USL playoffs preview: Nashville SC @ FC Cincinnati

Four games, four draws. The deadlock will end in the USL Playoffs. Will it be Nashville or FC Cincinnati taking home the first win in the series?

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What the first playoff media availability in NSC history would have looked like if anyone other than Gary Smith and your humble photographer were there. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

The essentials

Opponent: FC Cincinnati (23-3-8 USL) • 72 GF, 34 GA in 2018 • 1st in USL East, 1st in USL East Power Ratings and 1st in combined-table Pure Power
Recent form: TOR (D-D-W-W-W) NSH (D-D-W-D-W)
The Line: FC Cincinnati -244, Draw +353, Nashville SC +455
Time, Location: Saturday, Oct. 20 4:00 p.m. CDT  • Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
Event: USL Playoffs first round
Weather: 58ºF, 24% chance of rain, 55% humidity, 20 MPH Westerly winds
Tickets: Here. Use code “NASH18” to be seated with Nashville fans (and wear Gold).
Watch: Locally on MyTV30, or stream on ESPN+. See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch in a game atmosphere. The club is hosting a watch party at Bavarian Brewhaus.
Listen: Locally on 94.9 Game2 in English, 96.7 El Jefe FM en Español.
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, #CINvNSH
Etc.: Game story from last week. I appeared on Cincy Soccer Talk’s March to Matchday podcast. My look at how the shape of the rivalry over the past seven months can give us insight about the final 2018 entry.
Elsewhere: USL preview… Orange & Blue Press playoff predictions and match program… USA Today Network Tennessee preview-type substance… Cincinnati Enquirer video preview. And Nashville can’t even get the local paper to show up to an eight minute and thirty-four second press conference! … Cincinnati Soccer Talk five things to watch.

FC Cincinnati

This is basically the same team we saw Saturday, with a couple notable exceptions: defensive midfielder Richie Ryan made his debut after a couple months on the shelf Saturday, and is probably ready for a full appearance (he played about 20 minutes) if necessary.

The usual suspects are the usual suspects: Emmanuel Ledesma should be the USL player of the year after a campaign with 16 goals and 16 assists from a midfield position. Striker Fanendi Adi is an MLS-caliber player who, uh, was in MLS for most of this year.

The defense is the question mark (as much as this team has one), and it was still tied for third-best in the Eastern Conference. There’s a bit of a sample deal here: their three-plays were good teams, but three of those good teams – Nashville, Indy, and Pittsburgh – were not offensive powerhouses in the slightest. Uh, “their defense only looks good because they’ve played Nashville a bunch” is hardly comforting when we’re previewing them from the standpoint of [checks notes] Nashville.

FCC is probably better man-for-man across the board, aside from most likely keeper and another spot or two. They also will be playing in front of 20,000-plus home partisans. Of course, that number shouldn’t impact NSC’s play on the field, according to defender Bradley Bourgeois.

“To be honest, I’m not really expecting much impact] because it’s just on the field,” he said. “It’s 11 v 11. They can bring out 40,000 fans, they can bring out four. It’s win or go home so that’s all it is.”

Regardless, this is a tough test.

It is also an opportunity for this FCC organization to win its first-ever playoff game. Sure, this year is not 2016, nor is it 2017. The failures of those seasons don’t directly impact what this team is capable of (Cincy wasn’t even a shadow of this team in either of those seasons, either). But you bet your ass the Orange & Blue have been asked about it incessantly this week, and inserting just the shadow of a doubt into their mentality…

“The Cincinnati group is expected to win and not just win tomorrow, they are expected to win the championship,” Nashville coach Gary Smith said. “That is the pressure they are under. They have a fabulous group and a tremendous amount of depth as well as being ready for the next step in their franchises’ history, which is into MLS. That in and of itself brings pressure and Alan (Koch) will know that, their players will know that, 20,000 to 25,000 people in the grounds will know that and expect them to win.”

Popping the balloon and sending Cincinnati off to the next step in their franchise without ever having won a playoff game would be hilarious and great. It’s also a difficult ask.

The Boys in Gold

Lebo Moloto and Michael Reed are both listed on Nashville’s injury report as questionable, though when I asked Gary Smith directly about Captain Reed’s status, he was a little more optimistic than that.

