This installation of The Chalkboard is going to be a bit different from usual. Normally I look at individual matches, but at the end of the 2019 regular season I think there's value in looking at Nashville's finishing and defending from this year and comparing them to last year. As always, if you have questions or areas you want me to explore, let me know.
Nashville's struggles to finish scoring chances last season were well documented. They created a fair number of chances in 2018 - their 434 shots ranked 19th in the league. Converting those chances, however, was a consistent issue.
Fast forward to 2019, where Nashville finished the season with a 16.6% conversion rate, the 8th best in the league. Remarkably, their shot totals are nearly identical - 352 in 2018 vs 355 in 2019 (this is excluding blocked shots). With virtually the same level of chance creation and a 4.4% improvement in chance conversion, they scored 17 more goals for a total of 59.
Nashville SC did exactly that.
The core group of players from 2018 played 64% of minutes in 2019, but the additions Nashville made to the squad had a huge impact. Daniel Ríos was brought in to score goals, and lead the team with 20 goals and a 26.32% conversion rate. Kharlton Belmar was brought in to be a threat from out wide, and contributed three goals and two assists. Ken Tribbett and Forrest Lasso were two of the best center backs in USL in 2018, while Jimmy Ockford was playing regularly at the MLS level. The additions of the three defenders moved Nashville from second to first in goals conceded.
The most significant improvement, however was the finishing. There wasn't a significant difference at all in expected goals between the two seasons; 52.20 in 2018 versus 53.83 in 2019. However, in 2018, Nashville underperformed their xG by 10.2, while in 2019 they outperformed it by 5.17. The difference in finishing took Nashville from eight to second place in the table.
Nashville improved on the second-best defense in USL, bringing in a few new additions to the same defensive core. Goalkeeper Matt Pickens started 25 matches, keeping 14 clean sheets on his way to winning the Golden Glove. Nashville brought in Ken Tribbett (one of the best defenders in the league in 2018) ahead of the season, and when they began to struggle defensively midseason, they brought in reigning defender of the year Forrest Lasso and MLS veteran Jimmy Ockford.
Nashville SC did a fantastic job this year limiting chances for their opponents, forcing them into shots from outside the box and off of crosses. Nashville gave up 348 shots in 2019. 197 (57%) of those came inside the box, and 46 of those were blocked. They conceded an average of 0.98 xG per match, a big improvement off of their 1.19 average in 2018.
Consider this quote from "The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong" by Chris Anderson and David Sally:
Nashville kept 16 clean sheets in 2019. They had 12 matches conceding only a single goal. According to Anderson and Sally's formula, those matches were responsible for 58 of Nashville's 67 points.
Nearly every category improved defensively from 2018 to 2019, and heading into the playoffs at home with the best defensive unit in the league gives Nashville and automatic edge against most sides they'll play.
Nashville SC looked at their performance from 2018 and addressed every major issue in the squad, while making some key signings for MLS and giving players a chance to audition for a role at the next level. Sure, there were some poor results along the way, and missing out on first place by a single point is disappointing, but the improvement between the two seasons is drastic. If the technical staff can continue to evaluate their performance and make tangible chances that produce results, it bodes really well for this club's future.