Pitch Points plays in Germany

Welcome to Pitch Points, wherein I round up some of the interesting links around the world of Nashville SC and US Soccer. As always, if you have something you want me to share, let me know in the comments or through social channels on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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Photo by Reto Stauffer (Creative Commons license).

Bundimericans. The Bundesliga’s official site is perhaps not an unbiased source when it comes to why the Bundesliga is a good fit for young Americans, but the point remains: it has proven to be in recent years. One of those reasons is fairly obvious:

There are several factors that make the Bundesliga more suitable for American players than Europe’s other top leagues, and one of them is purely administrative: it is easier to get hold of a work permit in Germany than in the UK, where non-EU players are required to have featured in a certain percentage of their country’s recent competitive matches to obtain an endorsement from the English FA.

I wonder if that’ll change when the Brexit fully extricates England from the EU. The British are going to have a ton less access to top European talent (in the way they currently have limited access to American talent), and while that won’t bring about an untimely death of the Premier League, of course, it could certainly help the other four of the Big Five leagues strive to surpass it in global reach.

Of course, our most well-known export to Deutschland in recent years will end his German adventure in the Summer Transfer Window. Christian Pulisic is headed to Chelsea. The style/fit is one thing Pulisic cited for being interested in the move, and how he adjusts to what many consider a higher level of play will be one of next season’s most interesting storylines.

Ayre Force One. Quick quote or two from Nashville MLS CEO Ian Ayre, though the entire article is behind a paywall that’s probably not worthwhile for somebody who’s overseas. The difference between building an MLS club versus heading a Premier League team is obviously a large one. How Ayre navigates it will write the story of the club’s early days.

Speaking of whom, a little bit on how the CEO role was diminished with the hiring of a sporting director, which partially facilitated his departure from Anfield. Ayre announced he was leaving the club no so long after that, and retired even earlier than was scheduled. The personnel on the front-office side – and what he learned about how that should be structured from his trials and tribulations at Liverpool – will be informed by his time there.

Personnel. MLS Multiplex covers the Cameron Lancaster signing. Speedway Soccer has its profile of the USL’s single-season goal-scoring record holder. It’s almost easy to forget how exciting a signing this was, only a couple weeks removed from its announcement.

Another signing (and one that I think was both under-heralded at the time and remains so) is Kharlton Belmar. At least from a fan perspective, seems like it made sense for Sporting KC to unload him to Nashville, to allow Swope Park to give minutes to younger kids. That’s always the intriguing tightrope walk that MLS2 sides between trying to win and trying to develop players for the first team.

What’s in the USL’s future? The league made vague hand motions toward “pyramid structure” and what that might mean in the long-term when announcing its rebrand, but this story is as definitive as I’ve seen in suggesting (from an official league source) that pro-rel is not only something they’re aware of, but actually interested in, if feasible.

Discussion of a new cup competition that would include all Championship and League One clubs to launch in 2020 has already begun, with long-term potential for promotion and relegation between the two professional divisions.

It remains vague, yes, but does demonstrate a willingness to consider in the long run. Obviously I’ve been a skeptic on the topic, but a limited scope (like between two USL divisions) beginning at a lower level is certainly a path toward a long-term future including promotion and relegation.

Etc.: It appears Ramone Howell is playing domestically in Jamaica during the offseason. … MLS Combine is this week. … One Pittsburgh Riverhounds game to catch? When they host Nashville SC. … Doesn’t directly relate to us, but the 2019 MLS schedule will be released this afternoon. … Ropapa Mensah held a mini-tournament in his hometown over the Christmas season. … University of Tennessee senior Khadija Shaw has an incredible (at times heartbreaking) story, and was The Guardian’s female footballer of the year. … How will NYCFC compensate for the loss of MLS all-timer David Villa? Nashville SC will be among the first to find out Feb. 22.

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Pitch points: With plans! Maybe!

