After a disappointing first leg in this year's new MLS playoff format, Nashville SC faces elimination at Geodis Park this evening.
Its easy to ruminate on Sam Surridge's 19th minute miss and Teal Bunbury's off-target header late in the match but ultimately, Nashville was outplayed.
Its not new for a Gary Smith team to be convincingly out-possesed but the 7-25 comparison in shot attempts is worrisome.
Nashville was on their heels for many spells and while the screamer just ahead of halftime came as a surprise due to its thunderousness, Orlando's momentum suggested something was coming.
Beginning with the lineup which saw Alex Muyl in ahead of Fafà Picault, it was a poor attacking night. It seems as though the team has faded away from their commanding possession style that allowed them to build out of the back throughout their Leagues Cup run.
Heading into the playoffs, Nashville was already in bad form, scoring 4 goals in their final 6 matches.
While it has been poor as of late, there are 3 keys to the game that if met, will lead Nashville and Orlando to a game 3:
1. The Mukhtar-Surridge counterattack must be on
Like Nashville's 2021 dominance was highlighted by the CJ Sapong and Hany Mukhtar counterattack, today's attack has now become reliant on the counterattack once again. Given the team's lack of desire to posses and 'bend don't break' defensive structure that absorbs great pressure, Surridge and Mukhtar need to find opportunities to slip out and look for service over the top.
While they can play with their back to goal at times, that is reliant on the other 9 players working with them which often times, does not work as anticipated. If Walker Zimemrman, Shaq Moore, or the midfielders can release Surridge and Mukhtar in over the top, they can create some numbers up opportunities.
Important to this duo in particular is that the team must put away chances, especially inside of 6-8 yards. Mukhtar, Surridge, and others will almost certainly get some high-quality, high xG opportunities and at the very least, must keep them on target. Had Surridge put away his early opportunity in the first leg, we could be having a far different conversation at this time.
Additionally, even at his MVP caliber, there are times in which Hany Mukhtar desperately needs to release the ball sooner. While you need to let your best players take over, he needs to work in tandem with Surridge as he did against New England and throughout Leagues Cup.
2. Shaffelburg and Picault need continued service
While Surridge's clinicality may be in question after last week, it was a one-off. With his big body and ruthless finishing ability, Nashville should live and die by the Surridge cross.
Shaffelburg and Picault are among the quickest player in MLS. While Lovitz and Moore can, sometimes, whip in a good cross, taking it to the endline and picking out a more specific target has worked very well for the team's shifty wingers. As a result, they need adequate touches and opportunities in order for Nashville to generate chances tonight at Geodis Park.
3. The midfield must work as a unit
Particularly in defense, Nashville's midfield tends to drop in too deep when the team is accepting pressure, leading to uncontested possession. This may be a testament to the unit's age and potential lack of fitness but regardless, must be fixed.
In the middle and final third, Davis, Godoy, and McCarty all have the ability to switch the point of attack and keep possession. However, in transition, they often appear out of position and out of touch with the center backs. As a result, Orlando dominated in the attacking third and had some very threatening possessions where a goal felt imminent.
While Orlando dominated the first leg and is some of the best form in MLS, things are not over. If Mukhtar and Surridge kick off today's game on the right foot, anything is possible because more than likely, Willis and the defense will keep the game within reach for all 90 minutes.