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 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.

Matt Pickens a finalist for USL Goalkeeper of the Year

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Ryan Lassan/For Club and Country

Awards szn marches on. From club release:

NASHVILLE (November 6, 2018) – One of the stars for Nashville Soccer Club in its inaugural season, goalkeeper Matt Pickens, was named one of three finalists for the United Soccer League’s (USL) 2018 Goalkeeper of the Year award on Tuesday afternoon.

“Matt proves again that he ranks among the best in USL,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “He was a rock for us this season and set the type of example that continues to inspire others around him.”

Pickens was Nashville SC’s first-ever signing last offseason and came to the club with championship pedigree. He played up to the billing in 2018, keeping 14 shutouts, the second-most in the USL, and finishing the year with .90 goals against average, the third-best mark in the league.

“Matt was asked to stand tall for us time and again all season, and always rose to the occasion,” said Nashville SC VP of soccer operations and technical director Mike Jacobs. “It is to no one’s surprise that he is being recognized among the top goalkeepers in the USL for 2018.”

Prior to being Nashville’s first signing, Pickens spent four seasons with the Tampa Bay Rowdies where he became the club’s all-time wins and games leader amongst keepers. In his career, Pickens has won an MLS Cup (Colorado Rapids, 2010) and a U.S. Open Cup (Chicago Fire, 2006).

Other finalists for USL’s 2018 Goalkeeper of the Year include Ottawa Fury FC’s Maxime Crépeau and Sacramento Republic’s Josh Cohen. The winner will be unveiled next Monday.

Given that the other finalists were first-team (Crepeau) and second-team (Cohen) All-USL, you have to think Pickens is a bit of an underdog for this one. He was a rock for NSC, though, and had more saves (and a better save percentage) than Crepeau and more clean sheets than Cohen.

His late-season fade – multiple goals allowed in five of the final 11 regular-season games (including the last two, both draws), after allowing multiple goals in just five of the first 23 – played a role in bringing down his stats, for sure. Prior to that, he was head-and-shoulders above the field, despite only being honored on the USL team of the week one time all season.

(If you’re interested in getting inside the sausage factory, my votes went to Orange County’s Andre Rawls and Crepeau – in that order – as outlets were able to nominate but not vote for players from the teams they cover).

Breakdown and player ratings: Tampa Bay Rowdies 1-1 Nashville SC

Nashville SC had its biggest offensive game yet – at least in USL competition – and held off Penn FC with relative ease. Whose performances were crucial?

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

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Matt Pickens was one with the ball Saturday evening. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country.

Formation and tactics

Tampa Bay listed its formation as a 4-2-3-1 (sort of the formation de rigueur in USL), but actually played a bit more of a conventional 4-4-2. However, they used a diamond-type midfield for much of the game, with Martin Vingaard the lone central defensive midfielder (playing out more like a 4-1-3-2, I guess). They were a little tactically fluid in the middle, but were four-back, two-up pretty much the whole time.

Nashville played its usual two blocks of four 4-4-2, with Taylor Washington starting on the left side and Alan Winn on the right (Matt LaGrassa replaced Michael Reed in one of the middle spots, with Bolu Akinyode remaining at the other). In the 17th minutes, those wingers flipped. The backline was James-Doyle-Woodberry-Kimura from right to left. In Michael Reed’s absence (resting for the first time all year), Woodberry was the captain.

Jomes replaced Winn at halftime (Winn had taken a hard tackle, and of course isn’t at full game fitness after struggling with a minor injury in recent weeks), and played the left wing while Washington played on the right, though their positions between those two were a little more fluid with some swapping. Jome actually pushed to the top with Moloto a bit (or Moloto sunk to more of a left-wing position).

Bradley Bourgeois replaced Taylor Washington, and Nashville went to a five-man backline. London Woodberry played middle centerback, Bourgeois right centerback. There was a three-man midfield at that point, with Akinyode playing a pure defensive role, while Jome and LaGrassa were more offensive. Jome played up top a bit, too. Allen-for-Mensah was a like-for-like sub.

