After scoring eight goals in two games, Nashville was held to a 1-1 draw by a Charlotte side that has underwhelmed so far. Let's take a look at the stats and tactics to find out what went wrong for the Boys In Gold.
Nashville started the first half somewhat brightly, possessing the ball deep in Charlotte's half and taking four shots before the Independence opened the scoring in the 15th minute. Nashville had a significant lead on xG, and especially in the first half they had the better of the chances.
Nashville managed 13 shots from inside the box to Charlotte's six, but were only able to put 20% of their chances on target.
After a pretty solid first half in terms of chance creation, Nashville's attack stalled in the second half, and failed to consistently threaten Charlotte's goal.
It was a rather uncharacteristic finishing performance from Nashville, who have outperformed their xG quite regularly this season. With 20 shots taken, it's surprising they only managed to put four on goal and score one goal.
The best moments of Nashville's first half came from their wingers, especially Alan Winn. Winn was consistently able to isolate Charlotte's right centerback Hassan Ndam and drive to the goal line before cutting it back into the box. Winn's movement gave Justin Davis all kinds of space on the left, and allowed Lebo Moloto and Daniel Ríos to make runs into the box.
Ndam didn't win a single 1v1 duel, and was removed at halftime for Hugh Roberts, who won four. Roberts limited what Winn was able to do, and stayed closer to his right back, limiting Winn's ability to isolate him. Smith countered this by bringing Ropapa Mensah. Winn primarily hugged the touchline, but when he drifted inside, he timed it with Moloto, who took his spot on the left and kept Nashville balanced. Ropapa played much more centrally, and wasn't able to get any kind of isolation with Charlotte's defenders.
As a result, Nashville's attack no longer focused on isolating defenders and driving at defenders, but turned into early crosses from the fullbacks and LaGrassa, who often drifted to the right to get on the ball.
The above graph shows how much more limited Winn and Belmar were in the second half. The concerning thing is that Charlotte didn't really do anything tactically different in the second half. Nashville didn't really make any tactical adjustments either, they just did everything worse than in the first half. Some of this may have been due to fatigue (Belmar has played 91% of Nashville's league minutes, and Alan Winn played a full 90 on Tuesday). Their production dropped off significantly in the second half, and it's concerning that Nashville had no real plan B for how to fix this.
Gary Smith doesn't like being labelled a defensive coach, and it's understandable. While I think it's a bit of an unfair label, it's a fact that his teams typically have strong defenses (that's a good thing). Nashville really limited what Charlotte was able to do going forward. Liam Doyle and Ken Tribbett did a good job containing the speedy Dom Oduro. Kosuke Kimura had his hands full with Andrew Gutman, who looked like an MLS-level right back and gave Nashville fans a look at what could have been.
Charlotte took advantage of one of the few times Nashville allowed them to get in behind. Tribbett stepped up into midfield, and Michael Reed was a yard or two out of position. This gave Enzo Martinez time and space to get the ball to Oduro, who pushed Doyle back into his own box and finished really well. It was a great run and finish from Oduro, and Doyle was put in a tough position, but he probably should have tried to get a tackle in earlier instead of back pedalling for 15 yards. It was one of Charlotte's few clear cut chances, and they took advantage of it.
Charlotte's only other clear cut chance came on a counter attack in stoppage time. The Independence broke on a counter following a Nashville set piece, and Jackson came close to scoring on an open goal, but Ken Tribbett sprinted back to clear the ball from a yard out.
Charlotte had two clear-cut chances to score, and it was almost enough to walk out of Nashville with three points. That's been the story of Nashville's season so far. "I am concerned that teams are not making bundles of chances against us, [but] in the first real clear-cut moment that Charlotte had, they scored," said Smith.
This isn't just an isolated incident, either. Scoring a single goal against Nashville usually guarantees at least a point. Last week's match against Swope Park was just the second time Nashville has won a match in which they allowed a goal. Saturday against Charlotte was the first time this season they've earned a point after being behind a goal. Nashville have never come back to win a match in which they conceded first. This is incredibly worrying.
Nashville was the beneficiary of two major calls against Charlotte, both of which could have changed the result had they gone the other way.
The first came on Nashville's goal. Lebo Moloto was a yard offside when Belmar took his shot. Charlotte players were visibly upset, and rightly so. You can see in the above photo that the assistant referee is slightly out of position. He's a yard or two ahead of Belmar, looking back at the play, and this makes it tough to accurately judge Moloto's position. It was a poor call, and the goal should have been disallowed.
The second call came late in the second half. I didn't think much of it in real time, but after rewatching the game, it really looks like Kimura catches Gutman as he cuts the ball back and brings him down. The referee was in a good position, too, and probably should have given a penalty.
Nashville has had their fair share of calls go against them this season, so in the big picture, it probably evens things out to an extent. I don't typically like to point out refereeing calls, but I think this week it illustrated how fortunate Nashville were to leave First Tennessee Park with a point.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE SEASON?
I don't think it's time to panic. Teams have off nights. Nashville is in the middle of their busiest stretch of the season (after Saturday's match in Indianapolis, they'll have played seven matches in 21 days). Charlotte is a more talented team than their results have showed so far.
There are things to be worried about. Nashville's inability to come back and win from a losing position is concerning. The fact that a single goal is more likely than not enough for an opponent to secure a point is concerning. Nashville have 23 league matches left, more than enough time to correct this. They've scored the second-most goals in the East, and have the third-best goal difference. With the talent on this roster, it's not a stretch to think Smith will straighten things out. So what needs to change?
Nashville has to score when they're on top. Too often, they've dominated for long stretches at the start of the match without finishing their chances. Eventually, the other team gets back into the game and Nashville isn't able to create the same quality or quantity of chances they did earlier in the match. That pattern of play on its own is concerning, but it would be largely mitigated by putting the game away early.
Nashville has to stop being so vulnerable to a single goal. Their defense should be able to keep a clean sheet more often than not, but when they can't, the talent they have going forward should be able to compensate. When they go behind, Nashville are too quick to abandon what had been working and resort to having the fullbacks pump crosses into the box. Nashville needs more options to break down a packed defense.
Nashville has to make the most of their home games. They've already lost twice at home this season. In all of 2018, they lost only four times. Granted, both of those losses came to teams ahead of them in the table (Saint Louis and Tampa Bay), but if Nashville really wants to contend for a USL Cup, they have to be able to beat good teams at home, even if they concede a goal or two.
Overall, Nashville have been good through 11 games. Their attack has been one of the best in the league, and hasn't even come close to living up to potential. Nashville is still very much in a position to come out on top of the regular season table and make a deep run. In order for that to happen, though, they have to finish their chances and kill games off early when they're on top.