USL Power ratings: Sept. 24, 2018

Mostly a chalk-ish week, but some interesting swings in the USL. Don’t forget to follow the site on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for all the content on USL, US Soccer, and Nashville SC.

Table Power

This rating method counts only opposition played and points attained in a given game – it is best used as a proxy for how the table is likely to play out at the end of the year. I’ve switched from including the raw number to showing projected points only. It’s more broadly applicable to the layman.

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USL East power rankings:

  1. Cincinnati – 78 points
  2. Louisville – 63 points
  3. Pittsburgh – 61 points
  4. Charleston – 57 points
  5. Indianapolis – 51 points
  6. Nashville – 49 points
  7. Bethlehem – 48 points
  8. North Carolina (+1) – 47 points
  9. NYRB 1.89 (-1) – 46 points*
  10. Ottawa 1.82 – 44 points
  11. Tampa Bay (+2) – 45 points*
  12. Charlotte (-1) – 42 points
  13. Penn (-1) – 39 points
  14. Atlanta – 28 points
  15. Richmond – 25 points
  16. Toronto – 15 points

*I’ve now baked in the non-conference results for NYRBII (draw against LA Galaxy II) and Tampa Bay (win over Real Monarchs) into the projected point totals, though they aren’t reflected in the ratings themselves. It basically docks Red Bulls half a projected point and gives Tampa 1.8 projected points.

The chart no longer includes Cincinnati, because they’re so far ahead of the pack (already locked into first, whereas nobody else has even clinched eighth yet) as to make the more interesting middle portion of the chart tougher to read. I similarly excised Atlanta, Richmond, and Toronto from the bottom, so we can have a clearer view of those still jockeying for relevant positions.

Charleston remains in fourth but drops a couple projected points. The system works in aggregate, rather than projecting individual games, but you can essentially interpret that as they dropped two against Nashville that they were “expected” to get.

There’s still a pretty intense battle at spots 7, 8, and 9 (and Nashville seems intent on making No. 6 be party to that battle as well). Red Bulls are the team on the outside looking in this week, though it’s close enough that any of those can certainly be in any of the four spots in play.

How about Tampa, though? Two wins in a week is two wins in a week, and it doesn’t matter if one of them is semi-fluky (an uncharacteristic penalty conceded and an own-goal by Nashville) and the other comes against Richmond when it gets down to it. Wins in four out of five – after adding some good personnel at the roster deadline – could have them poised to make some playoff noise.

At this point, Charlotte and Penn are pretty close to sealing their status as also-rans – though of course the Tampa climb is a lesson to not bury anyone too quickly, they’re headed in the wrong direction (more on this in a later section).

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USL West power rankings

  1. Orange County (+1) – 67 points
  2. Phoenix Rising (-1) – 65 points
  3. Real Monarchs – 60 points*
  4. Sacramento Republic – 58 points
  5. Portland Timbers – 54 points
  6. St. Louis (+2) – 53 points
  7. Reno 1868 (-1) – 53 points
  8. Swope Park (-1) – 53 points
  9. San Antonio – 48 points
  10. OKC Energy – 42 points
  11. Fresno FC – 41 points
  12. LA Galaxy II (+1) – 40 points*
  13. Colorado Springs (-1) – 38 projected points
  14. Rio Grande Valley – 36 points
  15. Las Vegas Lights – 33 points
  16. Tulsa Roughnecks (+1) – 25 points
  17. Seattle Sounders (-1) – 24 points

*As above, Real Monarchs’ projected points and LAGII’s include their non-conference results. That means the point totals won’t quite follow with the ratings themselves. 

I should probably re-scale this chart to excise the bottom couple teams (which are basically going to finish in those two positions in one order or the other), like I did in the East. Next week, maybe.

The battle remains in those 5-9 spots, and with San Antonio’s recent form, I think we’re close to knowing who the playoff field is going to be, with SAFC missing out on the heels of a couple pretty bad weeks. The order among them (and then also between the top two, and Real Monarchs seem poised to let Sacramento challenge them for second-round homefield position).

There’s a lot of jockeying going on in that middle ground, with St. Louis the hotter team among them right now, on three straight weeks of rising up – going in the opposite direction of a San Antonio team that seemed comfortably ahead of them not too long ago.

LA Galaxy II remain perfect to their brand by being both incredibly predictable on a macro level (insane week-to-week results and a lot of goals) while being incredibly unpredictable (6-1 win over Real Monarchs!) on a micro level. I dig it. #Efra4USMNT, by the way.

