Making the case for, and against, Nashville SC hosting a playoff game

With 12 games to go in its inaugural USL season, Nashville SC has an opportunity to make the playoffs. Not only that, but there is still an opportunity for the Boys in Gold to also host a playoff contest.

Like most professional leagues, a USL playoff home game is reserved for the top teams in their respective conferences. In this case, it goes to the top four. Earlier this year, Nashville was well in the mix for one of those spots until the month of July, where Nashville only won once in five contests.

Despite that month, Nashville looks to be back on track after collecting four points from East leaders FC Cincinnati and playoff hopefuls Ottawa Fury and are currently in sixth place with 34 points. Both contests saw Nashville control the run of play and seem to be a positive step in the right direction.

The objective of this side should be focused on earning enough points moving forward to catapult into the top four and force an opponent to travel to First Tennessee Park, where Nashville SC has been a nightmare for opposing teams (7-1-2 at home so far). Below are a few reasons why Nashville has a chance to host a playoff match, but also reasons why it’ll fall short.

Why they will

  • The move to switch to a 3-5-2 continues to pay off: Since Nashville SC coach Gary Smith elected to go with a 3-5-2 formation on the field, as opposed to the different variations of the 4-4-2 he was running, the team has scored three goals in two matches. Considering that’s two more goals than the Boys in Gold scored in the month of July, it seems like a tactical move that is paying off so far. Smith might have to continue rolling out this formation if it gets them the goals they’ve been looking for.
  • The injuries are minimal: Nashville looks to have possibly put its injury woes behind them. Both Michael Reed and Matt Pickens were scratched from the injury report before the Ottawa match, and Bradley Bourgeois was upgraded to questionable. Bourgeios was actually subbed on in the second half of that match, which could be a sign that he’s back to near full health from his hamstring injury. Missing these three throughout a good portion of July was a tough pill to swallow, and their experience will be pivotal as Nashville makes its playoff push.
  • The defense continues to hold firm: Nashville is only allowing 0.7 goals per game and have only conceded 16. That’s the second fewest conceded goals in the Eastern Conference behind the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, who currently sit in second place in the East. Nashville has also blanked its opponents 11 times, with Pickens contributing 10 of those 11 clean sheets. So while the goals haven’t necessarily fallen for Nashville all the time, it’s their defensive unit that still keeps them alive in many of the contests. We’ll see if they can continue that success with the aforementioned tactical changes.

Why they won’t

  • The poor finishing: Even though Nashville has scored three times in two matches so far this month, it’s still been a struggle for the Boys in Gold to put their chances away. Per Ben Wright of Speedway Soccer Pod, Nashville SC has the second-worst conversion rate in the USL, and is ten goals below it’s expected goal tally.

So if the push for the home playoff match is going to happen, Nashville must start putting away their chances.

  • Potential dropped points at home: As mentioned above, Nashville is a tough nut to crack at home, and seven of their next 12 contests are at home. However, four of those contests are against opponents currently in the playoff picture. It’s a chance for Nashville to make leaps up the Eastern Conference ladder, but dropping points at home against those sides could prove costly.
  • Road woes: Nashville’s outstanding home record sometimes overshadows its dreadful  2-5-5 record away from Tennessee. The good news is that only one of these road trips (at Louisville this weekend) features a team in playoff contention. As we’ve seen though, no victory is guaranteed no matter where in the table the opposition stands.

Nashville renews the I-65 North rivalry this weekend with a trip Louisville City FC. If the Boys in Gold can have a competitive outing in an environment they’ve struggled at (0-0-2 in two trips to Louisville in all competitions), it will go a long way in determining if this side can indeed host a playoff game.

Nashville SC midseason grades

We’re halfway through the USL season and the inaugural season of Nashville SC, and the professors at Golden Goal are here to hand out some midterm grades.

Our grades are fairly simple, as we only gave them out to the three important aspects on the field, as well as coaching and fan experience.

Without any further delays, let’s get to the grades.

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Matt Pickens takes a minute to rest while warming up for a match. | Golden Goal

Defense: A

Anchored by USL midseason goalkeeper of the year candidate Matt Pickens, Nashville’s defense has been rock solid and the focal point behind its success. Pickens is tied for the league lead in clean sheets with nine, sharing those honors with Pittsburgh’s Dan Lynd, but he’s had plenty of help from his back line.

