Nashville SC earns second draw of the season against Baby Bulls

Editor’s note: WordPress devoured an earlier version of this post, published from the pressbox Saturday night. All that remained was the title and top image – no text – so this is a total re-write. Apologies for the technical difficulties and for the delay in getting it up. I, uh, don’t get paid a dime for writing this site, and honestly just didn’t feel like doing it.

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NASHVILLE – Last time Nashville SC played against New York Red Bulls II, they earned a draw in Red Bull Arena waaaay back at the beginning of May. At the time, it was considered a solid road result for a new club, against a team that didn’t lose all that often on home turf. A rollercoaster of a season later, and the same 1-1 scoreline will be a disappointment for the Boys in Gold.

This one came at home (NYRBII is notoriously poor on the road), and after NSC had spent time as one of the best teams in the USL… but also after the long decline since midseason to a fringe playoff team. Playing against another fringe playoff team – and with more than half an hour of man-advantage soccer – you’d have liked to see better.

NYRBII opened the scoring early, when a lack of composure for centerback Justin Davis led to a takeaway, the ball played across the face of his own goal by a Red Bulls player, and Amando Moreno easily slotting home the feed from Jared Stroud alone on the back post. Against a Nashville team that doesn’t score a ton of goals, earning a fifth-minute lead can be quite the path to victory. The Red Bulls would even have a chance to double their lead in the 14th minute, when a questionable penalty went against NSC’s Taylor Washington. However, keeper Matt Pickens faked to his left, saved to his right, and denied Tom Barlow from the spot.

“I just did my homework,” Pickens said of what went into the save. “I try to do things that are going to offset him and I try to let him actually play into my hands instead of me playing into his hands.”

Nashville would level the match after a red carded foul just outside the box committed by José Aguinaga. A little set-piece trickery – Taylor Washington tipped the ball to Liam Doyle, who bumped it back to set up Michael Reed for a shot under the charging wall – led to a blast into the lower-left corner from the captain of the Boys in Gold, and we were on level pegging in the 26th.

“It was kind of funny because when it happened we kind of talked about who takes it,” Reed said. “In that area, we were discussing does Liam whip it across or does Taylor try, but they said ‘no, you do it.’ My goal was to get it on frame. Do not hit it out of bounds or hit the wall but get it on frame. When I hit it, not that I was shocked, I was excited it was a clean hit and I thought ‘Oh man, I scored’. It was weird. I’m totally excited about it.”

With the balance of the game being played with an NSC man-advantage, a winner seemed likely.

“I honestly thought that the 10-man group [for the Red Bulls] did a good a job as I’ve seen from a group of men down to press the game, to make the game still purposeful for the group and look like they could actually go on and win the game,” said Nashville coach Gary Smith. “I was disappointed with the speed of our play and our ability to deal with that high press that we’d spoken about for the days leading into this.”

It wasn’t to be, however, with a few more Nashville chances going wanting. Tucker Hume couldn’t solve keeper Evan Louro played in alone on the keeper by Alan Winn in the 34th minute, a potential own-goal was saved off the line by a New York defender in the 63rd, NSC winger Kris Tyrpak was denied a clear penalty in the 69th (with Taylor Washington earning a yellow card for dissent), and the final kick of the game was a bicycle kick by Davis into the back of the net… on which he was correctly ruled offside following the second ball on a corner kick.

Having plenty of opportunities to put one into the back of the net won’t be much consolation for Nashville, though, because they were unable to finish the deal.

With the draw and results around the conference, they dropped to ninth place in the East (tied for eighth but giving up tiebreakers to North Carolina FC). However, with three games left – two of them against the bottom pair in the Eastern Conference – they have a chance to not only claw back into playoff position, but escape the No. 8 slot, which would see them face FC Cincinnati (also their final regular-season opponent) in the first round.

“All these times are teaching moments for guys as well,” said Pickens. “It doesn’t just start here and end here at games, we go through video and we talk. We have to convey to them our situations and our experiences and how to deal with moments in the game, especially after that first goal. It’s my job to do that and it’s Kosuke’s [Kimura] job to do that. Us older guys, the veteran guy’s job to do that. It’s our role on the team.”