Tulsa is no longer in the cellar despite going 0-1-1 this week, losing to Sacramento and tying Swope. They have the Sounders’ loss to RGV to thank for that.

Pure Power

This rating method uses almost an opposite philosophy: focusing only on goals scored for/against in each game, without attention to individual results. It looks at the quality of offensive and defensive performance against each given opponent, with a home/road component attached. It’s more effective for predictive purposes in single games, rather than necessarily projecting the end-of-year table.

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Lots of shakeup here, with results both expected and unexpected playing into varying degrees of movement. Phoenix passes Orange County for the No. 2 spot in USL, which (given that they’re now projects to finish behind them in the table) should make for an interesting last couple weeks at the top of the West.

Portland passes the Monarchs – who appear to be sort of terrible? – Bethlehem slides past a Nashville team that went 0-1-1 in two home games this week, RGV and Swope move past the sinking San Antonio, etc.

The biggest move of the week is a six-spot drop for Reno… despite their only result being a draw. That draw did come to a Vegas team that is bad generally and particularly so on the road, of course. The bigger issue is slight impact from the out-of-town scoreboard (their 3-0 win over Real Monarchs is greatly diminished by the Monarchs being the type of team that can lose to the Galaxy by five goals) and the teams around them in the rankings moving up in raw numbers. It is a drop, but not as big a one in the components as it turns out to be on the table.

The other is a drop for Ottawa, which loses four positions after getting thrashed 4-0 by a Louisville City team that is obviously quite good, but is considerably less so at home. That makes a bit more sense in the bigger scheme.

Looking at the pretty shading, your individual component outliers in comparison to where a team sits on the table are Salt Lake City’s road form, Nashville’s offense (shocker!), Red Bulls’ offense (for the positive – even though they’re still in the top 16 overall, the O is second-best in the league), Reno’s road form, and the defenses of both Colorado Springs and Ottawa.

Playoffs?

A minor point of clarification on these – they don’t take into account tiebreakers, so the “best” assumes being the top team in any multi-way tie, whereas “worst” assumes being the bottom team in any multi-way tie. Portland, for example, can finish as low as a tie for eighth… but on tiebreakers, they’ve already clinched playoff position.

Everybody in play in the East except for Cincinnati (already clinched, and already clinched first) and Richmond Toronto (already eliminated). Louisville will clinch with its next point (or dropped points from at least one of Nashville/North Carolina/New York/Bethlehem), whereas Atlanta United 2 is any missed points (or a single NCFC/Ottawa point) from being out.

Four teams have clinched on points in the West, while, as mentioned above, Portland has actually already clinched on tiebreakers. Seven teams have already been officially eliminated (which speaks to the stratification in the table mentioned in the Table Power section). OKC can’t quite be eliminated from contention in the midweek, and as mentioned in multiple previous sections, San Antonio is hanging onto hope for grabbing that final spot. Swope is a win away from clinching, while St. Louis is a win and a San Anotnio loss away.

What it means for Nashville SC

Not getting at least two points out of last week was pretty tough, but it doesn’t change the projections all that much. Yes, it makes the margin for error quite a bit smaller, but NSC is still headed for the same position. They also retain at least one gam in-hand on every team in the playoff hunt except North Carolina FC, so if they can finally, you know, make those games in-hand matter (Gary Smith mentioned this in his postgame Saturday), it should be fairly safe.

Sliding down the Pure Power table (which predicts game-to-game quality, rather than projecting the table) is a little worrisome, because it could mean that the Steel have a better run to finish the season than Nashville does on current form. The Steel are one of those teams jockeying for the final couple playoff spots.

Of course, with Atlanta, Toronto, and Richmond all coming up, Nashville simply needs to take care of business to make the playoffs – a loss against any of those three teams is bordering on inexcusable (even though NSC already has lost to Toronto once this year), and certainly so when the Boys in Gold are trying to fight for their playoff lives.

Win those, and the Red Bulls game (which comes after only the trip to Atlanta) is a true six-pointer. A win would all-but seal Nashville passing NYRBII on the final table. For now, the focus has to be – and this sounds like coach-speak, but it’s not, because Nashville has proven to be vulnerable in these situations – on taking care of business against Atlanta, otherwise the rest of it begins to become irrelevant.

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Nashville manages water-logged draw against Charleston Battery

 

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Get after it, Big Bird

NASHVILLE – Things got off to a raucous start in First Tennessee Park this evening. Nashville SC striker Tucker Hume made the most of a poor header from Liam Doyle in a set piece situation, and turned it into an overhead kick for the opening tally of the night.