I actually thought Gary Smith’s tactics were quite a bit too conservative in the second half. There was less attacking support (presumably by design, partially because Jome had trouble finding the game), and the NSC defensive end was under heavy pressure. By the time Tampa Bay equalized, it had felt like an inevitability for a while, and I’d prefer to see the Boys in Gold push for a second before going into a bit more of a bunker.

Gary Smith community rating: 6.67

Community comments:

  • “Smith bunkered for the win way too early and it cost him”

Goalkeeper

Ladies and gentlemen, your Man of the Match:

Matt Pickens 22.91 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 9.67

Pickens was blameless on the goal that was scored, and made a number of key saves and clearances with his fists. There’s still a moment or two per game where he’s going to misjudge a ball to his team’s major risk, but they didn’t bite the team in this one, and his distribution is a highly underrated asset.

Forward

Ropapa Mensah 16.31 (84 minutes) – Community rating: 7.33

I actually thought Mensah had a better performance on a re-watch than I’d believed live. He’s getting better at hold-up play, and is capable of a few moments of technical brilliance per contest. However, he’s still not consistent enough (particularly with field vision), and has developed a propensity for trying to take dives instead of using his strength to power through players and keep his feet for dangerous moments. His assist on Moloto’s goal was a relatively simple one, but it was nice.

Lebo Moloto 13.32 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 8.33

Moloto has got to be tired, man. He really struggled at times in the second half, but it’d be hard to fault him for feeling a little bit of fatigue. His run on the goal was nice… but he actually started that play by pressing a defender from behind (the poor pass was picked off by Akinyode). He was involved throughout the game, but there were some negatives (inaccurate passing, too much willingness to play over the top instead of to teammates’ feet) to drag the performance down a bit by the end. Still a great day.

Brandon Allen 0.91 (15 minutes) – Community rating: 6.00

Allen wasn’t bad – he just didn’t have much time to make an impact on the game. He was called offside one time – and there wasn’t a better camera angle provided, but it looked like it was probably a bad call.

Defenders

Taylor Washington 14.28 (73 minutes) – Community rating: 7.33

Washington came off about midway through the second half, but I thought he was fantastic in the 73 minutes he did play. It seemed like there was a conscious effort (either by gameplan or just an understanding from him of how he’s most effective) to get upfield and provide sideline passing options. He overlapped with Ryan James and then Kosuke Kimura very well. He still seems to be hesitant about crossing the ball when he’s on the right – it’s one of his strength with the left foot when he’s on that side – but stretches the field vertically very nicely.

Matt LaGrassa 11.52 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 5.67

I actually thought LaGrassa was having a howler through about 2/3 of the game, so it surprises me that he finished second-highest rated among midfielders. He was a half-step slow with his reactions, his passing wasn’t accurate, and he seemed to be culpable for plenty of Tampa Bay’s possession in the offensive end. He did recover late, but his performance combined with Akinyode’s to show the importance of Captain Reed (even though he’s not the most skilled of the three).

Bolu Akinyode 11.12 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 7.33

I thought Akinyode was somewhat similar to LaGrassa (again, even if they’re the most talented two of the three who play regularly in central midfield, Reed’s importance in leadership and directing the team is apparent), but a little less defined chronologically in terms of “start poorly, recover late.” He had the smooth second-assist on Moloto’s goal, which was a nice forward push from him, and didn’t do as many actively mistaken things as LaGrassa, but still remains a step slow when covering defensively, which is an important aspect of his position.

Alan Winn 6.73 (48 minutes) – Community rating: 6.00

Winn was not quite on all day, and took a hard foul right before half. For a guy trying to work back to full health and fitness, the substitution makes a lot of sense (though it did put two left-footed wingers on the field when Jome replaced him). It is worth noting that, while he didn’t make much impact on offense, his defensive improvement is noticeable and steady.

Ish Jome 3.46 (51 minutes) – Community rating: 6.67

Jomes had a hard time finding the game, and while he’s OK defensively and makes some smart runs, there just wasn’t a ton of work offensively, whether that’s his fault or because of others. He wasn’t bad, he just a an extremely low number of notable events to rack up a score.