There’s everything to play for, and while earning a point isn’t the worst outcome, Nashville SC hasn’t made things easy on itself by erasing any doubt in the final few weeks of the regular season.

Lineups

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Match events

  • 5′ NY GOAL – 20 Amando Moreno (left foot), assisted by 50 Jared Stroud
  • 14′ NY PENALTY SAVED – 74 Tom Barlow (right foot), saved by NSH 18 Matt Pickens (conceded by NSH 23 Taylor Washington)
  • 24′ NY RED CARD – 89 José Aguinaga (foul)
  • 26′ NSH GOAL – 17 Michael Reed (right foot), assisted by 5 Liam Doyle (set piece)
  • 45’+3 – Half time
  • 46′ NSH Substitution – On 30 Bolu Akinyode, off 11 Ish Jome
  • 53′ NSH Yellow card – 30 Bolu Akinyode (foul)
  • 65′ NSH Yellow card – 20 Matt LaGrassa (persistent infringement)
  • 66′ NSH Substitution – On 26 Kris Tyrpak, off 12 Tucker Hume
  • 69′ NSH Yellow card – 23 Taylor Washington (dissent)
  • 72′ NY Yellow card – 50 Jared Stroud (time-wasting)
  • 74′ NY Substitution – On 68 Lucas Stauffer, off 74 Tom Barlow
  • 78′ NY Yellow card – 41 Ethan Kutler (foul)
  • 90’+1 NSH Substitution – On 28 London Woodberry, off 19 Alan Winn
  • 90’+2 NY Substitution – On 40 Niko De Vera, Off 20 Amando Moreno
  • 90’+4 – Full time

Game highlights

 

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The Wrap: New York Red Bulls II 1-1 Nashville SC

After each game, I provide a handy recap of all the content related to that outing so you can find everything you need to get knowledgable about what went down. As always, if I missed anything, hit the comments, or the inbox via Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail (and follow those social media outlets while you’re there).

Local Content

 

Halftime reset. Game story:

Ropapa Mensah put the visitors on the board first in the seventh minute, 20 minutes before Vincent Bezecourt would level the score after a beautiful through ball from midfielder Christopher Lema. At that point, you would have been safe to assume more goals were coming.

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Enjoy this photo of Matt LaGrassa. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Game column:

Mensah had five total shots, three of them on the frame, and came away with a justifiable man of the match honor.

“I think the team is on the right path now, and with the help of the manager, I am confident in scoring more,” the 20-year old Ghanaian said. “The offense is getting better because we have been working really hard at training building that chemistry.”

Still, a 27th-minute equalizer – combined with the inability to find a second goal – from the Red Bulls prevented Nashville from taking all three points on the road.

Don’t forget that you can contribute to community player ratings each week. Those get compiled into the breakdown and player ratings, in which I also named Mensah MOTM:

Mensah got the sole NSC goal through an individual effort, he had numerous dangerous moments other than that, and he actually worked back pretty impressively in a re-press posture.

The Graphical had a look at how Nashville SC can build through the offensive midfield a bit more effectively, and how the number (and quality) of shots is certain to pay off sooner or later.

Elsewhere – Blogdom

Golden Goal game storyFront Row Soccer covers the game.

Elsewhere – Newsy things

The USL’s official recapUSA Today Network Tennessee gamer. There’s a lot of Ghanaians abroad coverage out there.

Breakdown and player ratings: New York Red Bulls II 1-1 Nashville SC

I took a look at the film to rate the players’ performances, make other observations we may have missed live, and more. Quick note: my ratings are on a proprietary (some might say arbitrary) scale, and are not on the traditional 1-10 scale. Community ratings, however, are on the traditional scale. You can contribute to those each week.