The lead didn’t last long, though, with a Charleston free kick punched off the line by Nashville keeper Matt Pickens… directly onto the head of Battery midfielder Tah Anunga.

Despite Nashville playing against 10 men after Charleston’s Patrick Okonkwo was shown a violent-conduct red card in the 61st minute, the Boys in Gold could find plenty of chances at the net, but never the back of it. Ultimately, the game will go into the record books as a 1-1 draw.

A second half that saw Nashville fire cross after cross into the box couldn’t get the 6-5 Hume a headed chance on the frame, and replacing midfielder Ish Jome with striker Ropapa Mensah – a rare offense-first formation from Nashville, facilitated by the man advantage – couldn’t help. Advantages in possession (56.6%-43.4%) and shots (12-10) couldn’t help NSC find a winner.

With the draw, Nashville sits on 40 points through 29 games, just outside the playoff positions. Fortunately, they should have a chance to make up ground in the coming days, with upcoming contests against Atlanta United 2, Richmond Kickers, and Toronto FC II,  the worst three teams in the Eastern Conference. If they can take full points from that trio – no guarantee, with a loss to Toronto already on the books this year – home contests against New York Red Bulls II and FC Cincinnati may be more for jockeying within playoff position, rather than trying to simply make the postseason. If not, things should be very interesting down the stretch.

Starting lineups

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Match events

  • 9′ NSH GOAL – 12 Tucker Hume (right foot overhead), assisted by 5 Liam Doyle
  • 24′ CHS GOAL – 24 Tah Anunga (headed)
  • 31′ NSH Substitution – On 32 Brandon Allen, off 10 Lebo Moloto (injury)
  • 45’+2 NSH Yellow card – 17 Michael Reed (foul)
  • 45’+4 – Half time
  • 60′ CHS RED CARD – 17 Patrick Okonkwo (violent conduct)
  • 63′ CHS Yellow card – 20 Victor Mansaray
  • 68′ CHS Substitution – On 21 Angelo Kelly-Rosales, off 20 Victor Mansaray
  • 69′ NSH Substitution – On 3 Ropapa Mensah, off 11 Ish Jome
  • 76′ CHS Substitution – On 9 Ian Svantesson, off 15 Gordon Wild
  • 84′ NSH Substitution – On 8 Robin Shroot, off 19 Alan Winn
  • 90’+4 Full time

Preview: Nashville SC v. Charleston Battery 2018

Nashville got a road draw against Tampa Charleston what feels like ages ago. Can they improve the result when they welcome the Rowdies Battery to First Tennessee Park? (See, it works the same way it did in the midweek).

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More strikers running into space, pls

The essentials

Opponent: Charleston Battery (12-4-13 USL). 40 GF, 29 GA so far in 2018, 4th in USL East, 4th in USL East Power Ratings and 9th in combined-table Pure Power.
Recent form: CHS (D-W-D-D-L) NSH (L-D-L-W-L)
The Line: Nashville SC +100, draw +229, Charleston Battery +219
Time, Location: Saturday, Sept. 22 7:30 p.m. CDT  • First Tennessee Park
Tailgate: With The Assembly at the green space just East of the stadium, with The Heaters at Von Elrod’s, with The Roadies at Pastime.
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 70ºF, 78% chance of rain, 86% humidity, 7 MPH NNE winds
Watch: Locally on MyTV30, stream on ESPN+. See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch in a game atmosphere.
Listen: Locally on 94.9 Game2 in English, 96.7 El Jefe FM en Español.
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, @Chas_Battery, #NSHvCHS
Elsewhere: Soccer n Sweet Tea previewGolden Goal fearless forecast.

Charleston Battery

The Battery started the year a little slowly: they were 5-2-3 (despite playing one of the easier East schedules) when Nashville SC traveled to the Holy City. Since then? 7-2-10 may not be the most impressive mark in the world, but just two losses in nearly 20 games is something, for sure.

There is a pretty significant glimmer of hope for an opponent taking on the Battery this week, though: USL Golden Boot candidate Ataulla Guerra has been out the past two games (the Battery beat Tampa Bay and tied Charlotte in them) and will complete his three-game suspension for violent conduct in tonight’s contest. That’s 14 goals and four assists – both team-leading marks, and accounting for nearly half the team’s scoring this year – that are on the bench. For an offense that’s below-average (though not to the degree Nashville’s is), that’s a tough blow.