Defenders

Ryan James 13.76 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00

I almost feel bad for James that he hasn’t gotten regular minutes since early in the season, because he’s pretty darn good. He’s sound defensively (if not as active as Kosuke Kimura on the other side when the ball is in their own end), he’s willing and able to get forward on overlapping runs, and is solid distributing out of the back. He had some failed clearances because he didn’t get enough height on the ball and it was blocked by offensive players, but that’s hardly the greatest sin. In a game where NSC had trouble getting out of its own end, though, it’s notable.

Kosuke Kimura 13.26 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 7.67

Kimura has continued his excellent play (leading me to believe he wasn’t healthy at the very beginning of the year, when he struggled a bit). He’s very active in his own end, covering players tightly and blocking crosses. He’s also one of the better communicators on the defensive end of the field, and executes switches well with his centerbacks and wing midfielders.

London Woodberry 11.18 (99  minutes) – Community rating: 6.33

Woodberry had plenty of negatively-scored moments, which I guess is unsurprising given the amount of time the ball was at Nashville’s end of the pitch… but he also had some really positive moments, blocking shots, making long runs in defensive recovery, and man-marking well in the middle. I do think he was one of the more culpable players on the Tampa Bay goal – while it was a scramble in front of net, he was man-marking the player who found the loose ball and banged it into the net. He also single-handedly created a super-dangerous moment for Tampa with a really poor pass to Liam Doyle, which was intercepted but the final shot (a chip over Matt Pickens) was inaccurate.

Liam Doyle 8.98 (99 minutes) – Community rating: 6.67

Doyle was the player most responsible for the Tampa Bay goal, from my perspective. He tried to head the initial cross clear, and completely whiffed it, letting Tampa Bay have possession in a dangerous area at the top of the box. Then, he was slow to recover, giving some space, which ultimately resulted in the blocked shot (to his credit, he was the one who blocked it), which was finished on the rebound. Despite that, he’s generally a good headed clear and longball waiting to happen. He lost a few man-marks in this one too, making him the lowest-rated among the four defenders who went the distance.

Bradley Bourgeois 2.20 (26 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00

Bourgeois played right centerback (Woodberry slid to the center) in a five-man backline when he entered the game. There wasn’t a ton for him to do: he forced a couple players in crossing position into banging it off him for a corner kick, and he had one nice headed clearance that was a crafty pass to Kimura. Just not a ton of action on his side of the field (Tampa seemed to be focusing on the right-central portions of their offensive attack – where they had their better personnel) to rack up big scoring.

 

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Breakdown and player ratings: Pittsburgh Riverhounds 0-1 Nashville SC

Nashville was the first team to beat Pittsburgh or score on them at Highmark Stadium in league play. It wasn’t the strongest performance, but they got the result.

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

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He wasn’t perfect, but Matt Pickens did enough to earn Man of the Match honors. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Formation and tactics

Pittsburgh pressed really hard (and fairly high) early in the game. Nashville was forced to pass it back to keeper Matt Pickens for hopeful long balls plenty of times early in the contest. The possession disadvantage that NSC had may understate how much control Pittsburgh had early (since the possession Nashville did have was ineffective). Once NSC settled in a bit, they were able to achieve some of the same things with their press, evening up the game a bit (the strikers were a little more active up top than we usually see – an especially good sign because Allen wasn’t known as an effort guy at Bethlehem – clearly Gary Smith is getting more out of him than the Steel were).

At times, NSC seemed to try to counter the pressure from Pittsburgh by almost shifting to an unbalanced 4-3-3. Michael Reed would drop as more of a lone CDM while Bolu Akinyode would shift wider left, and Taylor Washington would play up the wing with the two strikers in the box. It created more space and made it harder to press in central midfield (and of course, the Boys in Gold could quickly shift back into the more standard 4-4-2 in an instant as long as Washington wasn’t caught way upfield).

