After struggling to finish chances in recent weeks, Nashville bounced back with a resounding 4-1 win over Bethlehem Steel. Here's a deeper dive into how the result happened.
After scoring only one goal on a 3.443 xG against Charleston, Nashville righted the ship against Bethlehem, scoring four goals on a 3.041 xG.
Nashville dominated the match in just about every statistical category, and really limited what Bethlehem was able to do in the final third. Despite the tight dimensions, Nashville were able to create from wide areas and consistently find space in the box in the second half.
As I mentioned in the preview, winning the midfield battle was key to getting the result. Nashville were able to control the center of the pitch and deny space to Bethlehem's midfield.
Nashville were able to control the ball in Bethlehem's half, getting plenty of touches inside their box. Nashville did attempt 26 crosses, but were also able to create from more central areas.
The first half was pretty tight, and Nashville weren't able to create too much of note, only taking 8 shots with a 0.670 xG. However, they took their limited chances well, with Ken Tribbett scoring his second goal of the season from a corner.
The second half saw space open up for Nashville. Lebo Moloto did really well to pick out Mensah's run and play him in over the top. Ropapa looked close to being offside, but the flag stayed down and he finished well from close range.
Kosuke Kimura's goal came after Moloto made a really good run with the ball. Issa Rayyan opted to close Moloto down instead of staying wide, leaving Taylor Washington in all kinds of space on the left. Washington put in a really good ball to an open Mensah, who flubbed his shot. Kimura drifted into the box as Bethlehem's defenders watched the ball, finding a pocket of space to get off an unmarked half volley to the far post.
Cameron Lancaster hadn't played a league minute for almost a month, but was given 24 minutes to impress against Bethlehem. Lancaster took four shots in his appearance, including two really strong efforts from distance. His goal was one of the easier finishes of his career, tapping home from a yard out after Mensah's overhead kick was blocked.
Lancaster hasn't had the start to his Nashville career that he would have wanted, struggling with injuries and only managing 304 USL minutes so far. However, he's finished at an impressive rate, scoring three goals from 13 shots (27% conversion rate). He's averaging a goal every 101 minutes, quite an impressive return. If he can manage to get fully healthy and get some consistent minutes, he could improve a Nashville attack that has already scored the second most goals in the East.
RETURN TO THE 3-5-2
Gary Smith has alternated between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-5-2 this season, and used the former in the Open Cup loss to Charleston. The 4-2-3-1 allows Nashville to utilize Alan Winn and Kharlton Belmar, and Smith had hoped to use it against Bethlehem. The match was originally scheduled to be played at Talen Energy Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Union, and is a much wider surface. With the late Thursday switch to La Salle University, Smith decided to go with a 3-5-2 to limit Bethlehem's effectiveness in the center of the pitch. "
I think that shape gives us a little bit more stability to start off with," said Smith. The system worked, limiting Bethlehem to only three shots in the first half.
Reed and LaGrassa did a really good job limiting Chambers and Ngalina centrally, and were able to find passing lanes to get the ball to Washington and Mensah.
Daniel Ríos had to drop deep to find the ball, largely because of James Chambers, who marked him well and limited him to no shots on goal. While this effectively took Ríos out of the game, it opened up space for Mensah to get into all kinds of space behind. Bethlehem was so focused on shutting down Ríos that they allowed Mensah to get isolated with defenders and run with the ball.
Mensah has quietly been one of Nashville's better performers. Largely operating off the bench, he's scored or assisted every 107 minutes, and has started Nashville's last two league matches. Apart from scoring, he was involved in all four Nashville goals. He won the corner kick that led to Tribbett's goal. He took the shot that was saved and eventually got to Kimura. His overhead kick led to Lancaster's goal. He's in a really good run of form.
Refereeing is often hit or miss, especially at the USL level. However, there were several major missed calls in this one.
In the 23rd minute, Chambers played Faris Moumbagna in on goal. Bradley Bourgeois was a half step behind him and pulled him down just outside the box. Referee Thomas Snyder whistled for the foul and showed Bourgeois a yellow card, but by the letter of the law it probably should have been red. There was definitely limited contact, and Faris sold it well, but Bourgeois was the last defender. That falls under denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity, and if you're going to call it a foul, you need to give a red card there. Bethlehem scored from the resulting free-kick, so probably ended up balancing out, but it was a missed call.
Just before halftime, Walter Cortés was given a yellow for a foul on Kimura. However, replays showed that he went in studs up, late, and over the ball. Snyder was 10 yards away with a clear line of site, but decided not to show a red. To me, that tackle was excessively forceful and endangered Kimura's safety, and was worthy of a red card.
In second half stoppage time, Kimura was once again fouled hard, this time by Anthony Fontana. Kimura went up for a header, and instead of challenging him in the air, Fontana kicked out and got his studs up high on Kimura's leg. Kimura fell hard and needed medical attention after an awkward landing, but Fontana wasn't even shown a card. This is another foul that endangered the opponent's safety, and it could also fall under the violent conduct law.
While the 4-1 result was probably fair for both sides' performances, the refereeing was quite poor.
Despite struggling to finish chances the past couple weeks, Nashville have created and converted chances at a high level all season, scoring the second most goals in the East and outperforming their xG by 2.34.
Their 19% conversion rate is the best in the East and ranks 5th in all USL. It's a drastic improvement from last year, and has already resulted in better results this season. I mentioned in my last Chalkboard how Nashville SC need to be more ruthless during periods when they're on top. They took a step towards that yesterday, as well as finally getting a win from a losing position. Although some have dismissed this as a "statistical quirk", the fact that they've only taken seven points from a possible 54 when conceding first is still a worrying trend. Hopefully, yesterday's result will inspire more belief and more results going forward. We now know comebacks are possible.