“No two ways about it, top goal scorer missing in any team is always a body blow,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith. “I watched their game against Charlotte and they’ve still got guys coming into the group who can certainly have a positive effect on the game. However, they have not got the confidence of a guy like Guerra has with 14 or 15 goals this year.”

The Battery have compensated by starting Ian Sventesson up top in their 3-4-3, with Gordon Wild and Victor Mansaray replacing him in the second half of each of the two recent games, respectively. Sventesson has only two goals this year (and even missed a penalty against Charlotte), but has four assists on the year. Wingers Kotaro Higashi and Patrick Okonkwo have flanked him in each of the past two contests, and both are two-footed wingers who like to cut back.

In the midfield, Jarad Van Schaik leads the team in created chances from non-Guerra players, but he hasn’t been in the squad for the past four games. I can’t find a reason why, so take that for what it’s worth, I guess. Brian Tah Anunga has played in the central midfield basically all year, joined recently by Angelo Kelly-Rosales. Nick Rittmeyer and Jay Bolt have been the wide midfielders – deployed somewhat like wingbacks in this system.

“They play with a back three, slightly different 4-3 in front of them, but I think a lot of their game is very similar to Tampa, they will be tough to break down,” said Smith. “They’ll be competitive, and they have individuals on the counter attack who are very bright, and I’m sure they will be difficult to cope with on certain instances.”

Defensively, Neveal Hackshaw, Taylor Mueller, and Skylar Thomas have been a pretty stout group all year, with Mueller playing in the middle and serving as a pretty good sweeper.

The keeper has rotated a bit, with Odisnel Cooper taking some minutes away from Joe Kuzminsky. However, Kuzminsky is the unquestioned starter in a competitive match, if you ask me: 76.1% to 64.7% saves, and getting about 2/3 of available minutes underscores that he’s the go-to guy when the rubber hits the road.

The Boys in Gold

I alluded to this in Tuesday’s preview (and the club took note and included it in today’s game notes), but I wanted to look a bit more into the “Nashville is worse on long rest” hypothesis I posited. Time for a chart:

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Game scores from the “Pure Power” rankings method.

The trend isn’t super-strong, but it’s there, and especially given you’d expect the slope of the trendline to go in the opposite direction (more rest means better play), it’s pretty interesting. If you knock out that dot in the bottom-left – the loss to Toronto on a crazy logisitcal nightmare for travel – the correlation is even stronger. I guess you can see a bit of a reason for it – the team is in a better rhythm, and is able to just get out and play to a certain extent.

That means it’s a good thing that the only game with even a full week’s rest before the end of the regular season is a trip to Richmond (far and away the worst team in USL), yeah? The team has a chance to stay in rhythm that they didn’t have earlier in the year. Hopefully that rhythm can help them turn chances into goals, which remains an issue.

“We watched film earlier, we said we had a good amount of chances and enough to win the game, unlucky not to put them away,” said winger Ish Jome. “Hopefully, next game we can build on that, create more chances, and put them away.”

Smith was actually pretty candid with the gameplan – something we don’t often see from a bit of a buttoned-up public speak like the gaffer. It should come as no surprise, though, with a similar formation – basing out of a 3-4-3, though Tampa was more a 3-1-4-2 Tuesday and has been at times this year, whereas Charleston is pretty rigid in its formation – that the gameplan is the same. Take advantage of space on the wings, bang in crosses, and try to find space inside the box.

“I honestly think our game plan will be the same as in the Tampa game,” Smith admitted. “We want to attack up the flanks, we want to do our utmost to supply our frontline. Not sure yet who our go-to is, but we want to supply our frontline with good service and opportunities to score. As long as we are creating we will always have a chance, when we stop creating I will start being concerned.”

I think we’ve come to a point in the season where creating without finishing is simply an identity of this team, and for that there’s some concern, regardless of how much creation is being done. Of course, it could also mean the team finds its form and suddenly breaks out on the scoreboard, too.

Projected lineups

Should be fairly straightforward. Explanation below:

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I think a 3-5-2 is the move here, though it could actually play out a bit more like a 4-4-2 with Kimura able to get more forward, and Jomes taking the space on the left side. I mostly called it this formation because putting LaGrassa out on the wing would have looked different than I expect to see, even though he’ll nominally line up over there in a 4-4-2: he’ll actually be tucked well inside.

Predictions

Can Nashville atone for a missed opportunity Tuesday by getting points off a top-four team?

