Nashville SC plus/minus for 2018

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

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

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

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

Without further ado:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The graphical: Nashville SC 2018 player radars

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

A few notes here:

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

Here we go:

Primarily offensive players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primarily defensive players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we learned

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

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

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

 

From the Film Room: Ryan James, all-field threat

This is going to be a slightly different edition of the film room, with an emphasis on the chalkboard, rather than the videos. Let’s take a look at average player positions from Saturday’s game against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds:

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Courtesy USL. NSC in black, Pittsburgh green

A couple things jump out immediately, and some of those can be explained away pretty easily:

  • The overlap in the offensive edge of the center circle. That’s Tucker Hume, Lebo Moloto, and Robin Shroot all in one area. Hume is slightly to the right of the other two, and slightly behind, but it’s bunched nonetheless. There’s a bit of context needed, though: with no chronological component to this (rather, it’s just an average over the whole game), these players weren’t all actually standing next to each other the whole time. Moloto played up top with Shroot in the midfield at one point, and if you take two players who trade spots and average out their positions, it’s going to end up in the middle of those two. That also means that the second striker was actually farther advanced from Hume than it appears (but the average is dragged back by tie spent in midfield).
  • Ropapa Mensah (3) is really far upfield. This is not a bad thing, just an observation. There are a handful of factors explaining: first, the difference between himself and the non-Hume striker is exaggerated to a degree because of the reasons listed above. Secondly, NSC was trying to find a late winner. Third, that’s just Mensah’s style. If he gets more time and keeps this positioning up, it can stretch the game.
  • Justin Davis (2) played CB farther upfield and wider than Bradley Bourgeois (22). This is similar to the illusion from the first bullet: Nashville played multiple formations, so their roles were different. Bourgeois was RCB in both the 5-3-2 and the 4-4-2, while Davis shifted to left fullback in the 4-4-2.

The last point starts to lead into the main one I want to make here: Ryan James (7) is in a really weird spot for a wingback. Again, this is due to a shift in formations, and like with Shroot/Mensah, a couple different positions also come into play.

As you can see, he started at left wingback in the standard 5-3-2. Nashville SC began the second half in a 4-4-2 look, with Davis moving outside while James and Michael Reed occupied the flanking midfielder spots. When Taylor Washington came on, they shifted back to the 5-3-2, with James ending up on the right.

His average position on the field per position played would be a far more enlightening (and intriguing) map than a mere average over the course of the game. I don’t know if Opta (who runs USL’s advanced stats – and generally does an outstanding job with it) has a way to break down average positions by minute of gametime, but it’d be something to break down if we had that opportunity.

Getting back to James instead of Opta. His versatility is a major asset for the Boys in Gold. He allows Gary Smith to change tactics pretty significantly without making substitutions – or allows a substitution to come on at James’s position without taking a good player off the field, as we saw in the case of Washington Saturday evening. There’s just a lot more flexibility with players like James available.

His best position might be left back (it might not be – we haven’t gotten a full enough picture thanks to sample size, though in my charting, he seems to be about equally capable on either side). The team’s best use for him is probably right back, because it allows Washington’s speed onto the field. It reduces playing time for seasoned vet Kosuke Kimura, but given his rough start to the year, a bit of time to recharge the batteries and observe from the bench could be good for Kimura to get back into form. Pushing up the flanks with Washington and James should take a bit of a defensive load off the strikers.

I do think that there’s another opportunity here, and one that was hinted at by seeing two things in the same game: the 4-4-2 and Washington and James on the field together. That formation has more room for a wide left midfielder (with fewer defensive responsibilities), which may open a door for Alan Winn to get some playing time. While he’s not going to be a star, like Washington, his speed can be a game-changer for an offense that’s struggled to get its feet under it thus far in 2018.

Even playing the stout Davis at left fullback and leaving Washington on the bench, there’s a way to get a left winger out there – and that’s similar to what we saw in the second half against Atlanta United, leading to Ropapa Mensah’s first goal for Nashville SC. Whatever Gary Smith decides to do (and I suspect it mostly revolves around staying in the 5-3-2 and leaving Winn on a developmental track), the fact that James can make an impact in multiple spots allows for that door to be open.

