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.
Advertisements

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.13.47 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.14.03 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.14.21 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.12.30 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.12.14 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.11.35 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.10.13 PM

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).

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.09.49 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.16.06 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.16.27 PM

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).

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.16.37 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.16.47 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.16.55 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.17.08 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.17.18 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.17.26 PM

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).

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 12.17.49 PM

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.

 

The Graphical: Nashville SC 2-0 Ottawa Fury

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

Your shift is on my team sheet

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

Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 11.22.29 AM
Nashville SC is in black

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

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

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

Making the most of Lebo

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 1.23.19 PM

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

 

What else changes?

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

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

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

The downsides

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

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

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

Thanks as always for reading FCAC. Please feel free to share our social media posts with a friend who is interested in learning about the team and reading in-depth coverage of Nashville SC.

From the Film Room: Lebo Golazo, round two

You may recall the original Lebo Golazo from the friendly match against Orlando City.

IMG_66E88C1BF8AD-1

Nashville SC had its way with Penn FC Saturday evening, whether playing a direct style of ball or working it through the middle in the possession game. After a simple “cross, finish” goal to open the scoring in the first half, things were quite a bit more tiki-taka for the second.

Let’s break down how it happened.

The situation

NSC leads 1-0 shortly after halftime. Penn has made one halftime sub: taking out defensive midfielder Miguel Jaime and replacing him with Damn Metzger. In a game that featured a few different formation concepts from the City Islanders, they’re now in a fairly rigid 4-1-4-1 with centerback Ken Tribbett cast in the defensive midfielder role.

Nashville SC is in possession after a through-ball from Penn FC finds only the hands of keeper Matt Pickens. Where we pick up, midfielder Matt LaGrassa has the ball, and passes it wide to left fullback Justin Davis.

Video

(I recommend watching once, reading the prose, then re-watching as many times as needed to put the words with the pictures).

What happens

The video has a bit of illustration here (still working to improve presentation with a mediocre chalkboard program, bear with me), but I’ll break it down verbally and embed the video again below.

The first key portion of the play comes from a solid moment of individual brilliance from Davis: he touches the ball around Aaron Dennis, Penn’s right midfielder, and beats him to the other side. This puts Davis and NSC left midfielder Ish Jome in a 2-on-2 with Dennis and right back Marco Franco, but Dennis is trailing both of them. When Jome pushes forward, CDM Ken Tribbett has to step up to prevent him from dribbling into space.  That turns a major numbers advantage for Penn FC – six defenders for four NSC offensive players, one of whom is a fullback – into a bit more even a matchup. Even when Davis trips over Dennis’s leg, he’s occupying both Franco and Dennis, leaving Jome in easy position to find an opening around Tribbett to push the ball forward to Lebo Moloto.

Here’s where Tribbett’s playing out of position makes things tougher for Penn. He’s used to playing centerback, where if he gets passed around like that, the space is much more constricted. At his usual position, that pass from Jome is probably for naught, because either the keeper can come off hiss line to cut it out, or there’s not enough space inside the box for the eventual give-and-go. As a midfielder, he needs to work harder to either prevent Jome from comfortably completing that pass, or bother Moloto once the pass arrives so he can’t execute the give-and-go. Tribbett lacks either the mentality or the mobility for the assignment at this position.

Moloto receiving the ball in tons of space means that centerback Thiago Calvano has to step up, instead of playing a bit more conservative a technique (like he’d probably prefer). When Moloto passes the ball to Allen and immediately makes a run past Calvano, you can see why the CB would rather be a bit less aggressive: he’s caught moving in the wrong direction and Moloto easily runs past him for the return service.

I’d like to quickly pause and point out something else from the video here. I put checkmarks on both Richard Menjivar for Penn and Taylor Washington for Nashville, even though they were initially not involved in the play. Menjivar would work back defensively, but arrive too late to be of much service to Tribbett in helping contain Jome. Washington’s run, on the other hand, makes this play happen much more than he’ll get credit for (and I think I didn’t credit him in the player ratings, so… sorry, Taylor).