Jacobs and Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre
“We’ve GOT to formulate a PLOT” – Eminem-inspired and forward-looking. Courtesy Nashville SC

For future consideration. Bournemouth has hired a loan manager to track their players who are out with other clubs. Maybe not that interesting on its own (they’re hardly the first to do it – certainly Manchester City and Chelsea have entire departments to manage their empires) – but does indicate a seriousness about the way they intend to do business. As Nashville SC enters the big leagues, these are the sort of ideas that they’ll want to stay on the forefront of. Personnel management (from academy to senior team, to scouts, etc.) is such a huge part of being a club that gets the most out of its resources.

Fortunately, the Nashville Soccer Supporters’ Trust president David Wasiolek got a sitdown with GM Ian Ayre (must be nice 😒), and came away with some positive takeaways in that regard:

  • The club has a strong vision of what a Tennessee-wide academy system would look like and how players could be developed and monitored across all the youth organizations and age groups. Personally, Ian would like to see this begin either simultaneously with the start of the team or even earlier.

  • Ian is working hard with Mike Jacobs on identifying top talent to bring to Nashville. There is a great desire to build a team of exceptional talent that also reflects the diverse flavors that make up the stew we call Nashville.

Those are the key newsworthy items, and a positive sign. There isn’t enough talent in Tennessee to primarily build a roster from home territory – New York/New Jersey is ain’t, much less Southern California – but as the club builds, it can play a role in helping change that.

I’ve been involved in that area of things in a different sport (American football) for most of my professional career, and will be extremely interested in seeing how it plays out.

Bethlehem Steel to Philadelphia. Bethlehem Steel announced this week that they’ll be playing the 2019 season at the home of their parent club, Philadelphia Union, with a change to USL stadium requirements:

Unfortunately, we have been informed by the USL that Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium no longer meets the minimum requirements set forth by the league due to a lack of stadium lighting. Upon hearing the decision that we could not return to Goodman, we visited and analyzed multiple other potential venues with the aim of keeping Steel FC in the Lehigh Valley, but there was no solution that met all the league requirements that could be ready in time for the 2019 season, including field size, capacity, and lighting, among others.

As a result, Bethlehem Steel FC will play next season at Talen Energy Stadium while we evaluate stadium options for beyond 2019.

Steel supporters are not happy, feeling betrayed not by the Steel’s front office, but rather by the Union.

I feel multiple ways about it (first off for the supporters: if you want to feel like the organization owes it to the local fans to stay in Bethlehem, you should have worked to get more than 2,300 fans out to each game). At the same time, clearly the Steel or Union felt like they’d be able to get waivers indefinitely – “the NASL gambit” – or is truly not all that invested in staying in Bethlehem.

USMNTakes. This story with Steve Cherundolo was pretty interesting. The former Men’s National Team standout was a guest coach with the Nats during their two-game stint in Europe. He was recently fired as part of the Stuttgart coaching staff, and has some outsider takes. For subscribers to The Athletic, Paul Tenorio has much more with Cherundolo.

I also present this:

I disagree (and strongly). You call up guys who give you the best chance to win, regardless of their club situation. That’s particularly true for guys whose club situation comes with an asterisk. Is “only turned 18 in February and was ineligible to play for his club team” or “can’t beat out Neymar for a spot in the lineup” damning? Is it worse than “is mediocre starter on mediocre MLS team?” I’d say no.

If the games were meaningful, you could convince me otherwise, but given that Dave Sarachan’s lone mandate seemed to be to blood the young talent – and that it’s the one thing he did pretty well in his 13 months as MNT manager – I don’t understand the complaint. That’s particularly true when Weah in particular proved to be one of the better players for the team over this time period. Clearly “playing for club team” isn’t the only indicator of high performance (which goes back to the above).

The headline here comes across as “finally, proof Christian Pulisic cares about the USMNT” which is an epically dumb take. Fortunately, the story is much more productive. It does, however, include a mention of the hot take to end all hot takes (if only to refute it, as the story implies).

Meanwhile, Tyler Adams writes for The Players Tribune, including the unsurprising “will be going to Europe in January” news. U-20 standout Alex Mendez will sign with Freiburg. And of course, goalkeeper Zack Steffen will likely sign with Manchester City (and then almost as likely, head out on loan somewhere).