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Tactics and formation

Nashville went 4-4-2 in this game, with the personnel we’ve pretty much seen as the established “Starting” XI (with a bit of wiggle room at a couple positions). Kosuke Kimura started over Ryan James at right back, David Edgar over Liam Doyle at center back (though he was replaced in the second half), and Ropapa Mensah was the starting striker, in terms of positions that are generally considered up for grabs. Alan Winn returned to the starting lineup, and was replaced late in the contest by Matt LaGrassa, while Michael Cox replaced Mensah.

I’m glad New York Red Bulls II runs the same system as the senior team, because it means MLSSoccer.com has some useful information to us as to how New York City FC countered the high press over the weekend, and we saw how NSC’s approach was slightly different (and Gary Smith reacted more quickly than Patrick Vieira):

The combination of these tactical choices flustered NYCFC. By the 2nd half, Vieira switched his formation to a 3-5-2, moving Alex Ring to center back and Ben Sweat and Jo Inge Berget to wing backs. In adding a third player to the back line and pushing the center backs wide, NYCFC could build through slightly wider positions, ones that stretched RBNY, creating extra distance that made the Red Bulls a little later to everything.

NSC’s approach was slightly different. They did split the center backs wide, but instead of adding a third back to the formation, defensive midfielder Michael Reed would drop into the middle as more of a temporary sweeper. This worked well in rebuilding possession.

Up top, despite Ropapa Mensah’s numerous forays forward – many of them successful, even if the final product wasn’t there in the form of a goal – the two strikers played at about the same level, and next to each other (whereas the previous week, Lebo Moloto has drawn a bit deeper as more of a false nine).

Gary Smith Community rating: 7.33

Forwards

Led by your man of the match:

Ropapa Mensah 22.45 (75 minutes) – Community rating: 8.50 – This is one of the highest individual ratings (certainly on a per-minute basis for a guy who didn’t play the whole game) I’ve had this year, and I’m fairly certain it’s the highest community rating, as well. Mensah got the sole NSC goal through an individual effort, he had numerous dangerous moments other than that, and he actually worked back pretty impressively in a re-press posture.

I also understand why he was taken out: while he’s still not consistent overall (this was one of his games with fewer downs to accompany the ups though – his progression is exciting), when he gets tired the mistakes really start to crop up. He’s the sort of guy whose motor or speed doesn’t decline as he gets tired, but the technique really starts to get sloppy. He built up a huge first-half score, and while he had some good moments in the second half, I still felt like he came out of the game a little later than he probably should have.

Lebo Moloto 14.51 (96 minutes) – Community rating: 6.83 – Moloto came in for a bit of a whipping after a few missed shots, and indeed one community rater who left comment said “Moloto could have been man of the match but didn’t shoot well enough.” It’s true that he didn’t shoot well enough: he had four shots, only one of them on-target (and that one was an attempt that was saved off the line because he didn’t put oomph on it, thinking the net was open). I still have a hard time getting worked up about it though, because he’s one of the few players who creates chances.

He’s the only guy on the team who gets into position to take the shot that went wide late in the game, even if the final touch wasn’t there. I give value to that. Of course, he’s not physical enough or fast enough to simply run past defenders (as we saw when he tried to round the keeper and was run down by a centerback), so employing him a little deeper with Mensah or another speedier guy up top is still an adjustment I’d like to see.

Michael Cox 1.19 (21 minutes) – Community rating: 6.67 – Cox didn’t have a ton of time to make an impact, but when he replaces Mensah, the lack of speed is notable. He has a harder time running onto balls from his teammates, and while he’s physical in hold-up play, he often turns and the defender can get to the ball before he does. I actually think he might be a better fit to start and let the more athletic Mensah be an early-ish sub to challenge a tired backline.