“I think he’s in good shape; he’s trained the last two days,” Smith said. “It’s now my choice and my decision whether Michael’s part of that group [as he’s received full clearance from the medical staff]. He looks like he’s ready and available.”

I would not, on the other hand, expect to see Moloto, despite the fact that he’s been working his way back from a knee injury suffered just over a month ago against Charleston Battery.

Despite the absence of the team’s best playmaker though, it’s clear the shift to a 4-3-3 has overcome much of what was lost there. Placing Ropapa Mensah on the wing, where he hadn’t previously played, has seemed particularly effective, and more so against Cincinnati last Saturday. While there’s a chance the FCC personnel gets a bit of a shakeup to overcome that, Mensah on the wing seems like it’ll last as long as the season does.

“At the very worst, [we place him in] a creative position and maybe give us a little more balance filling that #10 pocket with somebody else should it not go well. It has really evolved from there as he has grabbed that position by the scruff of the neck and he has really made a spot for himself. He looks like he has been playing the position for most of his career even though he is still very young, and he has been very effective.

“What I think it has done, is it has given him the opportunity to see the picture and see the game a little bit clearer without having bundles of bodies around him in that central role. When he gets isolated, he is able to show all the qualities he has; his pace, his invention, and I certainly think, as we move on, there is a lot more to come out of it.”

There has been a slight issue of the team giving up slightly more goals, which you might expect from a shift to an offense-heavy formation. Toronto FC II scored a pair, and FC Cincinnati became only the second side to put three goals on Nashville (the other was North Carolina FC) last weekend. Based on a review of the goals themselves, though, I’m fully in agreement with Bourgeois’s take on them:

“It the small things,” he said. It’s the momentum and the little mental turn offs and the little mental lapses in judgment. Now that it’s playoff time, it’s do or die, and it’s time to really lock in.

“I don’t think it’s anything individually, it’s collectively as a unit. It’s going all the way to the front to Pickens in the back. It’s going to be a group effort honestly to get the job done, and I think we can do it.”

It’s been more individual and team letdowns than a tactical choice that have led to the increased opposition scoring (with nobody, even Pickens, blameless), and if Nashville plays a clean mental game, they have the horses to get it done.

Projected lineups

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I think we’ll mostly see the same from both teams with a couple changes: as alluded to above, Richie Ryan will probably be one of Cincinnati’s defensive midfielders. There’s also a decent chance they make a change at left back after Ropapa Mensah ate Blake Smith’s lunch all night last Saturday, but I don’t know who the replacement LB is.

For Nashville, I suspect the Davis/Kimura benchings Saturday were more of a “rest up because we’ll be seeing these guys soon” deal than anything performance-related. They make a bit more sense as the fullbacks with offensive-minded wingers than Washington and James do, in some ways.

I also think Bolu Akinyode will have to come off the bench after receiving 100% of Matt Pickens’s ire for the final Cincinnati goal (and Pickens was HEATED). While obviously nobody was perfect on that one, I’ll take Pickens’s reaction over my own lying eyes in terms of who deserves blame (even though my lying eyes saw something similar to what they have for much of the year – not enough effort to track back defensively from a player who’s otherwise very good). Kris Tyrpak starts as the offense-minded central midfielder with Matt LaGrassa sliding back into a pure defensive role.

Predictions

Man, I really want to pick a Nashville win. Not sure I can though:

  • Cincinnati fans’ first discussion point is how few Nashville fans made the trip up, regardless of whether there are 15 or 15,000 of them.
  • Ropapa Mensah scores Nashville’s only goal.
  • Emmanuel Ledesma scores one and gets an assist (to Corben Bone, or perhaps a center back on a set piece) to get the winning margin for Cincinnati.
  • Nashville’s subs:Akinyode for Typrak (and LaGrassa pushes into that Tyrpak role) after the half. Washington for Winn as Nashville moves to more of a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 after the score is already 2-1. Allen for Hume late in the contest.

Cincinnati wins 2-1. I could absolutely see this being a tie game after regulation (at which point, as I said on the Cincy Soccer Talk podcast, I’d take Nashville either in extra time or a shootout), but I’m predicting a winner without more than 90 plus stoppage required, and that means the team with more talent wins out.

