Nashville SC have won two in a row for the first time in MLS, accomplishing the feat with an emphatic 3-0 win over FC Dallas Tuesday night at Nissan Stadium. While the expansion team grew into the game and earned their victory through strong defensive and offensive work, Dallas struggled to take advantage of dominating possession and barely threatened the Nashville goal.
Here are three observations from Tuesday's match:
Nashville's strong defense
Though Nashville started the match with a pair of shots in the opening three minutes and scored the opening goal in the 19th minute, the hosts spent much of the game out of possession and defending a Dallas side fighting to get back in the game. Nashville managed to stymie many of Dallas' efforts courtesy of a strong defensive performance from their backline, who were eventually rewarded with a clean sheet.
It was inherently a group effort, as multiple Nashville players managed to stop Dallas players in their tracks as they headed toward goal, particularly in the first half. The nature of the defensive work changed as the game went on, head coach Gary Smith said after the match, but the effectiveness remained as the game progressed.
"We defended slightly deeper," Smith said. "The mentality of the group, you have to remember, changes when you go two or three goals up, whether you like it or not. It’s an internal, ‘We must protect this lead’ rather than, 'Let’s go score another goal.'"
Even as Dallas were more productive offensively in the second half, Nashville still managed to preserve their lead. They stepped up in winning tackles, going from winning two in the first half to seven in the second and managing more clearances as Dallas' search for a goal intensified. The team still maintained an ability to suss out Dallas attacks, transitioning to more of a counter-attack team, Smith said, but it laid the foundation for a strong offensive performance.
Defense has been a hallmark for a team that is conceding less than a goal per game. If they're able to continue that trend, making the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs should not be an issue.
Franco Jara did not have a good night against Nashville. The 32-year-old striker failed to score for the sixth game in a row, but that may not have been his biggest problem. When he was subbed off in the 66th minute, the Argentine declined to shake the hand of his head coach Luchi Gonzalez and Gonzalez was far from pleased.
After the game, Gonzalez was quick to brush off the interaction.
“Franco is a competitor. He’s frustrated to get taken out of the game so that happens," said Gonzalez. "Nobody takes it personally, everybody has moments.”
The bigger problem for FCD is Jara’s lack of production of recently, as they’ll need him to step up if they want to secure a home playoff game.
“Franco’s been very important to this team and he’ll continue to be," added Gonzalez. "He’s frustrated he hasn’t scored goals but he’s doing a lot of good things and a forward just needs to continue to do good things to get the goals back.”
If FCD make the playoffs and have to go on the road, their recent history could mean we see a first-round exit again.
Is Cadiz the answer to attacking woes?
In addition to winning back-to-back games, Nashville have also scored three goals in both of their wins. Against Dallas, goalscorer Randall Leal enjoyed a return to form with a goal and an assist and Daniel Rios scored his first goal since returning from injury. The headliner, though, was Nashville's newest Designated Player Jhonder Cadiz, who scored his first MLS goal against Dallas in only his second appearance for the club.
Cadiz scored just nine minutes after coming on Tuesday, taking a shot from distance that deflected before it went into the back of the net. The player managed another shot in his 28 minute shift, impressive considering his two matches for Nashville are his first since March.
"It's fairly straightforward to say Jhonder’s truly a focal point up front," Smith said. "He’s a physical presence. He has the ability to run beyond. He’s got a turn of pace and a trick and he’s very, very positive in play."
Cadiz's goal puts the icing on the cake for a Nashville team that is enjoying strong offensive form while spending the earlier parts of the season struggling in that department. Smith said Leal is a "brighter" version of himself, and was happy to see multiple players get on the scoresheet. It is undeniably a good run of form for the expansion team, and coming at a vital point with only a few weeks left in the regular season.
"Some of the other guys have worked hard, they’ve shown very, very well and we’ve walked off the field saying, ‘If only,’" Smith said. "We’re turning the corner a little bit here. Six goals in two games, it’s not to be scoffed at for anyone, especially our group."