Updated: Mar 4
By Ben Wright, editor.
Nashville Soccer Club played their first ever match in Major League Soccer on Saturday, falling 2-1 at home to Atlanta United in a match that ended up being much closer than anticipated. After weeks of closed door, non-streamed preseason friendlies, we were finally given a chance to see Nashville's team on the field against a quality opponent. We'll keep this first edition of The Chalkboard relatively general, looking at two primary areas of Nashville's strategy.
Nashville started out the match in a really aggressive high press, with Mukhtar and Badji pressuring the backline just on the edge of Atlanta’s penalty area. While Godoy typically stayed home, McCarty would press centrally and limit passing options in the middle, with Leal or Accam pinching in from the wings to create overloads.
The press really seemed to work at times when Nashville fully committed to it.
You can see in the above clip that Nashville initially committed numbers to the press. Badji, Mukhtar, Leal and McCarty all pressed as Atlanta circulated the ball around their back line, and eventually dropped off when the ball Meza got the ball in the center of defense. Success.
Then things got disorganized. Escobar got the ball on the right, and Leal overcommitted to the press while the rest of midfield stayed deep. He got beaten easily on the dribble, which immediately opened a massive pocket of space in midfield. Godoy and Zimmerman both sprinted into that pocket (which McCarty was kind of filling), and after a quick one-two sequence with Josef Martínez, Escobar found Barco in another huge pocket of space, this time with both Zimmerman and Godoy out of position.
Miller had picked up Barco, but inexplicably opted to leave him free and cover Mulraney's overlap, even after Zimmerman had slid over to cover.
That's a lot of space to give an Argentine international designated player on his favored foot just outside the box. For a team that has preached defensive organization, it was a worrying moment. It's one that shouldn't turn into a routine occurrence, but the lack of situational awareness from a couple league veterans was still surprising.
After the goal, Nashville seemed to largely abandon the press in the first half, other than a handful of individual pressuring runs from Badji or Mukhtar. Sitting in a mid block 4-4-2, they largely kept their lines compact, bringing back the press in the second half, resulting in several of their best chances.
Set pieces and attacking transition, the two foundations of Nashville's game plan against Atlanta. Take a look at Nashville's two best chances from the run of play:
Both chances came after Nashville won possession in Atlanta's half, got the ball into space quickly (via two exceptional passes from Aníbal Godoy) and took advantage of individual matchups.
This seems like a clear building block for the expansion side going forward: force a turnover and get the ball into space quickly. In Godoy and McCarty, Nashville have an engine room capable of chewing up space in midfield, and both players are more than capable of hitting those third line passes into feet for players like Accam, Leal or Mukhtar to drive at defenders.
Nashville seemingly hasn't been built as a possession team, and controlled only 44.6% of possession on Saturday (insert possession is overrated disclaimer). However, Godoy and McCarty combined for 25% of Nashville's total touches, and both had above-average performances in terms of both pass quality and involvement (another disclaimer: super small sample size).
With two very capable passers of the ball in midfield (as well as Davey Romney and Walker Zimmerman at the back), I'm interested to see how Nashville's attacking strategy develops. Will they continue to try and win the ball high and play it into space quickly, or will they implement more traditional possession-based tactics? Either way, it's becoming clear that the McCarty/Godoy pairing will be one of the major strengths of this Nashville team going forward.
It's still a work in progress, obviously. Nashville were never going to be a finished product on day one. They probably won't be a finished product this season. But the core pieces and a lot of the base concepts were on display, and they ended up being quite effective against on of the league's elite sides.
If you had told me before the match that Nashville would hold Atlanta to two shots on target, take 14 shots of their own, and resoundingly win the xG battle, I would have laughed.
It's just one game. It may end up being an outlier - they're never going to play another MLS home debut in front of 60,000 fans. They have a brutal opening stretch to the season, including a tough road trip to Providence Park, one of the best atmospheres in the league. It's still an uphill battle for the Boys In Gold. But in their first test, they showed that they really are here to compete off the bat.
For more Nashville SC discussion, follow Ben on Twitter @benwright.
Cover photo by Casey Gower/Speedway Soccer.