  • Charleston opens the scoring with Tah Anunga feeding Okonkwo cross-goal for a finish. That comes probably around the 25th minute.
  • Tah Anunga later gets a yellow card, which will cause him to miss the NCFC game on yellow accumulation (which is actually bad for Nashville, which needs North Carolina’s hot form to cool off).
  • Lebo Moloto gives Nashville its best scoring chance just after the half. He finds space at the top of the box and shoots. While his shot ends up wide left, winger Ish Jome is there to send it home and level the score. Moloto is given an assist that’s at least as charitable as the goal he was given against NCFC (which should have been scored an own-goal).
  • Subs: Mensah for Allen (shortly after halftime), Tyrpak for Jome in the 65th, with Moloto moving to the right wing and LaGrassa to the second striker. Woodberry for Bourgeois at halftime. There’s a pretty good chance we just don’t see Bourgeois at all.
  • Matt Pickens’s recent struggles are behind him, and he is able to stonewall a couple solid Charleston chances late.

The game ends in a 1-1 draw. Not the ideal result for Nashville, but acceptable against a top four team. The squad will need to come together in the final five to ensure a playoff spot, though.

Nashville SC rooting guide: Sept. 21-22, 2018

Here is what Penn FC looks like.

The Boys in Gold are not making this easy on us: even with the out-of-town scoreboard not looking too bad, Nashville SC failed to collect points against a Tampa Bay Rowdies team that they really should have been able to beat. A combined four points from that game and tomorrow’s tilt against Charleston Battery would have been considered good-not-great.

Having only three of said points available (with the far tougher of the two opponents still on the slate) is tough. What’s going on around the East, and who should we be rooting for? Remember, your biggest rooting interest is always maximum points for Nashville.

Last week

Toronto FC II 3, New York Red Bulls II 3
With NYRBII in similar playoff positions to NSC, seeing them drop points was ideal.

Louisville City FC 2, Pittsburgh Riverhounds 2
Following Nashville SC’s loss to Tampa, anything the top four teams do is relevant only in how it affects other sides, so this one turns out to be irrelevant.

Ottawa Fury FC 2, Richmond Kickers 0
This was entirely expected (Richmond is far and away the worst team in USL), though not a good result for Nashville.

Atlanta United 2 0, Tampa Bay Rowdies 1
This one not only set the stage for Tampa’s upset of Nashville, it allows the Rowdies to suddenly be in reasonable (though still unlikely) contention for a playoff spot.

Toronto FC II 3, FC Cincinnati 4
This one wasn’t super-important to anyone’s needs (these sides will finish last and first in the East, respectively, basically no matter what happens in the late stages), but would have been funny to see FCC lose.

North Carolina FC @ Penn FC
NCFC’s win actually moved them just one point back of Nashville SC in the table, a little close for comfort.

Louisville City FC 3, Penn FC 0
This dropped Penn FC into the depths of the battle for the eighth playoff position for the time being, a solid result for Nashville.

Charleston Battery 1, Charlotte Independence 1
This would have been a pretty exciting result had Nashville been able to beat Tampa Bay: dropped points for Charleston would have made tomorrow’s game a chance to get within four points with a game in hand. As it stands, neither team is in a particularly relevant position to NSC (though the draw did prevent Charlotte from muscling its way in there).

Friday

North Carolina FC @ Atlanta United 2
6:00 p.m. • Watch/follow

ATL UTD 2 has actually been playing pretty well at home lately, which could bode ill for Nashville in the not-too-distant future, but be helpful here. As mentioned above, NCFC is only one point back of Nashville and even on games played, so dropping points would help NSC retain that margin.

Saturday

Toronto FC II @ Bethlehem Steel
2:00 p.m. • Watch/follow

TFCII is almost certain to finish in last place (theoretically they could pass Richmond, who started the year better but has proven to be a much worse team over the course of the season) whereas Bethlehem is in the playoff positions. Should the Steel lose, it would put them only three points ahead of Nashville with three games in hand – a reasonable margin to close (and one that would have been a sure-thing before this awful recent run of form from the Boys in Gold). You’re cheering for TFCII here.

New York Red Bulls II @ Charlotte Independence
6:00 p.m. • Watch/follow

Charlotte is far enough back (three points, giving up a game in hand) that a win here might not be the most damaging thing. That’s especially true if you, like I do, think they aren’t likely to perform well in the stretch run of the season. With NYRBII right in the thick of the hunt with Nashville, it could be the most beneficial if you have faith in NSC to perform well. Otherwise, the sides splitting points so Red Bulls don’t get too far ahead while the Independence has a tougher time to catch from behind might be more your bag.