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Preview: Nashville SC v. Toronto FC II 2018

Nashville SC is the only team in the USL East to not earn at least one result against Toronto FC II this year (related: the only team in the USL East to not play them at least twice, and the only one not to play them at home, as well). Will that status change this evening?

The essentials

Opponent: Toronto FC II (4-24-4 USL). 40 GF, 75 GA so far in 2018, 16th in USL East, 16th in USL East Power Ratings and 31st in combined-table Pure Power.
Recent form: TOR (L-W-L-L-L) NSH (W-D-W-D-L)
The Line: Nashville SC -526, draw +498, TFCII +980.
Time, Location: Wednesday, Oct. 9 7:30 p.m. CDT  • First Tennessee Park
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 76ºF, 3% chance of rain, 72% humidity, 7 MPH SE winds
Tailgate: With The Assembly in the green space just east of the stadium, with the Roadies at Pastime.
Watch: Locally on MyTV30, or 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, #NSHvTOR
Elsewhere: USL preview slash Richmond recap. TFC preview. Waking the Red preview.

Toronto FC II

The last time these teams played, it was one of Nashville’s worst results of the year: a 2-0 loss (the only ones even close are the 2-0 home loss to Indy and the loss at Ottawa a couple days before this result). It’s worth noting, though, that this is a different Toronto team, for all intents and purposes: they were 0-15-3 heading into that game, and are 4-9-1 since, including a 4-1 pasting at Louisville City in late August. Early-season Toronto was terrible, the current version is actually an OK squad. Not a playoff squad, but an OK one.

Nashville, on the other hand, wants to be a playoff squad. This is still a team that a playoff squad should easily dispatch at home.

Hendersonville’s own Caleb Patterson-Sewell has been the man between the pipes when available (he’s on an MLS contract and has made the squad for the A-side a few times this year, though I don’t believe he made the pitch, even in the Voyageur’s Cup). He’s about as solid as you’re going to get on this team, saving .607 of shots faced.

The lineup in front of him has pretty much settled in recent weeks, with Tim Kübel at right back, Kyle Bjornethun and Robert Boskovic in the center, and Terique Mohammed on the left (they mix it up a bit, with Ryan Telfer also getting time on the left, Noble Okello Ayo on the right, and Lars Ekinrode centrally, but the four I listed are their first-choice group in recent weeks). Mohammed returns from a suspension for yellow card accumulation tonight. Kübel tends to get forward quite a bit more than whoever is playing at left back, but against teams with a bunch of offensive firepower – namely Cincinnati – he’s been willing to hang back, so if Nashville manages to give TFC trouble up the left wing, he’ll probably stop pushing forward. He’s created a grand total of zero chances all year, so he should probably be playing a little more defensive-minded anyway, in personal e-pinion.

Liam Fraser and Dante Campbell are the defensive midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 setup, with Akello Ayo slotting in for either of them at times when he’s not playing along the backline. Fraser is actually tied for the team lead in assists – albeit only with three, so there’s a small sample size issue here – so he can get forward as more a true No. 8 than a deep-lying guy (long passes also account for barely 15% of his attempts, so he’s not banging it over the top onto runners here).

When available, Ayo Akinola (one assist in three MLS appearances) is the choice at striker. He has five goals in 14 appearances this season, though he has yet to record a USL assist. I would consider winger Tsubasa Endoh the even more dangerous offensive player, though: even though much of his production came in one game (he had a hat trick against FC Cincinnati in September), his scoring rate includes eight goals in one fewer game than Akinola, and he’s a much more frequent and accurate passer (despite also looking for his first assist still), making him a more well-rounded threat.

“Endoh has been a standout for them,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith. “They can play with [Jordan] Hamilton out front who is very, very capable. They have certainly improved going forward. I would think we will see the attacking and creative mentality from a team that will predominantly fighting for their careers rather than a playoff spot. So, nothing lightly will be taken in this game.”

Matthew Srbely (3G, 3A in 27 appearances) plays as the central midfielder, and is not only one of the most-deployed members of the team – more minutes than anyone but the two center backs – but one of the few playmakers on the side, too. He’s very much a “tries shit” guy, with a tie for the most key passes on the team, but also a much lower passing accuracy mark than Endoh, the player with whom he shares the distinction.

