It took a 93rd minute own goal, but Nashville got all three points at home against Birmingham Legion to qualify for the playoffs and keep their Top 4 aspirations in their own hands. Let's take a closer look at the result.
Despite the scoreline, Nashville was by far the dominant side. They controlled possession and completely limited what Birmingham was able to do going forward.
It wasn't Nashville's best attacking performance (more on that later), but defensively it was one of their better showings. Only four times this season have Nashville allowed a lower xG from their opponent, and all of them except one (at Ottawa, 0.443 xG) were against teams well below the playoff line.
Nashville really limited Birmingham to shots from outside the box, only giving up two shots inside the penalty area from open play, and forcing Birmingham to take low percentage options through crowded lanes. Matt Pickens earned his 100th career clean sheet, but with only one save, it was one of his quieter nights in a Nashville kit.
Nashville's attack struggled in this one. That's expected for any team missing their two best attacking players. Daniel Ríos, the second-highest scorer in USL Championship this season, didn't start for the third consecutive match with a groin injury. His 17 goals (34% of Nashville's total this year) are obviously tough to replace, but his hold up play and ability to occupy the defense while still connecting with the midfield is crucial to Nashville's attack, and there's not a player on the roster who can fill that role.
Cameron Lancaster isn't the same type of player, but he's been able to be effective up top when Ríos hasn't played. However, he picked up an ankle knock (and may be out for a bit), so Ropapa Mensah played up top by himself.
Mensah is a very good player, but he's best either out wide or playing with a forward partner. He struggles when he's asked to lead the line himself. Against Birmingham, he was often going up against two centerbacks, and Birmingham did a really good job at cutting off direct passing lanes to him in the center.
This forced Mensah to drift wide to get on the ball and find space. On one hand, he's better out wide, but this left zero attacking options in the box for Nashville. With Moloto out, LaGrassa was pushed higher into the 10 role. That left Tribbett and Akinyode in midfield. They're both really solid holding midfield players, but neither of them really push forward. They're "very similar guys in more of a foundational role in that midfield," said Gary Smith. "They did a great job, but you lack that extra body getting higher up the field."
In Moloto's absence, Nashville was left without a 10. Instead of having a 10, an 8 and a 6 on the field, they played with an 8 and two 6s. So instead of having two midfielders crash the box, it ended up just being LaGrassa, and with Mensah wide, they were often left with a single player making a run in the box.
Bringing on Ríos fixed a lot of this. Mensah was able to play in more of a free role ahead of Ríos, and eventually went wide when Hume was brought on. Nashville averaged a shot ever 8.2 minutes before Ríos came on, and that improved to a shot every 4 minutes with him on the pitch.
Missing Moloto really hurt their ability to create from Zone 14. Instead of playing incisive passes into the box, they tended to lay the ball off to wide areas from outside the box. That's Moloto's specialty, and there's really not another player in the squad who can play that kind of role.
If he's unable to play against Pittsburgh tomorrow, it would make sense to get Mensah and Ríos on the field together. I wouldn't be surprised to see a 3-4-1-2 with LaGrassa again as the 10, but this time with two central options ahead of him and the wingbacks pushing high up the pitch.
The past two matches, Nashville's attack hasn't been spectacular. But over the course of the season, Nashville's done a fantastic job limiting their opponents chances while creating plenty of their own. Their xG created is better than their xG allowed by 17, and in reality, it's been even better, with their goal difference at 25.
With Ríos and potentially Jones and Moloto all returning this weekend, it's not unrealistic to expect Nashville to get even better ahead of the playoffs. If Lancaster can get healthy and find a way to get into the squad, Nashville will have more attacking options than virtually any other side in the league heading into the playoffs.