 

Forwards

Lebo Moloto 18.46 (94 minutes) – Community rating: 6.14 – I’m looking at my own overall score for Moloto with a bit of a skeptical eye here. A guy playing striker (he was actually withdrawn behind Mensah quite a bit as a false nine – film room on this in the next couple days) for a team that is ultimately scoreless shouldn’t be racking up huge numbers in player ratings. However, he was very involved, and a lot of times his service ultimately was wasted, whether by offside infractions, poor strikes, turnovers when he’d sent a teammate through, etc. He had some really nice dribbles through traffic and was doing pretty much all he could to get things going in the final third, but he should bear some of the blame for a lack of production, too. He also committed what I consider to be a red card infraction and got away with it.

Ropapa Mensah 4.63 (67 minutes) – Community rating: 5.83 – This was Mensah’s worst performance of the regular season to date, and was a little predictable from what we saw in preseason – and thus why I was trying to pump the brakes at least a little on the hype train. He has good physical ability to be a hold-up striker, but his first touch often gets a little too loose, he doesn’t seem to have ideas in the box frequently enough (that he gets there is obviously good, but a wasted possession in the box is ultimately the same as no possession in the box if it consistently doesn’t turn into goals), and his inexperience shows in the form of some silly fouls – he came off because a second yellow was likely on the way given the way he was playing once he got tired – and the offsides that I alluded to above in Moloto’s section. The potential is there, but NSC really needs consistency to work its way into his game in a hurry.

Michael Cox 1.78 (27 minutes) – Community rating: 5.86 – Nashville SC’s tactics have to change a bit when Cox comes on: he doesn’t have Mensah’s speed to try to get over the top of the defense (not that Mensah is the fastest striker out there, but he appears faster than Cox), and he’s a little bit more productive in hold-up play. He also suffered from a lack of ideas in the final third, taking a shot from about 25 yards out instead of surveying other options on one occasion. He doesn’t seem to fight as hard to get up for aerial balls though, which is something the Boys in Gold really need him to do.

Midfielders

Michael Reed 17.55 (96 minutes) – Community rating: 6.67 – I was admittedly a little down on Reed earlier in the year (in fact, I’ve said that the solution to the midfield problem that Soccer Speedway talks about regularly is to give Reed a rest for a game or two to put Bolu Akinyode and Matt LaGrassa in the double-pivot spots, because they’re more different than either of them individually is from Reed), but this was a really good game, against a team whose high-pressing style should play into his weaknesses. Reed was able to involve himself in the attack a bit, didn’t make mistakes at the back, and was consistent – while being occasionally dangerous – with his passes.

Alan Winn 16.13 (65 minutes) – Community rating: 6.67 – Winn showed good pressure work up the sideline, and actually worked back defensively much better than he had at any point previously – rapid improvement in a specific phase of the game is natural for a player as new as he is to the professional game. He also does a good job working to find the ball to make sure he gets involved in the game (more on this in a moment).

He actually wasn’t quite as dangerous as a pure offensive player. He used his speed to get into dangerous positions at times, but decision-making in the final third – for example, he tried to play a 1-2 with Moloto but ran into a crowded area, rather than the space that Moloto wanted to play it into – is still a work in progress.

Taylor Washington 14.99 (96 minutes) – Community rating: 6.67 – I feel the same way about Washington as I did about the Penn FC performance (and remember, he was my MOTM in that one, so don’t think the criticism is overly harsh): his speed is very important, he can be an offensive threat, particularly crossing the ball, but he absolutely disappears in games. On one side of the field, that’s a positive – teams avoid trying to build through the right side of their own midfield because they don’t want to cope with Washington’s speed (they often try to go over the top, where Justin Davis’s recovery speed and ability to slide tackle is also… not what you want to contend with).

Offensively, though, I think it comes back to the fact that he’s a converted fullback. He tends to stay wide and run the channel, as opposed to Winn, who has a natural knack for drifting centrally without making the formation structurally unsound in order to find the ball. Washington will sometimes snap into form in that regard and play a big role, but otherwise, he’s a little reliant on teammates to involve him. That leads to being absent for long stretches, and then suddenly being really involved for extended stretches.

