crosses. Enter Tucker Hume, the Big Bird-esque target striker to bring those crosses in. The personnel and gameplan matched up well.

That’s a heck of a lot of crosses, and as you can see, many of them came from the left foot of Taylor Washington (two successful, 11 unsuccessful, three chances created). The image on the right is offensive-third touches for the strikers (Hume, Brandon Allen, and Ropapa Mensah). While we know those guys can create a little bit – in Hume’s case, more than most opponents expect – but in this game, they were able to spend a bit more time hanging out in the box, because they ball was being crossed in to them.

This wasn’t necessarily the best gameplan for the team, or the best personnel to trot out. For this game, it certainly ended up that way, though, and the combination of great personnel and a solid gameplan is less impactful than the fact that each of those was the right fit for the other. Ottawa ran an even backline (and we’ve previously seen that Nashville’s cross-happy gameplan has typically been used more against odd backlines), so it’ll be a tactical chess match to watch as NSC matches up with different formations and ideas from the opponents going forward.

The downsides

Playing two true strikers – and without one like Moloto, who can track back to defend or sink for the ball like Moloto – there is going to be some connectivity lost in the passing game and in defending. That’s not too big a deal because you are now granted the opportunity to play one of the midfielders higher up the pitch, as long as the wingbacks can track along the entire sideline (both offensive and defensive zones) to maintain width.

This formation does make for an awkward fit for some personnel, though: Where does Alan Winn fit in? He’ll have to carve out a role as that No. 10 (probably the backup to Moloto) or develop a bit more ruthless an edge as an out-and-out striker who isn’t quite as tasked with creating. While Ish Jome started at right wingback, it’s a bit of a shoehorn for him (he’s a left-sided player who’s been far more comfortable over there to this point in his NSC career), and while left wingback is a possibility, it means there’s a bit of a potential logjam over there with Washington and Ryan James also left-sided wingbacks and only Kosuke Kimura on the right (though obviously Jome can be on the right, and James can play on that side, as well). That’s less a “there’s not a spot for a particular guy” and more a “this makes for a weird depth chart over there.”

While this does make it easier for Matt LaGrassam to play a more natural central role, that means there’s once again a situation where we have three bodies for two central defensive midfield spots – in this game, it meant Bolu Akinyode was relegated to the bench until Nashville went with a defense-heavy lineup for the final 10 minutes. Again, less a “weird fit” and more a “makes it tough to get good players on the field” problem (which is the better problem to have, obviously).

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.

The Graphical: Nashville SC 0-2 Indy Eleven

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 Indy Eleven loss here at For Club and Country, and don’t forget to vote in community player ratings before today’s deadline.

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Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country

Pressure makes diamonds, not always goals

 

Nashville SC was able to put a ton of shots up against Indy: 19 of them, 12 coming from inside the box. Count even just the shots that were on-target (green lines), and it looks like the Boys in Gold dominate this one:

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NSC’s offense on the right, Indy’s on the left

All the pressure in the world doesn’t matter, though, if you can’t solve the goalkeeper (or a defender saving it off the line, and Ayoze Garcia Pérez’s save of an Alan Winn appears to be erroneously excluded here, so increment shots inside the box up by one, even). Nashville probably deserved a goal in this one: five shots on target, all but one from extremely dangerous positions.

To quote Unforgiven, though: deserve’s got nothing to do with it. You only deserve a goal when it goes in. All the pressure in the world is meaningless if you can’t find the back of the net. Indy did twice (once thanks to an uncharacteristically poor effort from Matt Pickens), and that’s that counts in the end.

Full-field Moloto

Gary Smith gave a refreshingly honest and enlightening response when I asked why Ropapa Mensah didn’t come into the game earlier:

“I was looking at what we were achieving with Lebo centrally,” he said. “Certainly, I wanted the pressure to build and for them to be deeper so that we could get two forwards on. You can sometimes get overrun in that midfield, and before you know it, you just don’t have enough ball to recycle and to be effective with.”

Of course, the move there would have been replacing Brandon Allen (who seemed to be struggling), not replacing Moloto, but Smith’s answer does tell us a bit about how he views his team’s structure, more a 4-5-1 than a 4-4-2. On the pitch, it often gives the appearance of a 4-4-1-1, which is in line with the former rather than the latter. Either way you want to look at it, he likes Moloto being free enough to drop into the midfield for possession or to work back defensively. That prevents the opponent from having a major numbers advantage in the midfield – and of course still gives Moloto the opportunity to get forward as a side-by-side striker when the posture is a bit more offense-oriented.

His heat map doesn’t necessarily indicate that he’s stuck in the center of the pitch:

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But it does give the strong impression that he has the freedom to cover the entire width of it. His touchmap and the locations of his defensive actions show more of the same:

It’s not that Gary Smith wants him stuck in the center of the pitch, feeding it to a striker whose position is stacked on top of his. It’s that Smith wants Moloto to be able to do a little bit of everything.

Jome comes back to Earth

 

Ish Jome’s integration to the squad took a couple weeks, but he’s been spectacular in the past few games. Not so much against Indy, unfortunately. He’s a solid performer in the middle third of the field, but his outstanding ability to get it done in the scoring third didn’t make an appearance Tuesday evening.

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The passes are easy to see (they’re the ones with lines coming off them), but this also includes all of Jome’s attempted dribbles (three downward-pointing triangles) and his lone tackle (upward-facing triangle).

The passing obviously dried right up when things advanced into the more dangerous areas of the pitch. Whereas in previous weeks he’d been able to find teammates at the top of the box or inside it, no dice this week. Of course, some of that may be on the strikers and fellow midfielders, as well. He either had to cycle the ball backward or laterally, or lump it into the box on a semi-hopeful move. With Justin Davis not on the field, there were few overlapping runs from LB Ryan James.