Etc.: Add Madera Café in Plaza Mariachi to the soccer bars list. Thanks to reader Santiago for bringing it to my attention. … English clubs’ academy output. … Are we still talking about Jonathan Gonzalez? In a way, yes. … Probably the one guy with a legit argument for beating Matt Pickens as USL keeper of the year does so. …  … Austin Bold’s coach is also the coach of the USVI team. … Story on Liam Doyle’s re-signing from the Isle of Man, and one on Ropapa Mensah from one of the many Ghanaian soccer outlets. … USL Players Association earns league negotiating recognition.

Nashville SC announces returning players

From Club release: NASHVILLE (November 14, 2018) – The majority of the main contributors of Nashville Soccer Club’s successful inaugural season that finished in a USL Cup Playoff appearance this season will be back for 2019, pending USL and federation approval. Each of Nashville’s 12 highest minutes-played contributors will be back next year, including all four primary defenders and starting keeper on the league’s second-best defense.
Matt Pickens and Alan Winn are two players who return under contract. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
Returning under contract in 2019 will be keeper Matt Pickens, defenders Justin Davis, Liam Doyle, Bradley Bourgeois and Kosuke Kimura, midfielders Michael Reed, Matt LaGrassa, Bolu Akinyode, Taylor Washington and Lebo Moloto, and forward Alan Winn. Forward Tucker Hume and midfielder Ramone Howell have been re-signed by Nashville SC. Hume will return after scoring seven goals in the final three months of the season to propel SC into the playoffs. Howell, meanwhile, made his first two USL appearances as a rookie in Nashville’s final regular season game and playoff game, both against FC Cincinnati. Finally, forward Ropapa Mensah has been purchased from Inter Allies FC in Ghana following a season-long loan in 2018 with Nashville SC. Mensah became Nashville’s first-ever goalscorer when he struck against Atlanta United FC of MLS in Nashville’s opening friendly at First Tennessee Park. The club would like to extend its sincere gratitude to every player on the 2018 Nashville SC roster for each of their contributions on and off the field, making for a successful inaugural season for Nashville SC. That means your departures are as follows (in order of minutes played): F Brandon Allen, D London Woodberry, D Ryan James, M Ish Jome, GK CJ Cochran, M/F Kris Tyrpak, M/F Robin Shroot, and D Jordan Dunstan. And several players who never saw the field in USL play (alphabetical): GK Micah Bledsoe, D Michael DeGraffenreidt, M Josh Hughes, M Blake Levine, and M Ian McGrath. Very few surprises there. See here for my predictions. I was wrong on Bledsoe (thought he’d be kept for depth), James (thought his versatility would keep him around one more year), Cochran (really thought he’d have a chance to compete for more minutes with Pickens beginning to transition into coaching), and Tyrpak (the spark he provided late in the season seemed worth keeping around). Four incorrect calls, two on backup goalies, is hardly something to be ashamed of, no? See some of my predictions/ideas for who might fill in the roster here and here.

The graphical: Nashville SC 2018 player radars

We’ve reached the end of the USL season – though Nashville’s been done for nearly a month – so let’s continue wrapping things up by a graphical representation of the players’ 2018 performances.

A few notes here:

  • Field players only. I’ll consider doing something for keepers in the future, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that makes sense without broader comparisons.
  • I used a cutoff of 600 minutes played (because otherwise sample size errors would be even greater than they ended up), which removed Jordan Dunstan, Ramone Howell, and Robin Shroot from consideration.
  • I also took out Michael Cox and David Edgar, because they played the majority of their minutes with other teams (St. Louis and Ottawa, respectively), and the way the USL website presents the data, there’s no way to separate that out. Neither would have played over the 600-minute threshold for NSC, anyway.
  • That leaves a pool of 17 field players.
  • Keep in mind that some of these factors are an indication of quality, others are a description of style. “Was in more duels” is not necessarily synonymous with “better,” just a different type.
  • That said, I’m not happy with a couple of the metrics representing the sort of thing I wanted them to. Specifically, duels are not as indicative of a defensive mindset as I’d thought (particularly because aerial duels went mostly to Tucker Hume on longballs, etc.). I’d re-calculate the data, but I got way too deep into the process before realizing it, so it’ll have to wait for another time.
  • Since I’m using limited software here (Google Docs, actually), the wheels are a bit tougher to interpret, with no raw numbers. Everything is scaled from lowest on the team (0) to highest on the team (1), without regard for how it’d stack up to the rest of USL. For example, Brandon Allen had the best finishing rate on the team (30.3%), so he’s represented by a 1. There were plenty of USL players with higher marks (such as Cincy’s Danni Konig at 37.9%), but they’re outside of the sample size.
  • The stats are divided into four categories, starting with usage in the upper right, and going clockwise through shooting, passing, and defense. Each category includes four metrics, though as mentioned above, I’m not super-happy with how representative they all are of what I’m going for.