The Boys in Gold

Lebo Moloto remains questionable, though he’s now the only play on Nashville SC’s injury report, with center back Bradley Bourgeois moving off it. I would expect Bourgeois makes the 18 but only sees the field in case of emergency (or, knock on wood, late in the game with a lead to protect, so he can work back toward full match fitness), with upcoming matches probably requiring him a bit more than this one should.

Will we see basically the same lineup for the third game in a row? I think there’s something to be said for Nashville getting comfortable in this 4-3-3 look with Mensah on the right wing. The central midfield depth is there to allow it to happen, and perhaps most importantly, when Justin Davis is playing center back, it allows for a left fullback (Taylor Washington) who likes to get forward to play on the same side as an inverted winger (Alan Winn) with complementary skillsets and a lot of speed up that side.

If we see that 4-3-3, I would imagine you’ll get more of a “two defensive, one offensive” distribution in the midfielder – the opposite of what we saw in Richmond – at least until the team shows it can handle the meager TFCII attack with only one defensive midfielder. Otherwise, I like the lineup we’ve been seeing, and hope to continue to see it.

“There is no getting away from how important this is,” Smith said. “Once you get towards the end of the season, and the ability to clinch a playoff spot gets in sight, each game carries more importance than the next. Every team is going through that. This one does have a slightly different edge to it, not just because we can solidify a postseason berth, but because that game in July against Toronto was the low-point of our season. That was the reality of it.”

You can see the breakdown of just how important the game is here.

Projected lineups

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Predictions

Despite the records, Toronto is a lot better than Richmond, especially at this point in the year. How much does Nashville gain by playing at home instead of on the road?

  • Ropapa Mensah-as-setup-man is finally flipped, and the big Ghanaian gets one to open the scoring after not getting credit for two assists (the correct scoring, just a bit of bad luck from a personal stat perspective) Saturday night. It’s a self-created goal with some of the technical ability he’s shown lately allowing him to beat a defender and take it to the rack.
  • Taylor Washington earns his first USL assist by dropping a pass across the top of the box, where Matt LaGrassa bangs it top corner, just a couple minutes before halftime.
  • Toronto manages to make things a little interesting by scoring out of the halftime break. Endoh fires in a shot that rattles around in the box a bit, and eventually manages to find its way into the back of the net. A teammate is credited for a goal that’s truly all him.
  • Bolu Akinyode puts the game away by heading home a set piece in the 70th minute, and Nashville easily rides out the remainder of the contest.
  • Your Nashville subs: Jome for Washington (65′), Shroot for Mensah (75′), Bourgeois for LaGrassa (78′).

Nashville wins, 3-1.

Preview: Nashville SC @ Richmond Kickers 2018

Nashville has played some bad teams already this year (including this one!). Will they be able to get three points and come dangerously close to locking down their playoff future? Well, uh, they should.

The essentials

Opponent: Richmond Kickers (6-22-4 USL). 28 GF, 74 GA so far in 2018, 15th in USL East, 15th in USL East Power Ratings and 33rd (dead last) in combined-table Pure Power.
Recent form: RIC (L-L-L-L-L) NSH (D-L-D-L-W)
The Line: None yet (will update later)
Time, Location: Saturday, Oct. 6 6:00 p.m. CDT (7 local)  • City Stadium, Richmond, Va.
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 77ºF, 6% chance of rain, 73% humidity, 3 MPH ESE winds
Watch: Locally on MyTV30, or stream on ESPN+. See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch in a game atmosphere. The Assembly will be watching at Tailgate Music Row, The BoRoadies at Party Fowl Murfreesboro.
Listen: Locally on 94.9 Game2 in English, 96.7 El Jefe FM en Español.
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, #RICvNSH
Elsewhere: Kickers preview. USL weekly preview.

Richmond Kickers

Richmond has the worst offense in the USL. Richmond also has the worst defense in the USL. Most modern soccer coaches believe that’s not the clearest path to having a successful season. They’re on five straight losses right now, and winless in their last eight (having drawn just one). Richmond wasn’t so bad through the first two months of the season – 3-4-1 through their first eight games – but if you’re good at math, you know that means they’ve been 3-18-3 ever since.