Bolu Akinyode 7.71 (96 minutes) – Community rating: 6.83 – I’ve been a bit of an Akinyode skeptic who’s coming around recently, but I did not think he had his best performance against his former club. He seems to get caught in indecision about whether he wants to be a true No. 8 (box-to-box) midfielder, or a stay-at-home No. 6. He was more daring – and successful – with his forward passing in this one, and late in the game pushed forward to be in the offense.

When he does push forward though, a lack of speed makes him a liability tracking back. A couple of NYRBII’s dangerous offensive moments came when they had a numbers advantage because Reed and Akinyode were both upfield, and Reed was hustling to get back while Akinyode sort of just has a jogging look to him. This is something that I didn’t see early (changing my pre-season opinion that he’s a future centerback), but it’s re-emerged. When he’s not possessing cleanly against a dangerous opponent press, he’s going to have a lower score.

Matt LaGrassa 5.38 (31 minutes) – Community rating: 6.83 – I thought LaGrassa had a nice performance despite being slightly miscast as a winger (he’s more natural there than Robin Shroot, but obviously not as much so as, say, Winn, for whom he subbed in). He’s comfortable tracking back and also doesn’t have discomfort getting into the attack. He has a nice knack for playing 1-2s with teammates or sending a dangerous through ball.

Defenders

Bradley Bourgeois 18.20 (96 minutes) – Community rating: 6.50 – Bourgeois naturally ends up with a bit of an inflated score because of his offensive contributions on set pieces, but, like… those count too, right? If his headers would find the feet of teammates (as they should have at least once by now), he might have an assist or two already on the season, and he’s close to a goal. As far as actual defensive responsibilities go, he’s a high-effort guy tracking back, and a little more positionally sound than he gets credit for (though he’ll lose track and let a guy in behind once or twice). All-in-all, solid day.

Kosuke Kimura 16.95 (96 minutes) – Community rating: 6.17 – This was easily Kimura’s best performance of the year. He’s still got a bit of a tendency to be over-active in his movement, meaning he has to track back defensively then overruns things a bit, but he’s doing a better job squaring up and preventing crosses or runs into the box. He’s also shown a bit more energy up the sideline lately.

Justin Davis 12.95 (96 minutes) – Community rating: 6.33 – I alluded to one of Davis’s major skills above: getting upfield in the attack, almost baiting the opponent into trying to beat him over the top, then tracking back to run that player down and slide-tackle the ball out of bounds (or maintain possession after the slide tackle). He’s always shown good placement, bend, and touch on free kick service, but that’s starting to show in open play, as well, with a couple really nice forward balls that started offensive opportunities. He gets caught upfield a bit at times, but that’s hardly the greatest sin.

David Edgar 9.59 (55 minutes) – Community rating: 5.67 – The yellow card was a dangerous tackle (albeit on a professional foul), and Edgar was a little sketchier than we’ve seen recently beyond that. He let players in behind him a couple times – not always his fault, but enough that it was certainly something he’ll try to cut out this week. He also – especially for being the NSC centerback most comfortable with the ball at his feet – had some really worrisome moments dealing with NYRB’s high press.

Liam Doyle 4.79 (41 minutes) – Community rating: 6.50 – I’m a little surprise that my numbers didn’t have his grade closer to Edgar’s: I thought he had a better performance to the eyeball test than Edgar did. He’s not without sketchy moments himself with the ball at his feet, and still has that tendency to take a stabbing tackle attempt and let the opponent get numbers in behind, but he was more solid at the back. It’s likely just a matter of not having time to make up for the same number of negative plays (even though he only got 15 fewer minutes, he had one fewer negative, just no time to build the positive end of things).

Goalkeeper

Matt Pickens 8.94 (96 minutes) – Community rating: 6.17 – Pickens had an up-and-down performance, which we’re not used to seeing: steady at the back (while not making the flashy save, maybe) is more what we’ve come to expect from him. He should have given up a goal on pure keeper error when a failed punch-out on a cross ended up not clearing the box, and the opponent it fell directly to (with the help of Akinyode, who missed a header trying to put more distance on the punch, leaving the player unmarked) hit his own teammate on the ground with the shot. Pickens also had a couple sketchy moments when the Red Bulls tried to press him. All told though, he gave up just one goal, kept his defense organized, etc. That’s a middling performance by his standards, but a pretty good one in the grand scheme of things.