From the film room: Louisville City doubles its lead

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Neither team was explosive offensively Saturday afternoon, and Louisville City struck twice in counter-attack postures to earn what was ultimately a comfortable win over Nashville SC. How did the second goal – and easy tap-in for Niall McCabe – come about?

The setup

We’re in the 65th minute, and Louisville City broke through in the 56th minute, so they were able to go into a full bunker-and-counter mode. They’re keeping a lot of numbers behind the ball, and selectively picking their spots to push forward.

LCFC has a throw-in on the near (offense’s right) sideline. This plays out like a counter because they go with a quick reset and pop it over Nashville’s midfield lines, and limited numbers for both teams – just three or four attackers for Louisville, just the five pure defenders and the keeper for Nashville – in the final third.

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Matt LaGrassa is able to put in an effort on Luke Spencer when he initially receives the long throw, but won’t particularly figure into this play.

That means Nashville still has a numbers advantage, but poor individual play at times allows Louisville to not necessarily even up the numbers, but succeed despite a numbers disadvantage (as should be the case for skilled attackers).

What happens

As mentioned above, this is basically a four-on-five play (again, LaGrassa is not a major factor after the very beginning), but with George Davis IV staying wide and forcing Kosuke Kimura to cover him way out there, it’s a bit more like a three-on-four until the very end.

When Spencer receives the throw, he picks up an immediate double-team from LaGrassa and Liam Doyle. Both are coming from the side – the same side, too, from the near sideline here – and slightly overrun him, allowing him to turn back from where they originated, finding a bit of free space to himself. He doesn’t hold onto the ball for too long, though, seeing a through ball to Oscar Jimenez that allows the winger to get space alone in a dangerous crossing position comfortably inside the penalty area.

How did Jimenez get so open? I’ll let Gary Smith do the explaining.

“For me, it was far too easy to get through two challenges,” Smith said of Spencer’s turn. “I think Ryan [James, after the turn] was attracted by a player in front of him and we far too easily were split as a defensive group.”

So, Ryan James was man-marking Jimenez, did a bit of ball-watching once Spencer found his space after beating Doyle and LaGrassa, and let the player in behind him. As you’ll see in the video, that forced Justin Davis to track back and help his teammate. Davis comes off looking kind of bad – he fails to close down Jimenez – but when you realize he was in coverage for a teammate, rather than failing in his own assignment, it makes this much more understandable.

By the time the cross gets in, London Woodberry, Doyle, and Kimura (who had come off the left winger to cover the interior) are all in position to cut it out. However, again there’s an instance of ball-watching: Woodberry is distracted by keeping his eyes on the crosser, rather than his mark. That allows Niall McCabe to get in behind for the easy tap-in. Matt Pickens had no chance.

“Even as the cross came in, we played a 4-v-1 in the penalty area,” Smith lamented. “The moments in a game are difficult to go back to, but I’m sure there would be some different choices and different decisions if they could have that moment again.”

Video

Takeaways

So there are two major categories into which the mistakes on this play fall: poor individual tackling (exacerbated by poor positioning), and ball-watching.

More often than not, you aren’t going to see a double-team split by opposing attackers with this NSC team. That’s especially true with a solid defensive midfielder in Matt LaGrassa and the most physical centerback in Liam Doyle. Indeed, Doyle’s characteristics “iffy with the ball at his feet playing from the back, good as a physical presence” typically go in the other direction.

Even if a player does split those two, it’s going to be even more rare that he’s able to do so while so cleanly possessing the ball. That Spencer kept his feet and control and was able to get his head up and dish it made this play. It won’t happen often.

The other category is the ball-watching, and that it afflicted (at least) two separate players on this instance is a little more troubling: it may end up a bit of a theme. It wasn’t in pre-season, so there’s hope, especially with the corrective measures the coaches are certainly implementing in training this week.

This was a major learning-experience goal: it wasn’t a whole lot of “these are things we just can’t execute,” but rather, “there are correctable mistakes here.” Going forward, you can be sure Gary Smith will be able to help his players prepare to make those corrections.

Many thanks to Music City Soccer for the quotes from Gary Smith, since we were unable to make it to training Monday.