More worrying to me, though, is the success with his dribbling. All three attempts resulted in turnovers, and as Jome tries to push up into the channel, a giveaway there can be really dangerous. Adding the eyeball test to what the graphs show, he’s over-reliant on one move: a scissor with each leg, then pushing straight upfield to the outside of his defender. I’d actually like to see him go immediately with the burst of speed, especially now that opponents have a half-season of film on him with this team. Against the better defensive sides, he’s going to have difficulties unless he can show more breadth of skill.

That his replacement, Alan Winn, seemed like a breath of fresh air (to the entire team, not just the position) indicates that it probably just wasn’t Jome’s night.

Full-staying-back

Nashville SC has pretty good defensive depth, and that’s allowed them to mix up personnel, particularly as the season comes out of a really crowded stretch after which some of the key players have basically not come off the field. With personnel shuffling, though, comes a necessity of changing up what the team does schematically.

Particularly at the fullback position, Nashville SC ran out a couple real stay-at-home types in this game. Ryan James on the left side (he’s generally more offensively oriented, leading me to believe this game had a specific plan) and London Woodberry (who started the year as a centerback) did not get as involved in the offense as we’ve seen out of others. See?

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That’s James and Woodberry’s heat maps (James contributes a bit to the bottom piece, since he flipped to the right after Woodberry’s substitution, but it’s generally Woodberry down there and James on the top, with the team attacking left-to-right). You can contrast either or both of those with the typical Justin Davis/Kosuke Kimura map at right.

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 10.28.12 AMWhile the hottest points are still on Nashville’s side of midfield, there’s a bit more of a stretch up each sideline. Given that the example I chose was just the most recent game, there’s something to be gleaned, too. While NSC scored one goal against North Carolina and zero against Indy Eleven, I think it’d be fair to say (and the top graph in this post would underscore) that this was a far more offensive game overall for the Boys in Gold. That it was that way without involvement on that end of the pitch from the fullbacks tells you quite a bit about 1) what the gameplan was, and 2) how the contest played out. When Taylor Washington replaced Woodberry (playing at the back for the first time in ages after having moved primarily to midfield) and James flipped to the right side, they got forward much more frequently and comfortably.

The team’s plan was clearly to build through the middle, and let the wing midfielders get the penetration up the sideline to create width and get danger in the deep areas of the pitch, while the fullbacks hung back a little bit to be defensively sound. I think it would be fair to say that style played a role in the second Indy goal, for what it’s worth: Woodberry was neither in position to pressure the passer nor to drop back and harass the recipient (though he was loosely marking striker Jack McInerney at about midfield), giving the Eleven a relatively easy path to getting into a dangerous spot on the counter.

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From the Film Room: Lebo Moloto presses and finishes against Tampa Bay

This one was pretty straightforward: A nice bit of high pressure from Nashville SC forced a mistake from Tampa Bay defender Ivan Magalhaese, Bolu Akinyode quickly transitioned to offense, and Lebo Moloto got rewarded for getting the play going in the first place.

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The situation

Nashville SC is on the road in one of the toughest places to play in USL. The team has absorbed a bit of pressure from the Rowdies’ offense, but is standing tall thus far. As TBR try to build out of the back, Nashville goes to a nice amount of high pressure, resulting in a turnover, a fast break, and a goal.

Video

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oOyhS2wJ3A

What happens

This one is pretty simple:

  • Nashville is in a high press, which we’ve seen pretty regularly in recent weeks. Ropapa Mensah is able to cover both LCB Tami Mkandawire and defensive midfielder Martin Vingaard, while the Nashville wide midfielders are closely man-marking the Tampa fullbacks. That means Lebo Moloto can slide over to put a bit of token ball pressure on Magalhaese while central midfielder Bolu Akinyode can closely mark Alex Morell.
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  • Moloto’s pressure forces the pass to be a little inaccurate, and Akinyode’s good defensive positioning allows him to be in the right place to intercept it.
  • This is a key to the play: Akinyode doesn’t waste any time gettin forward. He immediately passes the ball to Mensah. Morell falls on his face, meaning Vingaard (who would otherwise be able to mark Mensah) has to step up to pressure.
  • Both centerbacks drop to recover to Mensah. Molotov’s smart run down the left puts him on position to be wide open for the feed.
  • Clinical finish from the South African forward puts NSC on top.

Takeaways

We’ve seen Nashville intermittently provide high pressure to teams that attempt to play out of the back. This time, it finally paid off in a goal.

  • To a large extent, this play doesn’t happen without mistakes from the opposition. Moloto’s pressure is fine but shouldn’t force a pass as far behind Morell as Magalhaese dishes. Similarly, it’s possible Morell doesn’t receive the pass… but still manages to not put it on a platter for Akinyode or fall on his face in the process.
  • This is what pressing gets you, though. It’s not always about winning individual battles as much as it is convincing opponents into a mistake. At the USL level, those are going to be more frequent.
  • Also key to this play? Akinyode’s awareness and ability to take a loose ball and immediately turn it into effective offense. I’ve been critical at times of his transition play (he’s either stuck on offense or defense for the most part, and hasn’t been ambitious enough with his passing much of the year), but this is a bright step forward in that regard. If he can do that consistently, this team has another level.
  • Mensah has done a great job learning to be more than just a finisher, and that improvement has been rapid. Again, more diversity in his game gives another element to the offense.
  • Underrated: the runs up the wing by both Alan Winn and Taylor Washington. I’m a big “create space” guy, and while the fullbacks were too far upfield to likely make an impact defensively, that duo staying wide and forcing the FBs to cover them means they definitely can’t.

Nashville’s low scoring at the beginning of the year looks more like an anomaly and product of competition by the day.

Video

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oOyhS2wJ3A