FC Cincinnati @ Penn FC
6:00 p.m. • Watch/follow

Cincy can’t be caught in the East (barring a miracle – they’d have to lose every remaining game while Pittsburgh wins every remaining game), and is only a few points away from clinching the USL Supporter’s Shield outright (four teams in the West are still competing). At this point, it might make the most sense for them to clinch as early as possible, so they’re just going through the motions in the season finale at Nashville. Go FCC.

Indy Eleven @ Pittsburgh Riverhounds
6:00 p.m. • Watch/follow

With Tuesday’s loss all-but officially taking a top-four finish off the table, Nashville wants the teams in those positions (including Pittsburgh) to knock down playoff contenders as much as possible. A fifth-place finish is realistic, and Indy losing this game would make it all the more plausible.

Ottawa Fury FC @ Louisville City FC
6:30 p.m. • Watch/follow

Ottawa is currently in seventh in the East (albeit two point ahead with two more games played than ninth-place Nashville), and seeing them lose is always helpful. Meanwhile, Louisville is unreachable in second place. LCFC has not been a good home team this year, but getting it done here would be a huge boost to their neighbors to the South.

Richmond Kickers @ Tampa Bay Rowdies
6:30 p.m. • Watch/follow

Richmond is terrible, and Tampa Bay is looking better after spending some deadline-day transfer money. It’s unlikely the Kickers mount much of a challenge to a side that was already pretty good at protecting its home turf. It’d be helpful if they could get a shocking result, though.

Nashville SC can’t capitalize on chances, then beats itself in loss to Rowdies

Nashville SC began the 2018 USL season as one of the league’s top defensive sides. After a two-goal dud in the opener against Louisville City FC, they didn’t concede again until the fifth match of the year, and only one team (Indy Eleven, which did it twice) was able to pot multiple tallies against the NSC defense until the end of July.

The offense has never been particularly explosive, but with a defense like that, the Boys in Gold were able to not only survive, but thrive in spite of that fact. Since July 21, however, they’ve given up multiple goals to Ottawa Fury, Toronto FC II, Bethlehem Steel, and North Carolina FC.

It was the newly-established cracks in the defense that opened the way for a 2-1 loss to TampA Bay Rowdies Tuesday evening. The Rowdies got on board early when a through ball put striker Georgi Hristov in on keeper Matt Pickens. The veteran’s diving attempt prevented the goal… by taking out Hristov with no fingertips to the ball. Hristov converted the ensuing penalty kick for a sixth-minute lead.

From that point, though, Nashville would be the dominant side for the remainder of the first half. The Boys in Gold would launch seven shots – six from inside the box – while possessing 56% of the ball. An early cross from Kosuke Kimura in the 20th minute (working the wide areas of the field that Tampa’s 3-1-4-2 formation left wide open) would find Lebo Moloto to finish. NSC couldn’t convert any of their other shots, though, and this is a team that needs to be more clinical in the penalty area if the defensive performances are going to slide back.

Failing to convert on those chances – or the seven more shots in the second half, five of which came from inside the box – would come back to bit Nashville in the end. Tampa forward Junior Flemmings crossed the ball into the box, where defender London Woodberry (who came on in relief of an injured Bradley Bourgeois) would misjudge a clearing header, putting it into his own net. The 69th-minute go-ahead goal would stand up and NSC mustered only one more shot after going back down a tally.

With the loss, Nashville’s comfortable standing in the playoff positions – a standing they’ve held all year – begins to look quite a bit more sketchy. Tampa is on a solid run of form, and there seems to be no indication that NSC can rely on points against teams they should beat, including the Rowdies, who entered as one of the worst road teams in the Eastern Conference.

The task doesn’t get easier Saturday, with Charleston Battery heading to First Tennessee Park. The Battery currently occupy the fourth position in the Eastern Conference table, and have been beaten only four times all year. The last time these teams met up, Nashville took an early lead thanks to a Liam Doyle free kick, then conceded the equalizer at the beginning of the second half to earn a road draw. Even getting the single point Saturday evening looks a little less guaranteed given Nashville’s current form.