Breakdown and player ratings: Nashville SC 0-2 Louisville City FC

Saturday’s game didn’t go quite according to plan for the Boys in Gold. A lackluster first half (for both teams) and a pair of LCFC goals in the second led to a debut defeat for Nashville SC’s USL account. What went into the loss?

Tactics, formation, opponent

 

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Ladies and gentlemen, your MOTM

A combination of these three factors made for a really tough first game out of Nashville SC. First off – and I hadn’t realized this when previously writing about how much Louisville’s field was going to suck – that’s an absurdly narrow pitch. Louisville’s tactics were designed to take advantage of it, Nashville SC’s base formation was sort of neutralized with a lack of space on the wings.

That led to the wingbacks remaining up the pitch more than they have in the past – with their defensive responsibilities more in the midfield range than the defender range – the backline pushing forward because they didn’t need as much horizontal coverage so they could to more vertically, and a really congested field in the neutral and attacking thirds. This made for a tough time, because NSC couldn’t get space on the wings to cross it in (and also didn’t have the same urgency getting it out of the back that they expected to need), and had to resort to hopeful longballs way more than they’ll typically want to.

The Boys in Gold ended up in more of a 3-4-3 formation with the wingbacks true midfielders and Lebo Moloto pushed up into an offensively-oriented No. 10 role than he’s been used to this year.

Compounding all of this is the fact that Louisville is a really good team, and Nashville – while I expect them to be pretty good this season – certainly isn’t the reigning USL Champ. In a lot of ways, it was probably better to get the first of two games at Louisville out of the way in the first game of the year, since this one was likely to be a loss no matter when it came, and you might as well have the learning experience early to build.

Forwards

Since this seemed to be an area where NSC particularly struggled, I’ll begin the player ratings here. A note on my rating system: it’s proprietary, so it won’t scale to other rating systems. It’s also new (I gave it a test-run without publishing the results for the Chattanooga game), so there will be kinks to work out.

Michael Cox – 8.89 (73 minutes) – Cox was used primarily for his hold-up play, and there were some decent moments there. However, there were also giveaways (multiple defenders coming in on the narrow pitch and little support arriving from his teammates played a role), and there wasn’t the distribution or turn-and-shoot ability to turn hold-up play into more than that. He needs to continue being more physical with the ball at his feet or while receiving it in the air. He had a couple nice moments pressing high early in the game.

Robin Shroot – 6.17 (59 minutes) – Shroot is the goal-scorer to complement Cox’s hold-up play, but it didn’t come off on this day. He couldn’t get enough of the ball to make an impact, and when that happens, a second forward is sort of just out there running around (and in Shroot’s case, that running isn’t going to result in blazing by anyone). At the very least, Shroot had some really good moments of effort in the high press.

Tucker Hume – 2.38 (33 minutes) – Hume didn’t have enough time and service to make an impact on the scoresheet, but he was an upgrade in hold-up play thanks to his size (and was an aerial threat on a couple crosses, as well). The game changed when he was in, and when NSC wants a pure hold-up guy on the field, Hume should probably be the choice.

Ropapa Mensah – 1.59 (19 minutes) – Like Hume, Mensah’s playing time was too limited to get a wide-ranging view of what he provides. Of course, we’ve seen his skills during friendlies, but he seemed to be a little more tentative and less effective in the face of a tenacious defense and not a lot of space to operate. Keeping his head up and making smart passes under pressure are his next steps.

Midfield

The defensive midfielders weren’t super-involved thanks to the pitch shape and Louisville’s desire to keep the ball wide and go around, rather than through, them. Since being involved is part of my rating system, that’s part of the low scores (though they didn’t always make the most of their opportunities, either).

Lebo Moloto – 13.43 (92 minutes) – Moloto was very nearly my Man of the Match. He provided basically every credible offensive threat NSC provided, including a shot from the top of the six-yard box that went high (I still gave him credit for the volley, even if a shot on-target would likely have scored). He had some really nice skill dribbles in traffic, distributed nicely as a No. 10. With more room to operate on a wider pitch that allows the wingbacks to provide horizontal spacing, he can have some huge games going forward.

Matt LaGrassa – 7.97 (92 minutes) – LaGrassa and Reed were both very quiet in the first half, and LaGrassa did a better job asserting himself after the break by getting more involved on offense. He has a nice touch on the ball, made runs in the channels, and had some decent long-ball service. In a muddled midfield, he didn’t allow Louisville City to get anything that he wasn’t getting when the ball was in his possession.