Here we go:

Primarily offensive players

Forwards, wide midfielders (minus Taylor Washington, who played wingback and fullback more than he played as an offensive-minded midfielder), and central attacking midfielders. Not sure whether to stick LaGrassa here because he also played significant amounts as a central defensive midfielder, but given his time as a winger and second striker, I guess I will.

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Winn’s role as an offense-minded winger was one that worked out pretty well for him as a distributor, especially. He barely edged out Kris Tyrpak for the mantle of “greatest percentage of his passes were key passes.” His finishing could use some work, and he was mostly a non-entity defensively.

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Allen’s role as a poacher and finisher cannot be overstated. Of course, there’s a bit of a confounding factor here: four of his ten goals on the season came from the penalty spot, and two of them came with the Bethlehem Steel before his transfer.

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Were it not for his season-ending injury, Moloto would have been one of the ironmen of this team. His conversion rate on shots was well-documented as being too low (though, as I’ve enumerated plenty of times in the past, that’s probably a product of feeling like he had to do too much with a whole new team, especially early in the year). His shots on-target rate indicates bad luck played a part, too. He was also one of the key creators for this team.

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LaGrassa played multiple roles for the team, as described above. His offensive numbers certainly indicate that he spent much more time in that CDM role (which I believe to be true, though I haven’t gone back and checked). His win rate on duels and tackles is certainly pretty good.

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Jome, like LaGrassa, played multiple roles, though his were a little less diverse: left winger, left fullback, and a little bit of central defensive mid. He pretty much got benched after getting a key red card.

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Hello, Mr. “tries shit.” If Mensah had been at full fitness earlier in the year, this team’s (often deserved) reputation for being a bunker-counter squad with little creativity in the final third might have been different. Mensah’s conversion rate wasn’t great, but to a certain extent, having him out there was not only a way for him to score, but to open things up for teammates.

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Extremely similar graph to Winn’s, save for the fact that Tyrpak didn’t join the team until August and only got into five games. A whole season with him available would certainly be interesting (though he and Winn have overlapping skillsets, to an extent).

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The “shoot only” version of an offensive player. You’d actually like to see at least the passes per 90 be higher, given that he’s a hold-up striker. If the key pass version of a hockey assist existed, though, he’d be much higher. Also: the graph that made me realize duels don’t belong in the “defensive actions” category.

Primarily defensive players

The rest of ’em. As you can figure from the above, there’s some overlap in the LaGrassa/Washington/Jomes of the world.

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The only player on the team (or at least among these 17 who got enough playing time to count) who didn’t register a shot. Solid defender and ground-coverer, and the majority of his key passes were crosses in from the wing.

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A lot of minutes played, solid defensive numbers (remember, we shouldn’t be holding a lack of volume in duels against him), and decent action going forward with key passes. Given that he played both centerback and fullback, the pass numbers generally get a little more impressive (aside from long passing, which you expect more of from a centerback).

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The most offensive of NSC’s central defensive mids, Reed made an offensive impact with line-breaking passes (that long pass mark is pretty nice, especially when considering how many of those passes turned into key passes, and how accurate Reed’s passing was overall). He didn’t get forward much until later in the year, which you’d like to see more of with a team that’s a bit more comfortable with each other next year.

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James didn’t play a ton to get much data on him. Non-entity offensively (unsurprising given that much of his time, especially late in the year, came as a third centerback sub). Was a very good ball-winner, though.

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Some eyebrows were raised about Doyle’s selection as the team’s defender of the year, but the graph is pretty impressive to me. Tons of blocks and clears, did a great job winning tackles, wasn’t a liability with the ball at his feet (completing a lot of passes despite simply booting many of them upfield), and was pretty much an ironman.