The Graphical: New York Red Bulls II 1-1 Nashville SC

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 New York draw here at For Club and Country.

Playing wide and deep

Shoutout to Tyler Damme for pointing this out on Twitter: Nashville SC has trouble involving the center of the pitch moving the ball into the offensive zone. They improved in the second half Sunday afternoon, but still the heatmap shows some weakness there:

That’s the first half on the left, the second half on the right. The area between the center circle and the offensive penalty area (moving right to left into the offense) looks pretty sparse in the first half, much better in the second half.

This plays out in such a way that NSC is relying on the two central midfielders – in this system, both defensive midfielders – or the defenders to get the ball wide to the wingers for a cross or diagonal run, or over the top to the strikers (in this game, that worked reasonably effectively to Ropapa Mensah).

This can be considered a problem, it can be considered part of the gameplan against an NYRBII team whose whole mission is to take away that area of the pitch in its 4-2-3-1, it can be considered an area for future improvement whichever it is. Of course, given that Nashville SC had one of its most productive, cohesive offensive games of the year, I don’t see it as too significant an issue. (And I do think NYRB’s tactics played a large role in the way the heatmap played out).

Still, there are a couple ways it can be improved, if that’s what Gary Smith wants to do. A couple potential personnel changes are available: replace one of Michael Reed or Bolu Akinyode with Matt LaGrassa, a player whose game involves more going forward with the ball at his feet. I’d say Akinyode is unquestionably the most defensive of the players at that position group, while Reed is somewhere between the other two (see: his crossbar striker against Indy Eleven, for example). LaGrassa is more comfortable transitioning to an offensive position with or without the ball, and has the added versatility of sliding out to the wing, something we’ve seen a tiny bit of from Reed, but no more from either he or Akinyode. Another personnel change could be to slide Moloto back into the midfield, and let a true striker or goal-getter replace him up top. He started the year there, and is comfortable in a distribution role.

There are also a couple tactical adjustments – though again, given the nature of NYRB’s structure and plan, I don’t think they were super-viable in this one. One is to send the fullbacks farther forward, while tucking the wingers in a little bit. The Red Bulls’ plan  is to press and counter though, so getting the FBs caught up the field could have been… problematic. Simply switching the wingers to inverted positions – putting lefty Taylor Washington on the right to cut in and shoot with his inside foot and righty Alan Winn on the left for the same cutting run – could allow slightly stouter play through midfield on the offensive end, since it likely reduces their tendency to stay floating on the outside (though without fullback support outside, could result in a bunched NYRB defense to an extent).

Another option would be to stack the strikers with Ropapa Mensah (or Michael Cox, or any other analogue) playing in a true advanced position with Moloto dropping deeper into a bit more of a false-nine role to collect the ball and bring it forward through the center of the pitch. There was some of this Sunday, though more in the counterpress posture trying to win the ball back than offensively. Bringing him far enough back to almost be playing more a 4-5-1 could be an option if Mensah is going to be as consistent as he was Sunday.

Overall, I see the issue, but believe it to have been more of a matchup-oriented tactic, rather than a structural problem to be addressed. It’s an interesting thought exercise, nonetheless.

Opportunities abound

You probably don’t need a graphic to show you that Sunday’s game was just fun. Nashville SC had lots of shots, and the majority of those were pretty good looks.

Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 4.38.46 PMAside from the one long-distance strike by Mensah (3, well outside the box), the shots Nashville took were from extremely dangerous positions. By the way, that Mensah blast was actually a decent look – NYRB committed an own-zone turnover, and the big Ghanaian first-touched it. The camera work was poor, but it may have actually even been on-target despite what the chart shows (NYRB’s keeper certainly thought it was, as he made a scrambling, diving save on it).