Moloto moved to the wing while LaGrassa went in to the No. 10 role after halftime. Almost more a 4-2-3-1 at that point with LaGrassa sinking even deeper than the 4-4-1-1 we sometimes see, and the three guys in the line able to trade across the field. When Hume replaced Allen, it went to a more typical Moloto-up-top traditional “two blocks of four” formation.

London Woodberry played right fullback – something he’d never previously done – with Ryan James on the left. Everyone else’s positions were the same that we’ve become used to (or with slight tweaks broken down above).

Gary Smith community rating: 8.00

Community comment: “First time Pitt’s given up all three points this year. Gary Smith deserves plenty of credit.”

Goalkeeper

Ladies and gentlemen, your Man of the Match:

Matt Pickens 14.36 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 8.33

Pickens definitely was not perfect. He had some sketchy moments dealing with back-passes from teammates, and came out awkwardly to deal with a cross or two. At least one Pittsburgh effort would have beaten him if it’d been on-target. However, the rare shots the Riverhounds didn’t miss the frame with were handled by the veteran keeper, including after one of those goofs by a teammate. He was strong in dealing with corner kicks, his distribution was solid (especially on a night when “put it over the top of the defense” was an important tactic), and at the end of the day, the Hounds had zero goals, despite an NSC defense that wasn’t always great in front of Pickens.

Defenders

London Woodberry 13.11 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00

Live, my opinion was similar to the fans: Woodberry had a good day, but nothing to write home about. Like Pickens, there were some obvious mistakes he made (he let some crosses get off way too easy man-marking on the edge), but he was willing to play the width of his side of the pitch, got forward a bit more readily than a guy who’s been a centerback in the past, and had some nice one-on-one tackles. He faded hard about midway through the second half, which is expected for a guy going the distance in league play for the first time since St. Patrick’s Day. Getting back to full fitness should allow him to be a regular fixture in the side.

Bradley Bourgeois 10.20 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 8.00

The book on Bourgeois is pretty much the same each week: a monster in the air much more than any player his size has right to be (including yet another header on a set piece – though he fouled the keeper getting to this one – that makes it seem like he’s close to scoring). He was a little more… frantic?… dropping into defensive postures on Pittsburgh’s runs down the middle and right side. He seemed to be playing catch-up a bit, and though he did draw even with his mark, you’d rather not have him have to do that. Some of it appeared to be poor communication/awareness with a new player (Woodberry) next to him, so it could be a one-game deal.

Liam Doyle 9.57 (98 minutes) – Community rating 7.00

Doyle probably should have given up a goal early, with some poor man-marking and then a really weak attempt at a headed backpass to Pickens resulting in one of Pittsburgh’s best chances (Pickens made a great save), but was decent other than that. His longball service was good, his marking on corner kicks – with a lot of opportunities – was up-and-down, and he can bang free kicks, missing one just high. Aside from one potentially game-changing error, it was a fine day.

Ryan James 7.69 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00

James was a big piece of the puzzle in the part of the game before Mensah went out (more on that in a bit, of course), but seemed to fade a bit as the game wore on. I believe a big part of that was the shift in gameplan – the forwards didn’t press as high and as hard, so the fullback didn’t have to get forward to cut out the passes and runs that were created with an aggressive strategy. It’s not that he was doing anything bad, he just wasn’t super-involved overall.

Midfielders

Bolu Akinyode 13.54 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00

The book on Akinyode is pretty well-established at this point, too: he’s generally going to be conservative with his passing (though there were some nice attempts forward, as well as quick-pass gives-and-go in this one), but very consistent in completing those passes. When he gets caught upfield, he doesn’t have the motor to run things down working back every time, but he’s a physically intimidating presence in midfield, and due to his lateral range teams can’t really avoid him.

Matt LaGrassa 13.00 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00

I’m happy to see LaGrassa carving out a role, because he’s too good a player to not see the field (as was the case for a few games in a row after Akinyode’s appearance). His versatility was on display in this one, playing as a right-sided wide midfielder, across the middle as a box-to-box guy, and even as the No. 10 in place of Lebo Moloto when the two traded roles after the half. He’s prone to making a total head-scratching decision here and there (just booting it aimlessly upfield when he’s the most advanced player on the team, for example), but his technical quality is notable.