Washington makes a run down the sideline even though he knows he’s not getting the ball. This is something that’s so hard to teach to less experienced players (or, as the manager of an adult co-ed rec team, people who are older than Washington and have been playing their whole lives, not that I’m salty or anything). He knows that his movement is to create space for other players, rather than himself. With a free run down the sideline and nobody marking him even from a trail position, Washington draws some of the attention of left back Pedro Galvão, who would otherwise be man-marking Brandon Allen. With Washington coming down wide, Galvão can’t come up aggressively on Allen to either disrupt his receiving of Moloto’s initial pass, nor prevent Allen from taking a couple touches on the ball – he needs to be in position to sink onto Washington’s run if it becomes relevant. Without the ability to be more tightly marking Allen, NSC’s new signing has all the time in the world to take a couple touches to spring Moloto.

Of course, right centerback Kyle Venter is still in a spot where Moloto is his only mark (Jome is picked up by Franco when he continues his run after the initial pass to Moloto). However, he has to come from a wide position, and can’t arrive thanks to Moloto’s first-touch strike.

Of course, the striker itself deserves all sorts of credit: as much as this was an X-and-O bludgeoning by Nashville’s forwards and wide players, the simple technical brilliance of Moloto being able to take that shot first-time, place it perfectly and powerfully in the corner of the net, and do it all while seeming to not even think, just act… that makes the play. It’s a Jimmies-and-Joes win at the end of the day.

Video redux

The aftermath

NSC would bunker-counter a bit with the lead, and thanks to a couple uncharacteristic goalkeeper gaffes, would let Penn pull one back in the 76th. However, it wouldn’t take long for Alan Winn to seal the game with a rebound goal five minutes later.

The Boys in Gold would enjoy a comfortable 3-1 victory.

As always, thanks for visiting For Club and Country. Please follow the site on Twitter, Facebook, and now Instagram to make sure you never miss an upset on Nashville SC or US Soccer.

Nashville earns road draw against Charleston, will regret not taking all three points

Nashville struck early on the road Saturday evening – defender Liam Doyle blasted a shot into the bottom-right corner of the net after Lebo Moloto laid off a free kick – but Charleston Battery was able to respond early in the second half to level the score. While Nashville would have chances, neither team would find the game-winner (at least a game-winner that counted) and split the points in the Holy City.

“It’s tinged with a little disappointment that we didn’t take all three points,” said head coach Gary Smith. “It was a solid performance; we are in a good run of form right now. There were one or two moments where we could have had more quality around the box, but the guys have shown a professional attitude on the road. Once we wake up in the morning with another road point we’ll be delighted.”

No chance to pull ahead was closer than Taylor Washington’s 69th-minute header – which actually found the back of the net, but was called back on what appeared to be minimal contact – and a foul on Washington.

“I didn’t get a chance to see the replay, but they said I pushed him in the back,” Washington opined. “Gary’s reaction told me what I need to know, and he said that the ref had gotten it wrong. The defender went into me, and I was just trying to get above him. I thought he embellished it, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Nashville controlled much of the game, even on the road against one of the top sides in the Eastern Conference standings. While the Boys in Gold had only 48.3% of possession, the field was tilted with both teams playing closer to the Battery’s end of the pitch than Nashville’s, and NSC had nine shots – four inside the box – to Charleston’s six, with two from dangerous range.

Unfortunately for Nashville, one of Charleston’s shots in the box came from the right foot of Autalla Guerra, and beat Matt Pickens to his right, scoring into the bottom corner of the net to equalize, and allow Charleston to pick up a point at home.

With the result, Charleston remains third in the Eastern Conference standings, while Nashville remains tenth. The Boys in Gold fortunately have at least one game in hand on nearly every team ahead of them in the table, with a league-low nine contests played. They’ll make up some of that gap posthaste, with a mid-week game against Pittsburgh Riverhounds this Wednesday the third in a run of six games in 18 days. The trip to Steel City will see a rematch of NSC’s second game of the year, a 0-0 draw in Nissan Stadium.

The game kicks off at 6 p.m. Central (7 p.m. local).