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I’m actually fairly surprised Bourgeois’s long passing rate wasn’t higher, because there was a stretch in the middle of the year where it seemed like he was just instinctively banging it upfield. He would have been one of the minutes leaders if not for a mid-season injury, he would have had a ton of minutes, too. Glad to see him get a couple goals in there, as well.

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Played multiple positions, scored on one of just seven shots on the year. Wasn’t super-involved on or off the ball, based on the graph, but was good when called upon.

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Hello, weird graph for a central midfielder. Akinyode was very good defensively (upper left quadrant) and got plenty of playing time (upper right). The bottom two portions are where it gets interesting: he was a non-entity offensively – aside from one absolute banger against FCC, of course – and his passing chart shows a guy who was similarly not involved either getting forward or moving the ball into the offensive third. “Guy who doesn’t mess up with the ball at his feet” is certainly an asset for a team, but I’d like to see more (or, if he’s not going to produce going forward, a couple fewer situations where he was jogging back in defense while his guy scored or set up a goal).

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Woodberry actually had the ball at his feet a lot for a centerback. He was fairly solid blocking shots and clearing them with regularity (perhaps there’s something to be said for that), though the other centerbacks had a bit more. Anecdotally, he did have a game-losing own-goal, of course.

What we learned

Aside from “let’s make sure we understand what part of the game duels demonstrate before chopping up the data,” I think a lot of what we see here either follows with what we saw on the field (“Ropapa tries to make things happen,” “Akinyode may not be physically capable of a pass longer than eight yards”), or taught us something that we might not have otherwise realized (“Hume’s shooting was actually more important to the team than his hold-up play,” “Winn and Tyrpak were far and away the most important setup men”).

Again, some of the graph is on a scale of “bad to good” while other parts are simply stylistic measures, so there’s a bit of mining you can do with these.

If you have any suggestions for how to make the graphs more enlightening, or a question/suggestion/etc. otherwise, let me know in the comments or drop me a note on the social channels. I’m all ears, and trying to get as much information displayed in an interesting and informative way as possible.

 

Ropapa Mensah plays the hero and Nashville earns a 1-0 win over North Carolina FC

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NASHVILLE – A game that looked like it was going to have some second-half goals at the break… finally got one deep into stoppage time when Ropapa Mensah slotted home the game-winner well after the allotted stoppage time had expired. Nashville SC 1, North Carolina FC 0.

Two substitutions played a key role in the goal. 79th-minute entry Alan Winn earned a free kick bursting down the left side after the clock had struck 93 minutes, but thanks to the infraction, there was more soccer to be played. Captain Michael Reed’s free kick service from 45 yards out found the head of defender Bradley Bourgeois, who nodded it back across the face of goal. Mensah, who had entered the game in the 68th, poked his toe past otherwise-unblemished NCFC keeper Alex Tambakis and won the game on its final kick.

Nashville SC maintained its undefeated home record with the 1-0 score, and had Mensah not saved the day, there may have been plenty of controversy regarding an 84th-minute decision from the official that helped keep the game knotted at zeroes. A nice passing sequence saw Lebo Moloto free in the box with the ball at his feet. Before he could get a shot off, he was cut down from behind. No call, move along.

Mensah’s finish rendered all that moot, however, when whatever problems Nashville had converting chances (21 shots, six on goal) into scoring can be an issue for another day. After a delay to begin the game and a contest that moved in fits and starts, all that will be remembered is one magical moment at the death of the clock.

Up next, it’s a return to midweek play with the US Open Cup’s Round of 16 on deck. Nashville will travel to Louisville this Wednesday for the third matchup of the season between the two. They’ve split 2-0 decisions with the home team winning each time, but the stakes are slightly different in cup play. Certainly, Nashville will feel like it has all the momentum after tonight’s 94th minute.

