Speedway City USA threw a speedbump in Nashville SC’s way Saturday as the Boys in Gold ended their three-match unbeaten streak with a loss to Indy Eleven. Here’s what stood out to us in the 2-1 loss and what it means for the team moving forward.
The turf at Lucas Oil Stadium was installed during the Peyton Manning era and is suited for a hurry-up, quick-strike football offense. As it turns out, that statement doesn’t just apply to American football. The low, smooth surface caused tricky bounces and virtually eliminated slide tackles — two factors that presented challenges for Nashville’s back line and opened up Indy’s attack, especially early in the match.
Indy’s first goal came on a searing 45-yard pass that soared above the Nashville defense and skipped perfectly onto the foot of Soony Saad, who finished smoothly to put his side up front. The play was perfectly tailored to take advantage of the fast field, and center back Liam Doyle was a step too slow and couldn’t catch up.
Later, the turf may have cost Nashville a goal. A beautifully bending service bounced off the ground and onto the head of David Edgar on the back post, but it caromed higher than Edgar expected and he couldn’t muster a solid header. On grass, it would likely have been an equalizer.
Indy played a longball game from the outset. Nineteen percent of the Eleven’s passes were long passes, compared to 14 percent of Nashville’s. That strategy was well-suited to a punishing turf for defenders.
“I think the players found the surface more challenging to contend with than they expected and it took some time to adapt,” Coach Gary Smith said after the match.
But after three road games and two awkward surfaces, here’s the reality: The USL features a motley crew of fields, from baseball diamonds and football stadiums to bouncy artificial turf and small facilities with less-than-pristine pitches. The key to league success is thriving on a diverse array of turf conditions. While Indy’s field presented challenges, so will a half-dozen others in this league — including First Tennessee Park when it rains heavily. Nashville will only succeed if it adapts more quickly to challenging conditions.
“You know you have a decent forward on your hands when you think, ‘Something might happen,’” said Smith after the loss. “I thought there were plenty of occasions where I thought ‘Something is going to happen.’”
Unfortunately for Nashville, the goals didn’t happen frequently enough to propel them to a win or draw. But opportunities existed. Consider the following stats:
- Nashville outshot Indy 13-11 and passed much more accurately in Indy’s half (64 percent) than Indy passed in Nashville’s end (52 percent)
- The Boys in Gold were also far more accurate on their 16 crosses (44 percent) than Indy was on its 11 (18 percent)
- Notably, 12 of Nashville’s 13 shots came inside the box, many of them quality efforts after well-worked spells of possession
Lebo Moloto tried his hand on a volley following a one-touch delivery from Taylor Washington. It was an ambitious effort, but it didn’t soar terribly far above goal. Michael Reed smacked a frozen rope off the bar after he found an opening just inside the 18. He worked himself free beautifully, but the finish was just a touch high. And Edgar’s aforementioned header was probably Nashville’s best second-half chance.
Smith started Ropapa Mensah and Alan Winn in an effort to leverage his forwards’ speed and reward two players who displayed stellar finishes last week against Charlotte. Both achieved mixed results.
Winn managed only one shot but passed the ball accurately against the depleted right side of the Indy back line. Mensah threatened the Eleven defense multiple times and registered three shots and a goal, but lost 13 of the 18 duels in which he was involved.
A quick comparison of their heat maps (courtesy of the USL Match Center) shows that Mensah was much more incisive up top, while Winn settled into more of an attacking midfield role. Mensah touched the ball inside the box seven times, compared to Winn’s five.
Did Mensah do enough to earn a long-term starting role, or was his selection an aberration based on the field conditions? We vote for the former. While Ropapa is raw and unpolished, he brings more electricity to the pitch than Cox, Shroot or Hume. We’d look for Mensah to continue playing up top for the time being, starting next Tuesday against his former team, Penn FC [then named Harrisburg City].
Edgar Earns the Edge
In the first half, Nashville’s central defense struggled to adapt to Indy’s punishing pace. Doyle found himself out of position on a pair of occasions, surrendering a goal and earning a 37th-minute yellow card for a physical challenge.
David Edgar entered at halftime and provided stability in the heart of the Nashville back line. Let’s be fair: Nashville was on the front foot for much of the second half and the defense wasn’t tested as often. Still, Edgar was more active (30 passes to Doyle’s 17) for a comparable passing accuracy, more incisive (five long passes to Doyle’s one) and more successful in duels (Edgar won his, while Doyle lost both of his).
Further, Edgar did not commit a foul and managed a shot, the aforementioned header that just missed the mark.
Doyle and Edgar bring similar skill sets to the table, and we believe each player will carry an important role for the remainder of the season. However, Gary Smith may trust the former Premier League defender to take over a starting role sooner rather than later.
On a narrow, fast field, Nashville did its best work when it created space for its midfielders. Rather than moving vertically up the pitch, a zig-zag, horizontal approach led to the majority of Nashville’s best chances.
Consider Michael Reed’s near miss off the crossbar [at the 1:20 mark of the highlight video below].
Nashville starts in the near corner, where Alan Winn shuffles the ball back to Justin Davis, who is playing in an aggressive position due to the 2-0 deficit. As Davis weighs his options, look at Taylor Washington calling for the ball at the top of your screen.
Davis follows his teammate’s wishes and bends in a cross that falls well short of the wing player. But the damage is done; Indy’s defenders are caught flat-footed following the clearance, while Michael Reed senses the ball’s trajectory and pops between two Indy players to seize possession.
At that point, Reed displays crafty skill to work himself free and releases a shot that rattles the woodwork. Credit the captain for a clever individual effort, but the opportunity only happened because Nashville switched field and put Indy’s defenders in a bind.
A dangerous chance in the 63rd minute provides another example of how quick diagonal passes can open up chances for this team. Tune to the 2:38 mark of the match highlights embedded above.
In the bottom right of your screen, Taylor Washington is lonely. His defender, located just off-screen, is hedging in the center of the pitch, but Taylor has designs on a deep run down the right flank.
Alan Winn plays it smart. He looks up and sees that he doesn’t have an angle to work the ball directly to Washington, so he slides it to Bolu Akinyode. Akinyode opens everything up with a perfectly placed through ball from the center of the field down the right side, straight onto the feet of the streaking Washington.
Washington is so free to roam that he draws a defender from in front of goal, creating space for a pass to Alan Winn.
While Winn can’t squarely connect and sends a pretty weak shot on net, it’s a decent scoring chance, once again made possible by assertive diagonal passing that creates space in the middle of the pitch. It’s a template for future attacking success that enables Nashville to capitalize on its strikers’ speed and its wing players’ savvy. We should expect to see the Boys in Gold employ a similar approach in future contests.
Penning a Victory
Next up for Nashville: a trip to Harrisburg for a date with Penn FC, which has scored only one goal — but allowed just two — in three outings. The artists formerly known as the City Islanders have taken the fewest shots in the USL and are the least accurate passers in the Eastern Conference, so Nashville should be able to deny them defensively and go on the attack.
On defense, Penn FC has a far lower success rate on tackles (61 percent) than Nashville (73 percent), but they’re shutting down teams when it matters most in the final third, as they’ve only allowed seven shots on goal in three matches. The Boys in Gold hope to take the lessons they learned from their second loss of the year and get back on track next week.