Starting lineups

IMG_D32E2F91D634-1

Match events

  • 25′ NSH GOAL – 5 Liam Doyle (left foot), assisted by 10 Lebo Moloto
  • 45’+1 – Half time.
  • 50′ CHS GOAL – 10 Ataulla Guerra (right foot), assisted by 2 Jay Bolt
  • 53′ CHS Yellow card – 10 Ataulla Guerra (dissent)
  • 54′ NSH Yellow card – 17 Michael Reed (foul)
  • 66′ CHS Substitution – On 13 Nicholas Rittmeyer, off 2 Jay Bolt
  • 66′ NSH Substitution – On 32 Brandon Allen, off 3 Ropapa Mensah
  • 70′ CHS Substitution – On 15 Gordon Wild, off 9 Ian Sventesson
  • 81′ CHS Substitution – On 21 Angelo Kelly-Rosales, off 25 Kotaro Higashi
  • 81′ NSH Substitution – On 11 Ish Jome, off 23 Taylor Washington
  • 86′ NSH Substitution – On 13 Ryan James, off 20 Matt LaGrassa
  • 90’+3 NSH Yellow card – 2 Justin Davis (dissent)
  • 90’+4 – Full time

Breakdown and player ratings: Penn FC 0-0 Nashville SC

Apologies for the delay on this. Full disclosure: it was a super-nice weekend so I just decided to do other things, with a loooong gap between games. Remember, you can play a part in these posts by anonymously voting in the postgame community player ratings each week. Those numbers are on a traditional 1-10 scale, my ratings are not. 

IMG_0519
Taylor Washington started slowly, but ultimately put in a man-of-the-match performance. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Tactics and formation

Nashville was in a pure 4-4-2 pretty much throughout (with occasional shifts into a three-man backline in a defensive posture). The wings were Taylor Washington on the left and Robin Shroot on the right. Shroot drifted centrally a bit – particularly in the final third – and when he was replaced with Matt LaGrassa, the sub did the same. There was a like-for-like change up top with Michael Cox replacing the tired (and yellow-carded) Ropapa Mensah.

I gave a couple knocks to Bradley Bourgeois for longballs over the top early, but that really appeared to be part of the gameplan. If not, this is a very strange passing chart:

Screen Shot 2018-04-26 at 4.40.39 PM
Pop it over the top, yo.

The other defenders with one exception did a lot of that early (and more of it late, as well, though that definitely became a smaller part of the plan). David Edgar was the only one who didn’t really do that – somewhat funny, given that the player he replaced in the staRting lineup (Liam Doyle) is best-known for it. He was credited with a few long passes but they aren’t of the same “get it to the endline” variety. Still, with Kimura, Davis, and Reed all doing it as well, it was clearly a gameplan deal.

There was consternation among fans and other media that Gary Smith didn’t go for late offense: Late in the game not subbing to put on a goal-getter (he left his third sub on the bench)… I’m OK with it. While you’d like to win, you also don’t want to lose at that point, and when your sub options either aren’t going to provide the type of offense you need (Hume) or could be a defensive liability (Winn), push with what you have instead of risking a drop of the last point. I touched on that last bit in The Graphical as well, and while I might have done some things differently – Winn for Shroot, go with more of a 4-3-3 with Washington and Winn flanking the striker and Moloto dropping back to midfield, for example – there were definite risks if you tried to generate offense with a substitution and without changing the formation up a bit.

A couple comments from the community that aren’t about any specific player (and were left anonymously – if you want to have your name, Twitter handle, whatever attached to your comments, feel free to drop that in the box as well in future editions):

“Passing and rhythm were both nowhere in sight”

“Sloppy!”

If something happened in the final couple minutes of the game, it’s not included here: I, along with everyone else whose viewing was dictated by ESPN-Plus, did not get to see second-half stoppage time.

Midfielders

Not only does the MOTM selection play here, so too did the… guy at the other end of things… so it leads the way.

Taylor Washington 19.43 (94 minutes) – Community rating: 6.14 – I’m actually a little surprised his community rating was so low, especially because of the way his performance compared to the player on the other wing. Perhaps readers are more astute observers than I though, because through 30 minutes, Washington was absolutely invisible. He had exactly four touches, only one of them in what could be considered a dangerous area.

After that, he had a very solid performance (overcoming 30 minutes of basically on 0-fer to end up with the highest grade). If he’d been able to get involved earlier, it might have helped Shroot find the game – it’s no coincidence that he had a near-assist on what was perhaps Nashville’s best scoring chance. I’ll get to Shroot in a moment, of course, but Washington’s pace down the left flank was a difference-maker once he was able to settle in.

