After a fantastic performance for 87 minutes, Nashville conceded two goals in four minutes to draw 2-2 away to Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Below I'll look at the stats and tactics to find some positives and negatives from the performances.
Nashville was dominant in the first half, taking six shots to Pittsburgh's zero. After the break, things evened out a bit, with Nashville and Pittsburgh both managing three attempts.
Nashville did a really good job limiting Pittsburgh and taking away passing lanes in the final third. Their formation (more on that later) allowed them to find a good balance between attack and defense, and was incredibly effective for 87 minutes.
Pittsburgh needed a lot of luck and a solid finish to dig themselves out of a whole, but there were a lot of positives to take from Nashville's performance.
After playing a 4-4-2 with a bit of 4-2-3-1 mixed in this season, Gary Smith changed things up big time in Pittsburgh. After the 3-1 loss in Charleston he said, “I would expect as a player anyone that played today should be concerned about their place in the team." True to his word, he made four changes and switched to a 3-5-2 formation.
Bradley Bourgeois (deservedly) kept his place after a solid showing in Charleston, and stalwart Ken Tribbett was brought back into the XI. The outside center backs (Bourgeois and Doyle) pushed really wide, almost playing as fullbacks at points.
This allowed Washington and Kimura to push really high and provide width. It also gave Doyle and Bourgeois the ability and time to pick out attackers in pockets of space and threaten Pittsburgh over the top.
Akinyode played as the holding midfielder, which gave LaGrassa and Reed the freedom to get forward and link up with the forwards. Belmar played slightly underneath Ríos, and did a great job finding pockets of space on either wing.
The three-man midfield worked really well. Having Akinyode at the base allowed Nashville to recycle possession quickly and created natural passing triangles, with Akinyode at the base.
As usual, Akinyode had a solid showing, completing 86% of his passes and making six tackles. LaGrassa got involved in the attack well, with two shots and one chance created. Reed wasn't poor, but he hasn't shown a consistent ability to make plays from deep, and in a three man midfield, both no. 8s really need to have that ability. If the 3-5-2 formation sticks around, I'd love to see Vinnie Vermeer slot in for Reed when healthy, or even put Lebo Moloto there. Playing with three center backs and a no. 6 really gives Nashville the freedom to create more from central areas.
Defensively, Nashville was able to crowd the midfield and limit Pittsburgh's passing options going forward.
Here we can see that Nashville has taken away all of Dover's forward passing options. Washington and LaGrassa are pressuring him, and his only options are to play horizontally to Kevin Kerr (who is himself under pressure from LaGrassa and Belmar), or drop to a center back.
Nashville didn't high press the entire game, but picked moments to pressure the ball in Pittsburgh's half. In the above photo, Nashville has four players pressing high in Pittsburgh's half. It looked like Smith had set up specific pressing triggers, and Nashville consistently pressed when Pittsburgh's outside center backs had the ball near or just inside the midfield line. It really limited Pittsburgh's possession to non-threatening areas, and was a massive reason Pittsburgh didn't take a shot until the 61st minute.
I'm not going to go too in depth on Nashville's first goal. It was a broken set piece that really came about through a) a fantastic effort from Bourgeois, who was unfortunate to not be officially credited with an assist, and b) a really great finish from Tribbett. A goal of the week contender.
I do want to point out the fantastic work from Tribbett on Nashville second.
After a broken set play, the vision to see Bourgeois in a pocket of space and take five Pittsburgh defenders out of the play was a fantastic read from the center back. To play that pass with his feet would have been impressive enough, but the fact that he played the pass with his head was really spectacular. Really well done from Tribbett.
Nashville struggled a bit to create from open play. That's to be expected on the road against a Pittsburgh side that's one of the best in the league at defending, but Nashville had chances to put the game to bed. Perhaps their best chance game after a turnover deep in Pittsburgh's half. Belmar picked up the ball in space, and sees Rios making a run.
Instead of playing him through on goal with his first touch, he cut onto his left, where two Pittsburgh defenders were waiting. Belmar eventually got off a decent attempt on goal, but it was probably the wrong decision to keep it himself. It would have taken a really special ball to play Rios in, but it would have almost certainly resulted in a goal.
After completely shutting down Pittsburgh's attack for 87 minutes, two defensive errors cost Nashville two points.
In the first frame, Cameron Lancaster doesn't pressure Dover quickly enough, allowing him plenty of time and space to put a ball into the box. Tribbett also is marked up well with Christian Volesky, goal side of him within touching distance.
In the second frame, Volesky reacts faster to the cross and beats Tribbett with his first step. It was a really tough chance and he did really well to finish, but Tribbett should have made it harder for him.
The second goal came down to a complete lack of awareness and concentration.
Ropapa Mensah initially was marking Ryan James. As the ball moves towards the far corner, they both jog towards Nashville's goal. In the bottom left frame, Mensah looks over his shoulder to check James's position. James is three yards away, and Kimura is already marking Mertz. Mensah doesn't try to get closer to James, and doesn't check his position for three seconds. As the ball is played into the box, Mensah runs into the box, but is merely marking the space behind Kimura. James has five yards to himself. It took a bit of luck as he mishit his shot (or was trying to play it back across the goal), but still... Obviously, Mensah is an attacker, and defending is by no means his forté . But you're up by one in the 92nd minute. You have to have better awareness in this situation.
Before the match began, I would have said a draw in Pittsburgh would have been a decent result. Obviously, you never want to throw away a two goal lead that late in the game, and ending level was incredibly frustrating. Still, a draw in Pittsburgh is not an easy result to get, and for 87 minutes, Nashville played some of their best tactical soccer of the season.
I was really impressed with the system and would like to see Smith continue to use the 3-5-2 moving forward. It maximizes Nashville's strengths (defense, strikers) and minimizes their weaknesses (creation from central midfield, out wide).
A perceived negative could be that there's no real place for wingers in this system, but that may not actually be a bad thing. Moloto hasn't impressed from wide positions. Alan Winn was injured initially, but even since coming back, he hasn't been able to work his way into the XI (and wasn't even in the squad against Pittsburgh). The system could allow Rios and Lancaster to get on the field together, with Winn or Mensah coming on as a substitute. Belmar could theoretically play underneath Rios and Lancaster, with LaGrassa/Reed/Akinyode/Vermeer behind them.
There are plenty of possibilities with this system. Smith has named an unchanged XI only once this season, and through seven games he's played four systems and made 13 changes to his starting lineup. Maybe it's time to pick a base system and roll with it for a while in order to build chemistry. We'll just have to wait and see what happens next Saturday in Atlanta.
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.