Updated: Mar 12, 2019
Nashville SC started out their 2019 campaign with three points, beating expansion side Loudoun United FC 2-0 on Saturday night. Goals from Cameron Lancaster and Daniel Ríos saw Nashville secure the victory, and while it wasn't the 5-0 win I predicted, it was still a decisive win. Let's take a look at some tactical points and key stats.
I went more in depth on what xG is before the season started, but it's basically this - a way to determine the odds of any given shot going in based on where and how it was taken.
Nashville significantly outshot Loudoun, but the quality of Nashville's shots was also significantly higher.
Nashville outshot Loudoun 17-8. Not only did they take more shots, they had more shots from dangerous areas. Nashville took eight shots from inside the box (and that doesn't include Lebo Moloto's shocking miss, which wasn't officially credited as a shot).
Nashville also finished with a much higher xG total - 1.642 to Loudoun's 0.575. 1.6 isn't an incredibly high number, and it's right on the line between predicting 1 and 2 goals. What was impressive about the result, though, was the quality of finishing. While Moloto had a terrible miss (USL didn't count it as a shot, I counted it as a shot worth 0.453 xG), both of Nashville's goals were half chances at best. Lancaster's goal was worth 0.014 xG and Ríos's was worth 0.246.
Nashville struggled mightily to convert those half chances last year. Ríos and Lancaster were brought in to address those issues, and they both got off to a great start. Both are prolific finishers, and we should expect to see a lot more half chances converted this year.
We saw Gary Smith experiment with a high press in preseason, and he continued to employ it on Saturday, setting up his defense with a high line and drawing a high line of confrontation. Loudoun only managed 7 touches inside Nashville's penalty area.
From the above graphic, you can tell that the defensive line of confrontation was high, about 15 yards outside the penalty area. This is interesting, especially considering how high Nashville was pushing their fullbacks.
Nashville's forwards also pressed high, often pressuring Loudoun's backline just outside their penalty box. By taking away the short pass, Nashville forced Loudoun to play long balls over the top, allowing Nashville to challenge for 50/50 balls, where Akinyode, Tribbett, and Doyle had a significant size advantage.
Smith also utilized a counter press, with Nashville pushing high to recover the ball immediately after they lost possession in Loudoun's half. Ríos, Belmar, Lancaster, Moloto, and even LaGrassa stepped up quickly after a possession lost and swarm the ball to win it back quickly. We didn't see much of this last year, and it will be interesting to see if this continues against higher-quality opposition.
In possession, Nashville pushed their whole team high, with LaGrassa truly playing in a box-to-box role, often overlapping with Nashville's forwards. In the below photo, you can see that Kimura and Washington are pushed really high - Washington isn't even in frame.
Bolu Akinyode tended to drop deep, sitting right in front of Tribbett and Doyle, sometimes dropping between them to pick up the ball.
One of the more interesting positional choices from Smith was deploying Cameron Lancaster on the right of a 4-2-3-1. Lancaster is a natural center forward, who tends to play on the back shoulder of the defense and try to get in behind. In the first half against Loudoun, Lancaster hugged the right touchline. He wasn't invisible, but was much more effective in the second half once he moved into a more central role.
Nashville controlled a comfortable 61% of the possession on Saturday, and it wasn't just passive ball movement. Bolu Akinyode and Matt LaGrassa started at the base of midfield, with LaGrassa pushing high and Akinyode dropping between the centerbacks to start plays from deep.
Akinyode did what he does best: move the ball quickly. He completed 62 (98.4%) passes, which is impressive on its own. Even more impressively, though, only 10 of those passes were directed backwards. We said on our season preview podcast that we hoped to see Akinyode pass more aggressively this year, and he certainly did so on Saturday.
Daniel Ríos played as the lone striker in the first half, with Cameron Lancaster moving centrally in the second half. It's common knowledge at this point that Ríos is an above average finisher; he had a 33% conversion rate last season. What was surprising, though, was how well he linked play. He's a great receiver of the ball. He's very intentional with his first touch, setting himself up for his next move. He knows what he wants to do before he gets the ball, and you could see that in his link up play on Saturday.
One of the only worrying stats from Nashville's win was their inability to cross the ball. They attempted 17 crosses from open play, and only completed one. Taylor Washington had some good service, and one of his crosses led to Ríos's goal after Loudoun's goalie spilled it. Kharlton Belmar also had several great balls into the box, but the forwards just weren't able to connect with that. Some of that is down to the fact that Ríos was by himself in the box for much of the first half, and could be fixed by playing Lancaster up front with him. Another factor is familiarity, with these players still getting used to each other's runs and playing styles. I wouldn't call this a red flag, but it's something to keep an eye on.
Once Nashville has played a few more matches and we have a larger sample size, I'll start including stats like marginal points contributed and a projected table. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter with any questions or comments.