There was only one other shot outside the box, that a good one from Taylor Washington that he probably could have pulled the trigger on even sooner to prevent the last man between him and the keeper from getting a block in. Compare this to even a Penn FC game in which we were left lamenting “all those wasted opportunities.”
Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 4.46.32 PMThis is a whole heck of a lot more sparse.

It’s easy for me to say “the offense is improving, even if the final product isn’t there.” In fact, it could be a straight-up lie. The final piece being absent is a pretty darn important part of offensive execution and ultimately production. Still, Expected Goals (or xG) exist for a reason – because over the course of time, the average player is going to convert some of these opportunities into goals.

Regardless of whether or not Nashville is scoring more (they are, but only a little between the Penn and NYRBII games), having more opportunities, and more realistic opportunities, is going to pay off in the long run. The song-and-dance remains the same, to the point it’s something Gary Smith has had to address in press conferences.

His saying “they’ll come with more chances” is not coachspeak or excuse-making for his team. It’s an accurate representation of what the most likely outcome is over time. As NSC continues to up its chances, they get closer to a breakout game where they bury a few of them.

Breaking the press

This goes along with the first two points: Nashville did a great job preventing New York Red Bulls II from bossing the game by forcing defensive-third turnovers with their high press. NYRBII using – and sticking to, in the face of results – that press played a large role in what felt like repeated NSC offensive rushes. Soccer fans can think of it like a basketball game: if the opponent (let’s call them “a college basketball team coached by Shaka Smart”) is going to press the whole time, there’s a good chance they force a lot of turnovers in your backcourt. On the possessions when they don’t force that turnover, though, they’re going to give up dunks.

Nashville’s numbers-advantage opportunities are the equivalent of those dunks (though unfortunately, too many of them ended up like these). NYRBII is generally OK with giving those up because they trust the opponent to miss the dunks or waste the opportunity, and it ends with a lot of steals of their own, leading to offensive opportunities their way.

That’s all to say, they want the map below – their defensive actions all over the field – to be heavily concentrated in Nashville’s defensive end (on the right), so that they get instant offense out of taking the ball away.

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It, uh, is not. Contrast that with their map against Ottawa (who, to be fair, is one of the USL’s worst teams, so preferably not a close comparison for NSC. Still, their mid-week game ended in a draw, as well). Take note, they’re going in the opposite direction, so NYRB’s offensive end is to the left:

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That’s a whole heck of a lot more (also many more in their own defensive end, but the field was still tilted more in their offensive direction in terms of taking over the ball). Nashville’s gameplan neutralized that of NYRBII.

That is to say, Nashville played the role of Michigan in breaking the press in this NCAA Tournament game. They just didn’t finish the shots. If both teams were to come out with the same gameplan next time they meet – not that I’m expecting it, necessarily – it wouldn’t surprise to see NSC finish four or five times in First Tennessee Park.

Mensah’s star turn

Obviously, Ropapa Mensah’s multiple runs in on goal, his goal that did count and the impressive one that didn’t are all indicative of what is likely his best-ever game:

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He was also involved all over the offensive end of the pitch, had just three incomplete passes and one failed dribble while creating instant offense on the takeaway, he was conservative when the situation called for it, and even ignoring the shots he took (five, three on target including the goal, one of the two off-target potentially a statistical error) he had a well-rounded game.

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For a hold-up striker slash goal-scorer, that’s a heck of a productive performance. He can’t be that involved for 90 minutes every week (his only start-to-finish appearance this season came against Penn, and while he was effective, he was clearly gassed by the end), but he’s taking steps toward it, and doing more than just being a shooter. The goals are going to come for this team, and he’s going to be a major part of that.

Defensive… efficiency?

Nashville has been one of the league’s best defenses to date in 2018 (five goals allowed in seven games, only Pittsburgh and Louisville are comparable in the East, with the Riverhounds aided by their schedule played). Against New York, they let in another goal, and the initial look at the shotmap looks scary: that’s a whole lot of action front-and-center:

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Yellow lines are key passes, everything else is a shot with green on-target, red off-target, blue blocked by a field player.