Michael Reed 14.10 (94 minutes) – Community rating: 6.29 – Reed is playing much better lately than he did in the first couple games of the year, and by this point, every game is basically the same for him: he’s a very solid player in midfield defensively, he’s willing to pick out longer passes to spark an attack while being smart and conservative a lot, and is the right-footed free kick taker. The one consistent negative I’m seeing in his game is a first touch that occasionally lets the ball get away from him either to prevent him from being immediately dangerous going forward, or to allow an opponent to come dispossess him.

Bolu Akinyode 10.27 (94 minutes) – Community rating: 5.86 – Akinyode, like Reed, is putting in basically the same performance in each game nowadays (consistency is a good thing). He’s very conservative with his passes for the most part, with a lot of very short ones either going back to the defenders/Pickens or laterally to Reed or whichever winger is closer to him. He had a very nice game defensively with some pickpocket actions on opponents, and he’s getting more comfortable using his physical might to win headers or box out players (with a few fouls resulting, including one in fairly dangerous position but that’s the price you pay to have that physical style).

Robin Shroot 1.61 (71 minutes) – Community rating: 3.86 – Let me preface this by saying Robin Shroot did not have a good performance (you don’t end up with a score that low in 71 minutes if you do), but on a rewatch, I actually thought there were things to like. How often has Nashville SC been in position for what is basically a tap-in goal this year? How many times have they had the opportunity for a volleyed chance from eight yards? Not too many by my count. The flipside of that is that Shroot literally whiffed on both of those opportunities, which is not super-great. He was active through much of his appearance (particularly on defense, where his effort is great), but simply being out there and putting in effort isn’t enough if it doesn’t turn into results. He had the ball ripped off his foot a couple times and of course had a should-be-red-carded tackle defensively. As poor as the total product ended up being, there were more glimmers of positive play than I was expecting.

Matt LaGrassa 3.69 (23 minutes) – Community rating: 6.00 – That LaGrassa was able to put up a reasonable score in under a third the number of minutes Shroot played in the same position is sayin’ somethin’, of course. It mostly said “didn’t make as many mistakes” but he also had a couple nice supporting runs and two really good crosses that were ultimately left wanting. With a full game worth of action, he could have had a nice day. It’ll be interesting to see what Gary Smith does with him now that he’s apparently been usurped by Akinyode at CDM, but has shown that he can succeed on the wing.

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.

Defenders

David Edgar 15.80 (94 minutes) – Community rating: 6.71 – I was surprised to see Edgar lead the scores on defense, because I felt he wasn’t super-involved in the game (except inasmuch as “solid positional defense,” an extremely important part of being a centerback, is being involved). Part of it is that he wasn’t lobbing longballs over the top like his linemates and getting the resultant dings when it wasn’t staying inbounds on the slick pitch. He is the most comfortable CB on the ball for Nashville – that Premier League experience truly does show through – and had a couple nice tackles. He did have one Doyle-like stab at the ball which resulted in being solidly beaten on the dribble, though.

Justin Davis 13.94 (94 minutes) – Community rating: 6.43 – Here’s the guy I was expecting to lead the backline in rating, and he really wasn’t all that far off (especially considering I hit him twice for lobbing ineffective balls over the top, for which he’s probably only partially culpable). He has getting forward nicely lately. He also didn’t have any of the “oh shit” moments (though nor did he have the incredible slide tackles to make up for them, either). His two services from the corner were very nice as well, though both were left wanting.

Bradley Bourgeois 9.82 (94 minutes) – Community rating: 6.57 – I thought Bourgeois (or “Borges” according to the announcers) had a very, very nice performance, and if not for being the guy who bore the brunt of the hopeful lobs upfield – see the above passing chart – he would have scored out very well. His hustle was really on display in this one, whether compensating for a mediocre pass from a teammate, or getting back defensively to intercept attempts to break the backline out of Penn. The opponent was more able than previous one to make his lack of height an issue on set pieces in the box, but he’s still in positions to be a factor, at least.

