By Ben Wright, editor.
Nashville SC have played two matches in Major League Soccer. They've held their own in both matches, looking like the better side for large stretches. And yet, they have yet to earn a single point. What has gone wrong so far?
Again, Nashville pressed high right out of the gates, putting Portland's backline under pressure early and isolating their centerback in possession. Gio Savarese consistently pushes his fullbacks high when in possession, and in the opening 10 minutes, Mukhtar and Badji were quick to put them under pressure and force sloppy passes into midfield.
That's a really similar pattern of play to some of Nashville's best moments against Atlanta the week before, and seems to be a real strength of the team this early in the season. Again, though, Nashville backed off the press after Portland scored.
After going up a goal, Portland dropped their lines deep and seemed content to preserve their lead. Nashville ended up playing on the front foot for most of the match, controlling possession for long stretches deep in Portland's half of the field.
Hany Mukhtar was especially impressive in this one. His first touch and close control were often on display, and he was consistently able to pick up pockets of space between the lines and draw defenders in, opening up space for other attackers. The above clip is a great example of that, and also shows how Nashville's attackers aren't quite on the same page just yet.
The above clip is another good example of both strengths and weaknesses in the final third. Nashville got into some really strong positions several times in this sequence, but made the wrong choice for the final ball each time. Accam gets in a good spot, but his cross doesn't work with the runs being made. Lovitz gets in a good spot, but instead of playing an early cross, takes an extra touch and loses the ball. Mukhtar springs Leal free, but instead of placing his shot, he opts for power and skies the shot.
Gary Smith spoke about these moments in training on Tuesday:
"There were many moments outside of the chances that we had, that we squandered... There were times that we got into good wide areas and an early cross might have been the right choice. We come back out, we get into a good position, and the delivery is not quite where you would expect it to be. Or the delivery is a good delivery, and the movement in the penalty area is not where it should be at. I still felt as though there were enough opportunities and sights of goal for us to have converted. Our conversion rate at the moment is not where it should be. If I look at how teams have really put us to the sword with very, very few opportunities, then you could probably imagine my frustration.”
Late in the match, chasing a goal, Nashville put more pressure on Portland's center backs, this time with Daniel Ríos leading the line. The above clip shows a few things. First, Nashville are at their best when they force turnovers in their attacking half and play the ball forward quickly. Second, Nashville have a pair of REALLY good passers in Godoy and McCarty, and the more they can put them in positions to play line-breaking passes in to feet, the better. Third, Ríos has an ability to link play that we haven't seen from any other forward. His touch is clean, his movement is really intelligent, and his passing is solid. I think it's a matter of time before Smith involves him more. And fourth, the attack hasn't quite clicked. Mukhtar and Ríos weren't on the same page, with Ríos opting for a cut back and Mukhtar making a hard run to the near post.
Again, Nashville win the ball high up the field and go to goal quickly. Mukhtar's ability on the ball in tight spaces is becoming more and more evident, and he and Ríos end up linking well in the box. It's a really tough angle for the final shot, but the movement and understanding in the final third is good.
Nashville have looked really, really good in their first two matches. Much better than many expansion teams, and much better than I expected. The defense is solid - one of the best in the league. The spine of the team is really strong, and McCarty and Godoy are showing why they were valued so highly by the expansion side. Most importantly, they're getting into really good spots in and around the box. If the front line can just get on the same page in regards to the final ball, all this promise will start showing up on the stats sheet.
The end product takes time to develop, but the early signs are actually quite encouraging.
Follow Ben on Twitter @benwright. Cover photo courtesy USA Today.