Lineups

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Match events

  • 6′ TBR GOAL – 10 Georgi Hristov (right foot, penalty conceded by 18 Matt Pickens)
  • 20′ NSH GOAL – 10 Lebo Moloto (right foot, assisted by 27 Kosuke Kimura)
  • 45’+2 Half time
  • 46′ TBR Yellow card – 24 Tarek Morad (foul)
  • 53′ NSH Substitution – On 28 London Woodberry, off 22 Bradley Bourgeois
  • 61′ TBR Substitution – On 7 Junior Flemmings, off 10 Georgi Hristov
  • 69′ TBR GOAL – NSH 28 London Woodberry (headed own-goal)
  • 70′ TBR Substitution – On 20 Martin Vingaard, off 18 Joe Cole
  • 73′ NSH Substitutions – On 32 Brandon Allen and 23 Taylor Washington, off 12 Tucker Hume and 19 Alan Winn
  • 82′ TBR Substitution – On 90 Kyle Porter, off 88 Kwadwo Poku
  • 90’+7 TBR Yellow card – 13 Sebastian Guenzatti (foul)
  • 90’+7 TBR Yellow card – 19 Daniel Vega (time wasting)
  • 90’+8 Full time

Preview: Nashville SC v. Tampa Bay Rowdies

Nashville got a road draw against Tampa what feels like ages ago. Can they improve the result when they welcome the Rowdies to First Tennessee Park?

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Lebo scored last time. It was cool and good.

The essentials

Opponent: Tampa Bay Rowdies (9-12-7 USL). 37 GF, 37 GA so far in 2018, 13th in USL East, 13th in USL East Power Ratings and 18th in combined-table Pure Power.
Recent form: TBR (W-L-W-L-D) NSH (D-L-W-L-D)
The Line: None yet (will update when available).
Time, Location: Tuesday, Sept. 18 7:30 p.m. CDT  • First Tennessee Park
Tailgate: With The Assembly at the green space just East of the stadium, with The Heaters at Von Elrod’s, with The Roadies at Pastime.
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 81ºF, 3% chance of rain, 61% humidity, 4 MPH NNE winds
Watch: Locally on MyTV30, stream on ESPN3 (no subscription required, which is not usually the case). See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch in a game atmosphere.
Listen: Locally on 94.9 Game2 in English, 96.7 El Jefe FM en Español.
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, @TampaBayRowdies, #NSHvTBR
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Tampa Bay Rowdies

So. This is a team that’s sort of average overall, but they save all their good stuff for home, and all the bad stuff for the road. Does that sound like Nashville? Well, imagine they’re not nearly as good at home, and much, much worse on the road (for all the hand-wringing among fans, NSC is actually barely below-average away from home). It is also the second-most expensive team in USL (and to the best of my knowledge, would be one of the most expensive in USL history if not for FC Cincinnati smashing those records as they prepare for next year’s jump to MLS). There’s no excuse to have the amount of talent the Rowdies do – albeit while overpaying for over-the-hill Premier League talent like Joe Cole – and be as straight-up bad as they are.

They’ve added even more talent recently: while Cody Mizell has played the majority of the minutes between the pipes this year, Daniel Vega has started all five games in net after signing from Miami FC at the end of the NPSL season (the same team from which Nashville SC signed Kris Tyrpak). They also signed forward Jaime Chavez from the same club on Friday’s roster deadline, and he was an unused substitute in their 1-0 win over Atlanta United 2 Saturday. They loaned out forward Jochen Graf (three shots on goal in limited time this year) to Reno 1868 for the remainder of the season in the wake of the Chavez signing.

“With a couple injuries we’ve had, the choice to bring him in was a no-brainer,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “It’s no secret that we want to score more goals and Jaime can help us do that.”

That injury was to new signing Stefano Bonomo Aug. 22 (Bonomo started the season with Red Bulls II, and is a former US Youth international). Whoever plays, they are a fairly low-scoring unit: 37 goals in 28 games is less than a quarter-goal per game better than Nashville’s (somewhat famously) meager output. In their 3-4-3 (which plays out like a 3-1-4-2, 3-2-3-2, 3-4-1-2, or a true 3-4-3 alternately), they generally rely on Georgi Hristov and Junior Flemmings to get the job done, and they lead the way with six and five goals this year, respectively. Kwadwo Poku plays in the No. 10 role when they have one on the field, and is otherwise a central midfielder of another variety. He has, uh, one goal and one assist all year.

“I think when we played them last time it was on the end of a tough stretch of Open Cup,” Nashville defender Liam Doyle said. “We scored early and we defended well, but they were actually really good that game. They made the pitch big and were very good going forward. I think this time we need to be a bit more offensive and take their attack away as well.”

Their typical three-man backline (sometimes they have four in the back, but that’s more a changeup) has included Abdoulaye Diakite in the middle, Tarek Morad on the left and Hunter Gorskie on the right when all are available. Zach Portillos – who otherwise plays as a left-sided midfielder and a pretty conservative one at that – is drawn into relief duty in the backline when needed.