Kosuke Kimura 9.50 (94 minutes) – Community rating: 6.29 – Kimura kind of gives me a similar vibe to the player who was his companion up the right wing: energetic defensively, but a bit sketchy at times when his team has the ball. I had a lot of “events” for him, and involvement in the game is important, but the distribution of said events tends to be over a third in the negative category, whether with softer inaccurate passes (a bugaboo all year so far) and bizarrely bad throws (at least a wet ball explains it this time around) the primary culprits. He was more sound defensively than he had been early in the year, and that’s probably what kept him in this lineup.

Goalkeeper

Matt Pickens 11.56 (94 minutes) – Community rating: 7.86 – I thought about making Pickens Man of the Match despite a relatively modest rating (and the community had the same idea, clearly), because he did everything that was asked of him from a ball-stopping perspective, and was very good in distribution (plus, the knock on Washington of taking nearly 30 minutes to show up could be considered potentially disqualifying). However, neither of his two saves was too difficult, and though that’s not his fault, his involvement in the game was pretty low – which says good things about the defense, obviously.

Breakdown and player ratings: Bethlehem Steel 0-1 Nashville SC

Breakdown and player ratings: Nashville SC 0-0 Pittsburgh RiverhoundsNashville SC finally earned its first win of the young season, and a road win, no less. What led to the result?

Tactics and formation

Nashville SC came out with a couple wrinkles that we hadn’t seen this much of prior to the game: a straight-up 4-4-2 formation, and attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto lined up as a striker. We got glimpses of each in the scoreless draw against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, but had essentially a full game here (the formation got a little muddier when Moloto was replaced by Matt LaGrassa, who was a bit like a fifth midfielder at times, while winger Alan Winn raced up the sidelines).

There was also plenty of shifting among the personnel: Winn got his first playing time of the year at right midfielder, wingback Taylor Washington got his first start of the year at left midfielder, Bolu Akinyode replaced LaGrassa in the defensive midfield, and Michael Cox returned to the pitch after sitting the game against Pittsburgh.

The end result was a very different type of attack than in the previous two games, and despite still lacking a goal from the run of play, there seemed to be more danger to it. Without further ado, the player ratings. Please note that I’m still trying to tweak the formula week-by-week, so the numbers may not translate across posts (but are internally consistent within each game). The community ratings are on a more traditional 1-10 scale.

Midfield

Alan Winn 15.96 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 7.75 – I tried to be very conservative in my evaluation of Winn’s performance: the hype train for him (and for Ropapa Mensah) has been a little out of control, and I understand a lot of the reasons he hadn’t seen as much time yet. Still, he was my man of the match, and like I’ve said about Taylor Washington in previous weeks, it’s the simple presence of his speed on the pitch just as much as anything he accomplishes with the ball at his feet that makes him so dangerous.

Indeed, Winn’s play with the ball at his feet was at times really lacking: he’s capable of some really nice skill dribbles or incisive runs, but the “Nashville gets in good positions and doesn’t score or even get a shot off” narrative existed before this game, and Winn seemed to want to continue it in a major way. He over-dribbles in the box, and needs to have a bit more spatial awareness both in the scoring third and when it comes to getting there with his passes.

That should come with more repetitions at professional soccer speed, since he’s still adjusting from college ball. Substitution appearances (depending on a formation that makes sense to get him on the field) would be a nice step for consistent minutes in the next few weeks. Interestingly, he played on the right, even though he’d previously been more comfortable on the left side as an in-cutting winger.

Taylor Washington 10.04 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00 –  This was a winger-friendly formation and gameplan, so there’s a little to be adjusted expectations-wise for both of these guys, but Washington impressed as he always does. He wasn’t quite on the same page with his central defensive midfielders or defenders (when it came to their distributing it to him) at times, but like Winn, his speed is a game-changer for what NSC can do going forward. He also faded a bit after a strong first half, though that’s more likely a product of getting his first full 90.

Michael Reed 8.37 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 6.00 – I thought this was a nice little bounceback game for Reed after a couple iffy ones to start the year. He was far more assertive in stepping up to get in a tackle on opposing midfielders or forwards, and was far better at being controlled in where the ball ended up at the conclusion of those tackles – to his teammates, rather than just becoming a 50/50 ball in the middle of the field. He’s still a little quieter in terms of overall involvement than I might like, though that’s partially the nature of the D-mids within this club, it seems.