Liam Doyle and Bradley Bourgeois have been a solid pairing in the back, who have a combined 163 clearances. Bourgeois also leads the team in aerial duels won with 53, so it’s not easy to get a successful shot from a cross when he’s on the field.

As you can see from Soccer Speedway’s Ben Wright, the defense does a great job of keeping its opponent out of the net when they’re expected to score, but is still giving up some quality chances here and there.

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Michael Reed dribbles the ball in the match against Atlanta United 2. | Golden Goal

Midfield: A-

The duo of Bolu Akinyode and Michael Reed has been quite the tandem. Not only do they each lead the team in some of the more underappreciated categories (Reed is tied for the team lead in interceptions, while Akinyode leads the team in duels won, tackles and tackles won), but also are in the top three in passing accuracy (David Edgar was second, but he obviously has moved on.) Both are staples in the middle of the park and continue to be tough to remove from the side.

The steady rotation of wingers has also proven to be efficient. Taylor Washington leads the team in crosses with 50, while Alan Winn continues to show how dangerous he is on either flank with his goal scoring and quality chances created.

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Lebo Moloto looks up for a teammate. | Golden Goal

Forwards: B-

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Nashville SC’s season so far has been the finishing. We’ve touched on the xG (expected goals) stat briefly. Nashville’s xG is six goals lower than what is expected.

Below is a graph of the top xG goal scorers on the Nashville side, courtesy of Wright.

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As you can see, several players are on pace with their expected goals (Lebo Moloto) and even over-exceeding (Alan Winn). However, they’ve still left a lot of quality chances on the table. It’s a problem that has been with this side since the beginning of the year and was thought to be vanquished when Nashville went on its 11-game unbeaten run.

Despite Nashville’s finishing woes, Moloto has a case for being the most valuable outfield player this year, as he continues to dazzle opponents and create chances to put him as one of the top goal-scorers in the side. Ropapa Mensah has also been named as a nominee for the USL midseason young player of the year for his contributions.

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Nashville SC coach Gary Smith walks toward the tunnel before a match. | Golden Goal

Coaching: B+

Gary Smith has helped orchestrate a fantastic side that has combined a hard-nosed defense with a creative passing attack, and has put out some brilliant sides. By the same token, however, he has made a couple of questionable substitutions in key situations. Speedway Soccer has Smith with an average manager rating of 6.9 so far this season. While there have been a couple of hiccups, he’s still widely regarded as one of the maestros behind helping put this team together and still has them in playoff contention.

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The Nashville SC supporters section cheers the Boys in Gold on. | Golden Goal

Fan Experience: A+

It’s hard to find anyone who says they went to a Nashville SC match and didn’t have a blast. The supporters’ songs are easy to sing along to and catchy (despite the colorful language), and it’s a fun atmosphere for all who attend. Speaking as someone who has witnessed every Nashville SC home match so far this season, if you’re on the fence about heading to a game, make the jump. It’ll be worth your time and money.

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The starting 11 for Nashville SC says a quick final word to each other before the match against FC Cincinnati. | Golden Goal

Overall: B

The highs and lows from this season have been undeniable, and perhaps there’s a sour taste in the collective mouths of supporters and the team alike, having dropped points in three of the last four matches. However, those results seemed to have tempered the overly lofty expectations set from the 11-game unbeaten streak when the goal of this team from the jump was to promote the beautiful game and grow the fan base in the area. I’d say they’ve exceeded those expectations, while the rest is just a bonus.

Is there reason to believe this team can get back to the form it was in a couple of weeks ago? Of course. Only three of Nashville’s next 11 games are against opponents in playoff position, so there’s still an opportunity to climb the ladder and make some noise for this Nashville side.

Pickens’ sensational saves place him atop Tampa player ratings

Matt Pickens returned home to his former club and made them wish he’d missed his flight.

But it wouldn’t have mattered, because the Nashville keeper grew wings of his own and soared to some sensational saves Saturday in Tampa. It’s no surprise that he stands atop the Speedway Soccer Pod’s player ratings from the match.

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