Michael Reed – 6.67 (92 minutes) – Like LaGrassa, Reeds was on the margins of the game in the first half because Louisville City was intentionally keeping their play a little bit wider – so the centerbacks and wingbacks were a more important part of the defensive effort. Reed also made too many speculative passes forward without a specific (or at least specifically open) target in mind, and his shorter passing wasn’t totally accurate on the day.

Defenders

Ryan James – 14.57 (85 minutes) – James was my man of the match, thanks in large part to a ton of involvement on his part (which, in fairness, can also mean that the opposition wanted to attack him, but it didn’t have that feel). He was a pest along the left sideline all day, managed to get involved in the offense by making some nice runs up that flank, and tracked back to make plenty of plays inside the penalty area on a day where the width of the pitch wasn’t a liability to doing so.

Justin Davis – 13.08 (92 minutes) – While James’s involvement didn’t feel like Louisville City was going after him, at times Davis felt like the point LCFC wanted to attack. Particularly in the second half, they tried to go down that defensive left channel. He was directly involved in both goals, letting a free header turn into the first one and providing space to a runner (ultimately the crosse) on the second. He did have plenty of work getting upfield – way more involvement in the offensive third, partially a product of not needing to defend as much width when he tracked back – and got on his horse to recover. Still, it felt like a lot of dangerous moments were partially his responsibility.

Liam Doyle – 5.96 (92 minutes) – With LCFC’s attack primarily staying wide to the defensive left, Doyle didn’t have a ton of involvement in this one. He had good moments and bad, though. He fell down on a long ball to give up a Louisville break at one point, and didn’t cut out as many dangerous crosses as you’d like when he had the opportunity (though he was generally good with his head). He also had a sketchy moment or two playing with the ball at his feet, which we saw a bit in preseason. With the long-ball target area too muddled to make up for that, the game didn’t necessarily play to his skills on the offensive foot.

London Woodberry – 4.49 (92 minutes) – Woodberry was even less involved than Doyle, and lack of involvement is part of this low score. He had some nice clearances defensively, and made an important slide tackle or two. However, he totally fell asleep on Louisville City’s second goal, one of the worst moments of the day for NSC.

Kosuke Kimura – 4.33 (92 minutes) – Kimura had a really, really rough first half. The narrowness of the pitch took away one of his primary assets – a high work rate getting up and down the field and providing width both offensively and defensively. It felt like he couldn’t get into the flow of the game because of that, and his short passing was sketchy on the day with a few turnovers, and he bombed some speculative long ones that didn’t come off. he was much more settled after the break, but still allowed some dangerous crosses to get off unperturbed when it appeared he was in a good defensive position. his crosses on offense also left something to be desired.

Taylor Washington – 0.46 (7 minutes) – Don’t be fooled by a low score – it’s simply a product of Washington getting very little time on the pitch. Scaled over a full 90, it would have been close to Doyle’s score, and if he’d had a full 90 to play, a negative (one of his four events I scored) probably would have been even more outweighed with positives. He provided some vertical danger on runs up the flank when he came on, and had some really impressive first touches. Certainly earned more playing time in my eyes, especially since – like Kimura – his game will be better suited to a wider pitch.

Goalkeeper

Matt Pickens – 10.52 (92 minutes) – It’s so hard for a keeper’s score to encapsulate his performance, because they’re only involved on a handful of plays, so there’s a lot of noise. Does a nice job coming off his line to cut out a cross outweigh a goal allowed? Probably not, but the keeper is only the last line of defense on a goal, too, and isn’t solely to blame. Pickens could have done better on both LCFC tallies, but neither seemed to be mostly his fault. In the other facets of the game, he was solid.

Takeaways from Thursday’s NSC training session

Before this afternoon’s Louisville City preview, a couple items from yesterday’s training that was open to the media (for post-practice interviews, see Gary Smith/Liam Doyle interviews and Lebo Moloto transcript).

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Michael Reed is your captain. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country (File).