Bolu Akinyode 7.12 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 6.00 – Akinyode was a bit of a surprise starter after Matt LaGrassa had previously been a lock in the starting lineup. He provides a pretty different skillset than LaGrassa, though: he’s less comfortable going forward (particularly with the ball at his feet), but is a much more physically imposing defensive asset. He completes passes at a higher clip than teammates, but a lot of those tend to be extremely conservative – almost “make sure I complete the pass for the sake of not having an incompletion” rather than “make the play that is right for the situation” at times. He also still shows a bit of a lack of effort tracking back on counter-attacks, something that we saw in preseason, too.

Matt LaGrassa 1.41 (31 minutes) – Community rating: 5.75 – LaGrassa’s numbers are deflated for two reasons: first, limited playing time (which plays a big role in my formula thus far), and second, playing out of position. When he replaced Moloto, he was more of an advanced midfielder than a true striker like the player he replaced. We’ve seen LaGrassa go forward with the ball from his CDM spot, but playing up the field rather than matriculating the ball up himself is a different story. He was also called for a pretty weak time-wasting yellow card (among the many awful calls by an officiating crew that really was out of its depth in USL), which I dinged him for despite not thinking it was particularly justified.

Forwards

Michael Cox 10.87 (74 minutes) – Community rating: 7.75 – Cox obviously has the only goal in NSC (regular-season) history to his name at this point, thanks to a penalty that he – along with the incompetence of the officiating crew – earned himself. He was a beast in making runs upfield early in the game, had a bit of decent hold-up play, and got off a couple shots. He does, however, have a bit of a tendency to be iffy with the first touch, and he doesn’t have the pure speed to run onto long balls with the consistency of, say, Winn or Moloto (of course, he’s good for it at least once – in earning that penalty). He needs more game minutes to get used to full-speed action, and had a couple offensive pushes that he spoiled by not taking stock of his runners. Like other NSC strikers we’ve seen, he ran the heck out of gas early in the second half. Conditioning at that position is going to be a work in progress.

Lebo Moloto 10.58 (66 minutes) – Community rating: 6.75 – Moloto looks a little out of position at striker – because he is – but Gary Smith clearly had the same thought a lot of fans did: “let’s put the only offensive threat on the team in position to put the ball on goal.” Oddly, Moloto didn’t do as much in terms of pure offense as we’d seen in the previous two games. Few of his passes were played into (or out of) the box, he took only one shot, and he didn’t seem as involved in the offensive third. Still, he was a decent facilitator as sort of a false nine to drop back to spark attacks – even though he had a couple troubles trapping passes. For a guy playing out of position, I had no serious problems with his performance.

Ropapa Mensah 1.13 (23 minutes) – Community rating: 6.25 – Mensah came onto the field and initiated a bit of a spark. He didn’t have a whole lot of time to make an impact, but losing his feet on a corner (where maintaining a jumping position to get a header on could have been the game-sealing goal) and committing a silly foul in the offensive end dragged down the rating a bit, too.

Defenders

Liam Doyle 11.01 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 6.25 – By the nature of the thing, Doyle (as the middle centerback) tends to get less action – and therefore fewer opportunities to build up a rating – during games, but in playing left centerback in a four-man backline, he got a bit more action. He steps up in the right situations (without doing so in any wrong situations, like we saw at times in previous games), is a threat with the head – he should have had a goal on a well-placed ball off a corner, but for a semi-lucky save by the keeper – and is a threat with the long-ball, as we saw on the would-be assist on Cox’s run that led to the penalty. He still makes some iffy back-passes to his keeper or fellow defenders, though.

Justin Davis 10.08 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 6.50 – Davis has a very, very different quality about him as a left outside back than he does as one of a central defensive trio. He doesn’t get directly up the sideline for overlapping runs, but is comfortable folding inside with the ball at his feet (we see him press from a CDM role, but dish it when he gets into an advanced position, rather than trying to dribble in like he did Saturday) and likes to dish it up the sideline. His physical nature gets the better of him at times – he gave up a dangerous and unnecessary free kick late in Saturday’s game, and I think one of these spectacular slide tackles is going to be a yellow eventually.

