After a 78 minute lightning delay and 78 minutes of scoreless play, Nashville finally broke through against Memphis, with Ropapa Mensah as the catalyst. Let's dive into some key stats and tactical aspects to get a better idea how Nashville came away with three points.
The possession split was somewhat even (54%-46%), but Nashville dominated in the final third.
Nashville took over three times as many shots as Memphis, and the xG shows how much better their chance quality was. A big part of this was improved set piece delivery from Justin Davis. After some disappointing free kicks against New York and Ottawa, he put in some strong service, including the corner kick that led to Ropapa Mensah's goal.
Nashville only allowed two shots from inside the 18, and took 14 inside Memphis's box. That's a pretty solid recipe for success.
Gary Smith again set up in a 4-4-2, with Daniel Ríos and Tucker Hume up front (Cameron Lancaster missed a second consecutive match with injury). Ríos was typically dangerous, taking six shots and finishing with an xG of 0.664 - by his standards, he probably should have scored. He came close a couple times, most notably his chip in the first half that just missed.
A common issue with the 4-4-2 is the lack of a central creator. In the two games Nashville has used it, Michael Reed and Matt LaGrassa have been the central midfielders, and they've both been very effective in the final third. I've talked a little about "Zone 14" before. If you break down the pitch into an 18 square grid, zone 14 is the central box just outside the opponent's penalty area. This is typically where a team's best chances are created from.
The above graph shows Reed and LaGrassa's touches in zone 14. They both pushed up and got involved in the attack in key areas.
You can see here how they alternate, with one sitting slightly deeper and the other pushing forward. This is typically known as a "double pivot", where the two central midfielders take turns pushing forward and sitting back. Reed and LaGrassa are each capable of covering enough ground to make this work. LaGrassa is a more creative player, and is able to open up the field with his range of passing, but Reed has been effective in the final third as well, and came close to scoring with a strong shot from just outside the box.
Tucker Hume was very effective in the first half, and had his moments in the second. Nashville attempted 30 crosses, and Hume was a big part of that. He only attempted one shot (a great header that came close to scoring), but he brought the ball down really well in tight spaces, allowing Ríos to find pockets of space underneath.
However, the game really changed when Ropapa Mensah came on in the 68th. While Hume had been effective, Mensah's pace forced Memphis to open up and cover him. His movement in the final third opened up the channels and let Nashville play more directly into the final third.
His pass to set up LaGrassa for the opening goal was really impressive. “I thought he did really well to hold it up," said LaGrassa. "I think sometimes the longer you hold onto the ball like that, the more attention it draws to him. It created a pocket of space. He saw
me and played a great ball."
It really was a great ball. Not only did he have to squeeze it through a tight crowd of defenders around him, but LaGrassa had two defenders right in front of him. It was a great pass from Mensah, a gorgeous first touch to bypass both defenders, and a great finish through the keeper's legs.
In a way, the performance was reminiscent of last season. Nashville had by far the better of the chances, but struggled to convert for 78 minutes. The fact that they scored two is a testament to a) the improved finishing in this side, b) the team depth, and c) the patience to keep creating chances from dangerous areas. Nashville could have gone into desperation mode and had Doyle and Tribbett hit long balls into the box, but instead they opted to find space in and around Memphis's box, like they had all game, and trust that their superior quality would win out. It paid off.
In their first two matches against Loudoun and St. Louis, Nashville used a high press. On the road against NYRB II and Ottawa, they sat deeper. Against Memphis, it was more of the latter. Nashville didn't give Memphis the ball like they did in Ottawa, but they did limit their touches in dangerous areas.
Above is Memphis's touchmap (attacking right to left). They barely had any touches in zone 14, and Nashville didn't give them many chances to get the ball wide and cross it in.
Nashville again set up in two blocks of four and really limited Memphis's options in the final third. This defense is playing at an elite level. We saw above how Memphis's xG was really poor. In five matches played, they've only allowed three goals. That's after playing Saint Louis and New York, who are tied for the second most goals in the eastern conference. They're allowing 0.4 goals per game and 0.97 xG per game. Last year, Nashville had the second best defense in the league, only allowing 31 goals. This year, they're on track to concede only 14. That's on pace for a best-all time in USL, even considering the shorter schedule in past years. It's still early in the season, but with their strong defense and vastly improved finishing, Nashville look like they're in good shape.
Once teams have played 8-10 games and we have a larger sample size to draw from, I'll start including stats like marginal points contributed and a projected table in my Power Rankings column. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter with any questions or comments.