This team is filled with leaders

It should come as no surprise that defensive midfielder Michael Reed is the team’s captain – the former San Antonio FC captain is an experienced vet (a second-division lifer to this point with NASL and USL experience), obviously has captaincy experience at his previous club, and is very much the steady hand in the middle of the pitch that you’d like to see out of the on-field leader.

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Taylor Washington learns from Kosuke Kimura. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country.

Something that I’ve noticed throughout training sessions though – and Gary Smith alluded to it yesterday – is that there’s not only a genuine love for each other among the players, but a desire throughout the roster to help each other improve. Smith mentioned Shroot working with Lebo Moloto after practice yesterday, we’ve seen it with Kosuke Kimura giving instruction to younger teammates when the rest of the squad has already hit the showers (right), and if not for the difficulty of directing the entire team from within the goal, keeper Matt Pickens would have been an outstanding choice for captain himself.

I predicted this in some of the player signing stories, but there’s a responsibility in leadership for the older players in potentially helping their younger teammates pick up on the mental and tactical sides of the game to help their careers last as long as possible (and reach higher levels more quickly).

NSC is expecting a different kind of challenge

That’s not just a level of intensity ratcheted up due to the arrival of games that actually count, and not just a greater level of talent from LCFC than some of the preseason opponents. The Lou is also going to present a tactical challenge, too.

Like last week’s training session featured plenty of practice in cross-field service from the centerbacks to the strikers – and we saw that plenty in the game against Chattanooga – this week’s revolved largely around dealing with a high press from the opposing offensive personnel. Look for NSC to show a focus on getting the ball out quickly when playing out of the back.

Louisville is the most tactically similar club to NSC (with a 5-3-2 or 3-5-2, however you want to classify it), so while the Boys in Gold are used to seeing it and know the ins and outs of what the formation wants to accomplish, they haven’t gone against it in full-go action yet. The amount of space available for wingbacks to roam up and down the flanks will be the biggest difference – Louisville will probably be the first team that truly wants to match them in workrate out there – but NSC will be ready to make the necessary adjustments to still find success wide.

Just how much that translates into turning defense into offense could play a major role in determining the outcome of the game.

Injury report

NSC buried this a little bit in their game notes (sorry for putting y’all out there like this!), but there was an update to the injury report. Jordan Dunstan is out – probably not a surprise given he missed the last friendly – while both London Woodberry and Bradley Bourgeois are questionable with leg injuries.  That means seriously diminished centerback depth.

My personal speculation is that Woodberry will be hale enough to make the starting lineup, and the question becomes if Bourgeois is in the 18 or out altogether (since he fell into the latter category for part of Spring). That puts Ryan James and Michael DeGraffenreidt in a situation where they’ll probably be pulled into the lineup away from their natural positions (outside back for both, though they’ve also each played some centerback), just to have the depth for subs at all.

For club and community

I’ll get into this a bit more in a later column (asked a few different questions about it for that purpose yesterday), but I was pleasantly surprised with the level of commitment that personnel from the club – players and coaches – have to the Nashville community. That’s not to say that I thought they considered it just a place to punch the clock, but they’re truly interested in giving back and being a part of the community.

Stay tuned for that in the coming days.

Stay tuned later this afternoon for the full game preview.

From the film room: Chattanooga nearly breaks through

Nashville SC’s win over former rival Chattanooga FC Saturday evening turned out to be  comfortable affair, but that doesn’t mean the Boys in Gold were perfect. On the contrary, there were a few minutes near the beginning of each half when they looked vulnerable indeed.

Let’s look at one that occurred in the 58th minute (not long before Chattanooga actually did end up finding the back of the net). For a full breakdown of the game, see yesterday’s analysis.

The setup

Nashville SC led 3-0 at halftime and has made a number of subs. We see a mix of first-team and second-choice personnel on the field. There’s a bit of a chemistry disconnect (as there was to open the contest with the mixing and matching of the lineup).

CJ Cochran is in net (halftime sub), with Taylor Washington, Justin Davis (halftime sub), Liam Doyle, Ryan James (moved from wingback), and Kosuke Kimura (halftime sub) in the backline. Bolu Akinyode and Michael Reed (halftime sub) are the defensive midfielders. That leaves only two players – Washington and Doyle – in the same positions they were in the prior half, and James at a different spot, though still with game-ready legs after the first half.