Starting lineups

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Match events

  • 16′ NSH Yellow card – 32 Brandon Allen (foul)
  • 37′ NC Yellow card – 6 Austin Da Luz (foul)
  • 45’+2 – Half time
  • 68′ NSH Substitution – On 3 Ropapa Mensah, off 32 Brandon Allen
  • 72′ NC Substitutions – On 22 Tiyi Shipalane, off 6 Austin Da Luz. On 10 Kyle Bekker, off 14 Daniel Rios
  • 79′ NSH Substitution – On 19 Alan Winn, off 20 Matt LaGrassa
  • 87′ NC Substitution – On 7 Donovan Ewolo, off 9 Marios Lomis
  • 90’+4 NC Yellow card – 31 Steven Miller
  • 90’+4 NSH GOAL – 3 Ropapa Mensah (right foot), assisted by 22 Bradley Bourgeois

From the film room: Lebo Moloto puts Nashville SC on top of Louisville

Louisville City entered last Sunday’s game as one of the top teams in the USL East. Despite losing to Indy Eleven in their prior outing, this was still a juggernaut of a team. Nashville SC pretty much dispatched them with ease – at least on the scoreboard. How did it happen?

It all began with a first-half strike from Lebo Moloto.

The situation

Neither team has generated many legitimate scoring chances, but Louisville City FC has certainly had more of the ball in the first half. The field is a little tilted in LCFC’s favor, but offensive rushes with little end product (which would be the case for the Boys in Purple all afternoon) compared with fewer – but more dangerous – opportunities for NSC was the name of the game.

After Matt Pickens scoops up a loose ball in the box and distributes to left centerback Liam Doyle, the ball is switched across the field a couple times, then Doyle feeds defensive midfielder Bolu Akinyode along the left sideline.

Film

What happens

Akinyode pushes the ball over the top to striker Ropapa Mensah. Mensah cuts back at the edge of the box, picks his head up, and spots Matt LaGrassa in a decent shooting position. He cross the ball to LaGrassa for what appears to be a solid shooting chance.

Before LaGrassa can swing his left leg through the shot, he’s called off by Mensah’s fellow striker, Lebo Moloto (playing as a bit of a false nine, dropping into the midfield at times, as at the beginning of this play – that will actually be important, too). Mensah rips with his right foot, and goes near-post.

With Louisville keeper Greg Ranjitsingh setting up to save a lefty shot from LaGrassa (more than likely going to the keeper’s left), he’s caught flat-footed, and Moloto beats him along the ground into the bottom right corner.

Takeaways

This is a matter of at least a couple separate individual battles won. Take a look at Louisville’s marking at the beginning of the play:

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Every offensive threat for NSC is covered, with two free Louisville defenders. The precision of Akinyode’s pass is an important start, but after that Mensah has to win his one-on-one battle against Alexis Souahy. He does so by pushing toward the endline, then cutting back onto his preferred right foot.

Moloto also needs to win his battle. That’s a bit easier a task: even though Devon Williams is a defensively-oriented midfielder, and Moloto is a striker, when Moloto starts his run, Williams just plants his feet and watches the dangerous player run on by. That’s compounded when both Sean Totsch and Paolo DelPiccolo sink to Mensah, rather than either of them noticing that Mensah is without a marker.

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There are a couple underrated off-ball movements that make the whole thing possible, too. When Akinyode plays the ball over the top, Nashville left back Justin Davis stays wide, and left midfielder Taylor Washington sinks back toward the direction of the initial pass, drawing Totsch away from Mensah, and making it a one-on-one situation (preventing anyone other than Souahy from recovering).

The movement of the defenders – Paco Craig slides into a sweeper role, which should be the safe move given that his team has numbers, and DelPiccolo is running back to try to recover to Mensah – opens a passing lane in the direction of LaGrassa. (The yellow line is the lane, which three defenders on one offensive player should be able to cover. Blue is Mensah’s pass).

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If LaGrassa takes the shot, there’s a decent chance Ranjitsingh makes the save: he was set up to dive to his left, and LaGrassa would have had to have really nice placement with his weaker foot (or go opposite post, something tough to do on a first-time strike, though obviously not impossible) to beat a strong keeper.

Mensah gets the majority of credit here, though Moloto’s strike was obviously a good end product. Akinyode’s initial service to Mensah was good, and the savvy of Davis and Washington to give Mensah more space helped create the window. A great team goal.

Film

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.