Cole, the Premier League vet and team captain, is almost always one of the central defensive midfielders (he missed the previous NSC matchup with a red card suspension). His minutes have been limited lately, which seems to be more of a “he’s 37 years old” thing than any specific injury. They will be without CDM Dominic Oduro (yellow card accumulation), so that should make Cole’s presence more important.

“They have got some exceptionally talented players,” said NSC head coach Gary Smith. “They have constantly been a team that has looked and tried to find the remedy and solution for success and silverware. They have kept their quality and experience around the group, with guys like Joe Cole who is capable of really talented and creative things.”

Their leader in key passes on the year is Marcel Schäfer… who hasn’t been with the team since mid-June, after moving back to his native Germany with VFL Wolfsburg (where he subsequently retired). They have a problem creating, and don’t do a ton of finishing, either.

The Boys in Gold

So, Nashville’s recent run of form isn’t great. Does a long break between games – they haven’t seen the pitch since last Saturday’s wild 3-3 draw against North Carolina FC – help them bounce back? Previous long gaps haven’t meant a ton to the performance:

  • 10-day break after 2-1 road loss to Indy Eleven, 0-0 draw at Penn FC.
  • 11-day break after that draw at Penn FC, 1-1 draw at New York Red Bulls II.
  • 13-day break after 2-0 win against Louisville City, 1-1 draw at Charleston Battery (two Open Cup games in between)
  • 10-day break after 1-0 win over North Carolina FC, 2-0 loss to Indy Eleven (Open Cup loss in between)
  • 10-day break after 1-0 loss at Charlotte Independence, 2-0 loss at Ottawa Fury.

That’s three bad results, and the two good results are road draws to decent teams. Long breaks in-league haven’t necessarily meant Nashville SC gets back to form with more training time (rather than focusing on the game-to-game preparation with quick turnarounds). Hopefully this break, coming off the thriller in North Carolina, gets the team ready to hit the stretch run.

“I think with four games coming up in 12 days it is always nice to get a little downtime,
mentally as much as physically,” Smith said. “You get a chance to catch yourself in what has been going on in the competition and the stresses and strains of weekly games, and we’ve been able to do some decent work again. We’ve had nice downtime and some good rest. We’ve been able to look at certain areas and try to polish them off towards these seven games.”

The team should be in reasonably good health with a long layoff, but sadly that may not be the case: wingers Kris Tyrpak and Alan Winn are both questionable for NSC with an ankle injury and a strained hip flexor, respectively. Those are your two scoring wingers, so does a gameplan that relies upon defense-and-service wingers make more sense? I think so.

That’s why the 3-5-2 with defensive-minded wingbacks who also like to run the sideline, along with a physical presence at striker, seems to be the right choice. We’ll see if that’s what comes out of the team sheet this evening.

Projected lineups

I gave away my predicted gameplan above, and Tampa Bay has been pretty set in its 3-4-3 ways in recent weeks, so not a ton of surprise available here:

IMG_BED372BC98C7-1.jpeg

You have your target guy in Hume, a “tries shit” complement in Mensah, and a creator behind them in Moloto. The back eight is about what you’d expect.

Predictions

Nashville could really, direly use a win here. They’re playing a very bad road team. Can they get it done?

  • The defensive strength that Nashville showed early in the year has abandoned them (no truly good defensive game since Aug. 18 against Louisville City). It comes back in this one, against a Rowdies team that typically struggles to score.
  • Hume’s hold-up play and heading ability work well with the lineup, and he gets an assist on the game’s opening goal, with Mensah finishing it off.
  • Mensah is replaced by Brandon Allen around the 70th minute, a bit of a “defend a little more stoutly, and do it with a guy who can still score” replacement. Allen does not score, but he assists a Lebo Moloto goal.
  • I think we see the end of Ish Jome’s timeout that he’s been on since a first-half red card against Bethlehem Steel. He’s made the bench the past two games, and I think he comes off it in this one (replacing either wingback, more likely Washington).
  • Your third sub is a pure defensive one, bringing on Matt LaGrassa to replace Hume – while Moloto pushes to the front a bit – as Nashville tries to ride out the two-goal lead with something approximating a 3-6-1.
  • Tampa Bay does find a goal, but it’s too little too late.

Nashville wins 2-1. Recent home form has probably been better than it feels (4-1-1 in the last six, with the loss to Bethlehem the lone true blemish, and weighing more heavily than it probably should), and NSC has scored multiple times in three of those six. Against a bad road team – without a key defensive midfielder – that continues, and Nashville is back in the good for a stretch here.