Taylor Washington 11.03 (73 minutes) – Community rating: 6.33

Presumably, Washington’s community rating slipped simply because he didn’t spend as much time on the field, because he was fantastic when he was out there. He didn’t whip in quite as many crosses as we’ve seen from him as a wide midfielder, but he managed to work his way into the box, and got down the sideline on long runs. He even had a couple headers that could have found teammates waiting back post on a luckier day.

Michael Reed 8.19 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.33

Reed’s up-and-down form continued, in my eyes. He’s continuing to be a bit more adventurous with his passing and dribbling technique, but the first tough seems to let him down a little too frequently to accomplish what he’s going for every time. His headed passes aren’t a keystone of his game, but he had a couple mistakes with them in this one. More than anything, he just wasn’t as involved in the second half (which is understandable: it seems a trend with this team that one CDM or the other has a big game while the other lets him have his moment. It was Akinyode’s day to be more involved).

Ismaila Jome 3.38 (25 minutes) – Community rating: 6.33

He hasn’t had enough time on the pitch to make a serious impact yet, but I think NSC fans are really going to like Jome. Stylistically, he’s similar to Washington (a little less one-sided to the left, but not as fast), in that he likes to get forward and whip the ball in, and isn’t afraid of getting a little dirty defensively. Two players with different skills but the same style of play can be like-for-like replacements, and Jome coming in seemed mostly designed toward getting Washington rest, not because of poor performance.

Forwards

Lebo Moloto 10.72 (64 minutes) – Community rating: 7.33

Gary Smith clearly seemed to want to rest Moloto (who has carried this team to a large extent through 10 games), but didn’t have the opportunity when Mensah went out. Moloto showed off his versatility by first stepping in as a like-for-like (ish) replacement for Mensah, then shifted out to the right wide midfield position – to me, it seemed like a way to not have to make him run down long balls, saving some of that energy – then played his more usual false nine toward the end of the game when Tucker Hume came on. He had some spectacular dribble moves, and instead of trying to force something at the end of them, was willing to cycle the ball back and make sure he’d consolidate possession for his team.

Brandon Allen 8.95 (87 minutes) – Community rating: 8.00

I alluded above to Allen’s effort in the high press, and it’s pretty notable because he quickly developed a reputation in his short shift at Bethlehem Steel for not being willing to put in that defensive work: clearly this was a guy who lost faith in his squad early, and was mailing it in until a better situation came along. The goal that he got was a total garbage goal – and while the nomenclature may sound insulting, believe me that it’s not: it’s the sort of goal NSC wasn’t finishing before he came along, and he’s exactly the one they needed to clean up the trash and put the ball in the net. His hold-up play was iffy in this one, but that’s hardly the greatest sin for a goal-getter.

Tucker Hume 2.58 (11 minutes) – Community rating: 6.33

Hume didn’t get much playing time, but he was inserted for a specific purpose, and executed it perfectly: serve as a hold-up guy for the Boys in Gold to lob it downfield to, killing time and potentially getting lucky for an offensive rush and counter-attack goal to seal the game. He showed effort in the press too, which for a big (sometimes slow-moving) guy, that’s a nice addition to his game.

Ropapa Mensah 2.29 (34 minutes) – Community rating: 9.00

 

I try to get these posts done before the press conference on a regular gameweek, but with this heavily-populated portion of the schedule, I’m actually glad we got to hear from Gary Smith before I wrote, because his explanation made Mensah’s performance clear. Something was just off with the talented Ghanaian, from a bit of technical quality dropoff to a couple bad decisions with the ball at his feet. Suffering from illness (and that being what took him out of the game, rather than an injury sustained during play) makes sense. Mensah still put in effort, particularly in the high pressure, but didn’t have it on the day, and wisely made the choice to call it early and maintain energy for future outings.

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