Ryan James 9.77 (75 minutes) – Community rating: 6.25 – Playing fullback in a 4-4-2 versus wingback in a 3-5-2 or midfield in a 4-4-2 is a very different role for James. He still managed to make a number of overlapping runs, but due to a lack of chemistry with Winn, he didn’t get service when he should have a couple times. His primary role in this one was defensive, and early in the game he was having trouble making the adjustment, letting a couple runners through (Bourgeois cleared one, the other was whistled for offside). It seemed like his sub-off was more to get the defensively-sound Kimura on the field to hold onto the result (and reward the veteran, who missed his first start of the year).

Bradley Bourgeois 7.96 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 6.50 – For a smaller central defender, I really like what Bourgeois brings physically: he actually manages to get up and head the ball for clearances, he’s willing to really get in and battle for the ball, and is solid at stepping up to a threat or tracking back to cover. He has a similar trait to Akinyode, where he’s overly conservative with the passes he plays, though on the backline that (somewhat ironically) leads to some really risky moments.

Kosuke Kimura 0.91 (22 minutes) – Community rating: 5.50 – Kimura wasn’t on the field long enough to have much of an impact, and the ball never really came his way during the time on the field. Consider this grade an incomplete.

Goalkeeper

Matt Pickens 5.33 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 8.25 – Pickens wasn’t particularly involved in this game (I’ll get into that in a moment), but when called upon, he came up big. He had a couple saves on free kicks, including one on which he had to immediately make a second save on the rebound – if it’s not the USL save of the week, the league is doing it wrong. He was a little iffy in distribution – normally a strength of his game – with kicks out of the back landing short or, at times, out of bounds. He did what he was asked, though.

Conclusions

Bethlehem fans are (rightly) upset about Michael Cox’s penalty kick: that foul occurred outside the box (though the red was absolutely justified, and I’m pleasantly surprised it was called). That wasn’t the only mistake by the refs though, who had an absolute howler. This play was whistled for a yellow card:

IMG_0134

…but with no legitimate attempt on the ball and a sweep from behind (to say nothing of the fact that Adam Najem is probably the last defender with a chance to prevent Davis from a free run on goal) – that’s a red basically every time, no questions asked. Lebo Moloto was also shoved into that very same advertising board well after another play, which didn’t draw a foul, much less a card.

Then there was this:

Image-1-2

That’s not one but three(!) defenders keeping Alan Winn onside (this is a moment after the ball is played so that third one looks iffy, but he’s coming the opposite direction as Winn is sprinting upfield – he was well ahead of Winn’s position) – two of them by five yards or more – and a linesman who is not remotely in position about to raise his flag. That is terrible officiating, and not appropriate for the professional game. It’s understandable to make mistakes, but to that degree… high school leagues need refs too, I guess.

Now that all that’s off my chest…

I’m not down on the performance, though I know others are. There’s this “Bethlehem peppered the goal in the second half while down a man” narrative circulating, but it’s really not particularly accurate. They had four shots on goal all game, two of them directly from free kicks and a third on the rebound from one of those free kicks (the rebound was the only shot inside the box that was remotely on target – one was well off-frame, the other two were blocked off the foot by NSC defenders). Add in that the free kicks were against the run of play – particularly the Davis one I mentioned above – and the danger is far less in reality than it felt as a fan of a team scrapping to hold onto a one-goal lead against a ten-man side.

On the other end, Nashville’s attack wasn’t quite as toothless as it seemed, either. There is something to be said for “we get in good positions but don’t get a dangerous shot off” developing as NSC’s identity (as it was even before this game), but that’s certainly preferable to “we don’t even get in the good positions in the first place.” There are chemistry issues here, and individual inexperience played a role, as well.

It almost feels disingenuous to keep saying “the goals are going to come” when the flow remains the same and those goals just haven’t arrived. Still, it feels like NSC is knocking on the door of a breakout game where things just click. It may come frustratingly late in the year, and they may pile up goals against the weaker teams in the East while going scoreless against better opposition. However, I remain confident – more so than I was after either of the previous two games, given how much time NSC spent in the box Saturday – that it’s on the way.