Despite being in reasonable shooting positions, New York’s shots – other than the goal – were generally pretty poor. Indeed, they only had one other on-target. The distance and direction of key passes tells part of the story: these were guys trying to strike balls coming from reasonably long distances. So too does NSC’s defensive effort: five blocks by field players, only two shots (that were both off-target, the more dangerous taken by No. 23 at the bottom, courtesy of a beautiful through-ball and David Edgar getting wrong-footed) taken from inside the box and inside the width of the penalty circle. Other than blocked shots, the Red Bulls weren’t generating high-quality chances.

That speaks to the work done on- and off-ball defending by the Boys in Gold.

Nashville growing into its offense, can’t quite finish against New York Red Bulls II

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A road draw against New York Red Bulls II is hardly something to be ashamed of: prior to Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Nashville SC, the Baby Bulls were 3-0 in Red Bull Arena, with 12 goals scored and just three conceded. All things considered, taking the first points away from NYRBII in their home arena and holding them to their lowest scoring output in Harrison are positive signs for the Boys in Gold.

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Photo Courtesy Nashville SC

The way it unfolded, though, will naturally lead to some frustration. NSC had 13 shots – five of them on the frame – and numerous other opportunities in the box that didn’t result in a shot being taken. They couldn’t find the back of the net after a seventh-minute strike from Ropapa Mensah, though.

“We looked resilient and showed aptitude and created multiple opportunities to win the game,” said manager Gary Smith. “Unfortunately, our biggest problem is hitting the back of the net. We are keeping teams at bay. We did a marvelous job of holding a dangerous team to just one goal, but we leave with mixed emotions.”

Mensah himself remained a threat throughout: in his best game wearing the NSC crest, he had numerous opportunities. The goal was created out of thin air by a heady interception in the high press, and he had a couple other runs in on the keeper that challenged NYRBII’s Evan Louro to respond. Mensah had five total shots, three of them on the frame, and came away with a justifiable man of the match honor.

“I think the team is on the right path now, and with the help of the manager, I am confident in scoring more,” the 20-year old Ghanaian said. “The offense is getting better because we have been working really hard at training building that chemistry.”

Still, a 27th-minute equalizer – combined with the inability to find a second goal – from the Red Bulls prevented Nashville from taking all three points on the road. Even that was hardly something to be ashamed of. It took an impeccably-placed pass by Christopher Lema and a Nashville defensive mistake to allow Vincent Bezecourt to level the scoring.

The competition was indeed even higher-level than you could have predicted for Nashville: 17-year old Ben Mines had played for the Red Bulls’ senior MLS side just four days earlier, showing that he’s a legitimate talent, and not just with a “for the USL” caveat attached. He’s played most of his minutes with NYRBII this year, but the quick turnaround made the inclusion of one of the top prospects in the system a surprise (as was an appearance by USMNT prospect Stefano Bonomo, who had been resting in recent weeks).

Of course, Nashville’s goal isn’t to head into Red Bull Arena and come away thinking “we looked decent against a good team.” The goal is to win games and move up in the USL table. They’ll have a tough test in that regard coming up next. League-leading Louisville City FC visits First Tennessee Park next Sunday.

“Every week we grow and every week we get better,” said midfielder Taylor Washington. “We had a few opportunities today. We will go over the video and come back into training and go to work. It’s good to take a point away from Red Bull Arena, and we are ready to come back and play in front of our fans against Louisville.”

The 5:00 p.m. game has special Mother’s Day ticket pricing still available, and Nashville SC relishes playing in front of its home crowd. Could a return to winning form come in one of the toughest tests yet of the young season?

Community player ratings: New York Red Bulls II 1-1 Nashville SC

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Michael Cox and Lebo Moloto both couldn’t quite finish late chances. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Nashville was dangerous but couldn’t ultimately steal all three points on the road this afternoon. What did you think of the performances? Vote anonymously here in just a few minutes:

Results will be included in the Breakdown and Player Ratings later this week.