The play begins with Kimura trying to clear the ball down the right wing. (Ignore the colors and numbers for CFC in all graphics – the coachboard app leaves a lot to be desired in terms of “working properly”).

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What happens

Kimura’s clearance… does not go well. Instead of getting upfield to allowed NSC to regroup (or out of bounds to restart play), it goes right to a Chattanooga player. With NSC out of its shape – take a particularly close look at your presumed back three of Davis-Doyle-James – there are openings to exploit with some nice passing.

The next Chattanooga player to receiver the ball cuts toward the corner of the 18-yard box and fires in a cross. It goes directly to Davis, but his chest-trap is awkward, and he fumbles around with it at his feet a bit. That allows a Chattanooga player to make a tackle, which results in a lucky bounce right to his teammate.

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That teammate takes a nice bending shot that easily beats Cochran. He can’t turn it quite enough, though, and it glances the outside of the post and ends up as a harmless – if harrowing during the process – goal kick.

All told, it amounts to nothing, but NSC could have given one back here.

Video

(My recommendation is to watch part of it, read the takeaways, then watch again. It loops a couple times here).

Takeaways

In several aspects, this is just one of those moments that is going to happen in the course of a match, with a few unlucky bounces in a row adding up to something scary. Chattanooga didn’t score, so you shrug and move on. How frequently is Kimura going to fail to clear in that situation? How frequently is Davis going to handle the ball poorly? How frequently is a tackle going to bounce directly to his teammate for a nice shot? Maybe individually, you could say “often enough,” but for all three to occur on the same play is rare, and NSC won’t be punished by this odd confluence of events often.

There are still some coaching points here (from a tactical perspective, not a technical one. There’s no “LOL tim thinks he can teach technique to pros” moment), nonetheless.

  • Washington is wide because he’s expecting a breakout from his team (again, Kimura bungling a clearance like that is rare), not a turnover. He reacts too slowly when the team gets back into a defensive posture, or he could wall the tackling player off from Davis, or at least provide an easier outlet for him. With Washington’s speed, he’ll be in the right spot more often than not even when he is slow to realize the turnover.
  • Davis and Doyle need to communicate better to re-set the line (and Davis to a slightly lesser extent). While Doyle has great technique in tackling and an absolute laser-guided missile distributing the ball from the back, this is the fourth or fifth time in five (public) preseason appearances that we’ve seen possibly poor communication when he’s in the center. That’s not to say he’s to blame – he may well not be – but he has to be able to help overcome it, too.
  • Akinyode does a really nice job tracking wide to force the crosser to make a forward move before getting his cross in. Unfortunately, that means he – through no fault of his own – ends up in a better crossing position, able to slot the ball behind Reed and the player Reed is marking. Akinyode can’t get a foot on to block the cross.
  • Of course, Davis is going to trap and clear (or clear first-touch, or distribute to Washington, or basically anything other than “give the ball away”) 95 times out of 100. That’s not a major concern here, since even giving the ball away meant the tackler didn’t get it, and had to hope it fell to a teammate.
  • Chattanooga’s overload on NSC’s right side (bottom of the screen, unfortunately top of the graphic what with the Coachboard app’s limitations) is actually an underrated part of this play. Kimura ends up chasing his man into the corner – correctly – but CFC is able to send a second guy into the area. Kimura can’t mark two players, and his original mark slips away, where James should probably have a chance to prevent him getting on the end of the play, but his eyes are outside because of the crosser’s position.
  • Cochran was beaten, but he actually had decent position on this one. That those statements are sort of the opposite of what we expect (great reactions and ball-stopping, still working on positioning and distribution) are either encouraging because he won’t do it often, or discouraging. Either way, not stopping a shot that ends up wide of frame is hardly the greatest sin.

Like I said, this isn’t going to happen often: the individual mistakes are rare enough that we won’t see them frequently, and all coming together on the same play is going to be even more uncommon. The chemistry of guys playing out of position or coming on cold from the bench with teammates they don’t always line up next to (and won’t, with any degree of frequency) makes it even less troubling.

Gary Smith and his players will adjust and learn. They’ll have to be better – and less unlucky in all steps except the last one – when the regular-season intensity hits this weekend.