Nashville SC played at Nissan Stadium for the second time this season, and for the second time this season came away with a 2-0 win over a playoff opponent. The Boys In Gold took down North Carolina FC 2-0, thanks to a goal and assist from Lebo Moloto.
Nashville again showed an ability to control matches without dominating the possession battle. They've averaged 49% possession in matches they've won this season, and 53% possession in matches they've lost. While they have the ability to disrupt their opponents with the ball, they're particularly adept at disrupting them without it, forcing their opponents to pass into less than ideal channels and keep the ball away from the final third.
Nashville often set up in a mid block with compact lines, but against North Carolina they didn't really do either.
In both halves, Nashville left pretty sizeable pockets of space in between their midfield and defensive lines. It was as if the defense was in a low block and the midfield was in a midblock. Ideally, when the midfield steps the defense will as well and leave leave 10-15 yards between the lines. Thanks to the football lines at Nissan, we can see that there was often 20 or more yards between the two. Nashville wasn't punished by this, largely because Forrest Lasso and Jimmy Ockford were able to clean things up. This may be a bit of nitpicking on my part, but against the elite attacking sides in the playoffs, it's something to watch for.
Another thing to keep an eye on is the form of Daniel Ríos. Nashville's leading scorer has scored just once since August 17. Granted, he missed two of the nine matches, but his finishing hasn't been up to his usual standards. In the first 24 matches of the season, Ríos was converting 29% of his shots. In the last nine, he's converted just 9%.
Ríos did score against Loudoun United, three matches ago. However, he's had high-quality chances to score against Louisville, Pittsburgh and North Carolina and hasn't been able to put them away.
Against North Carolina, Ríos was played in on goal by Ockford, and had time, space, and his pick of where to put the ball. He put it wide. Since his two goal performance in Charlotte, his chances have totalled 2.48 xG. On the season, he's scoring one goal for every 0.80 xG he has, so it's a noticeable dip.
The good news is that while Ríos has struggled, the rest of the team has picked up the slack. Since the Charlotte match, Nashville have gone 6W-1D-2L and have scored 12 goals. And while Ríos hasn't stood out on the scoresheet, he's impacted matches in other ways. Watch his run on Moloto's goal against North Carolina:
Ríos does a really good job here to occupy three defenders. He looks over his right shoulder three times to watch Moloto's run, and sees that both Brotherton and Igbekoyi are marking him. Instead of running for the far post, he stops like he's checking for the ball.
Ríos knows he's not going to get the ball here. He also knows that he's solely occupying the NCFC defenders and that Moloto is making a beeline for the far post, so this relatively simple run freezes the defense and allows Moloto to get into the box completely unmarked.
It was a really well taken finish from Moloto and a perfect ball from Washington, but the off-the-ball movement from Ríos was just as important.
While Ríos hasn't been in his typical lights-out form, he's still been a crucial piece of Nashville SC's attack. He's also arguably the best natural finisher in the East, capable of scoring from a half chance at any point. If Nashville can continue to get him service in dangerous areas, and potentially get him back in form against an already eliminated Atlanta United 2 side this weekend, don't rule out a postseason return to form from Daniel Ríos.