That’s bad. It’s not bad enough that they’re likely to drop behind Toronto in the final table yet, because TFCII has had consistently poor results over the course of the season, but when you take into account goal differential (as the Pure Power ratings do), or ignore their form in, like, April (unlikely to be currently relevant), Richmond is the worst team in USL, and it’s not even remotely close.

So that’s good, right?

“We are now playing against two teams [Toronto is next, on Tuesday] who can’t make the postseason,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “This weekend you have a group of players in Richmond that will have a lot of freedom in their play. While they can’t make the playoffs, they could be playing for a contract or playing for their fans with it being their last home game. I would expect them to want to go out with a bang and put everything out there.”

The Kickers will be without Heviel Cordoves, who was red-carded in Saturday’s game against North Carolina FC. That’s their joint-leading scorer at seven, putting plenty of pressure on fellow scoring leader Brian Shriver to do something, anything to get the ball into the back of the net. Shriver is also the team’s leader in assists with eight (only three of which has gone to Cordoves, because the pair mostly split time up top in a single-striker system until recently, when Shriver has been playing on the left wing). Cordoves also wasn’t in the squad last time Nashville saw this team, so no major change there from our perspective. Jamaican international Dane Kelly has been on season-long loan from DC United, so he could factor in, though he’s made only four appearances for the Kickers all year. This might be a time he’s needed.

Having watched them early in the year and also more recently, I don’t get the impression that the offense is “worst in the league”-level bad, though obviously the numbers don’t lie, but they did go scoreless for five in a row (and seven out of eight) in late July through mid-August, which really drags things down… and again, is more relevant to their current makeup than what they did to start the year. What they do look like is a bunker-and-counter team (of course, except against Nashville, which is definitely tilted toward the counter-attack itself).

“When they came here they played well the majority of the game with the ball,” said NSC defender Liam Doyle. “We will need to limit them with the ball. Then we will get chances and we’ll need to take those chances. It’s almost playoff time. Even if we can get one win it might be enough so let’s get it on Saturday and then take it from there.”

That bunker is horrible, of course. They’ve given up at least three goals on 14 different occasions this year, including six to Louisville and four to Nashville in back-to-back games in late August. LA Galaxy II has been involved in two games with seven goals scored by a single team (Portland 2 scored that many on them, while the Galaxy put that many on Las Vegas Lights)… but otherwise Richmond has set the high-water mark there. If your defense is going to be bad regardless of what you do, might as well go with the Atlanta United 2 or Galaxy method of just playing fun offense and playing a whole mess of like 5-3 games. Richmond has not taken that tack.

They give up a ton of space along the flank deep in their defensive area (you know, that thing a four-man backline is designed not to give up), which may play into Nashville’s gameplan, too: the Boys in Gold have been cross-happy all year, and particularly lately with the re-emergence of Tucker Hume at striker.

Trevor Spangenberg DC United loanee Travis Worra have split time almost equally at keeper (Brian Barnes also has three games – all coming in the most recent four – but he was terrible so I doubt we see him if the others are available), with both “boasting” a save percentage in the low 60s. Maybe they aren’t good, maybe (more likely) the defense in front of them is awful, but either way, they’ve been unable to get the job done. Spangenberg has gotten all non-Barnes time lately – Worra might be back with DC United, though he’s playing for nobody.

The Boys in Gold

While Lebo Moloto is only “questionable” on the injury report, he didn’t make the 18 last weekend, and shouldn’t be needed to beat this Kickers side. I would expect more rest for CB Bradley Bourgeois (the only other play on the injury list, also questionable) against this side, too.

Nashville has been about as consistent through the past couple weeks lineup-wise as we’d seen previously all season. That’s partially due to injuries, but certainly finding some consistency should help with offensive output. This team needs it, if not for the Richmond game, for finding the stride on the way into the postseason stretch.

“It is very, very important that we score that first goal,” said Smith. “We have been at our best when we score first and if we can get that first goal again, we should give ourselves a very good chance to get all three points.”

NSC has been experimenting with more offense-first formations, and while it hasn’t paid of in buckets of goals, creating the chances should eventually pay off with the talent they have. Against a Richmond team that’s going to have a hard time matching them chance-for-chance – and also has the worst defense in the USL – you can take some risks in order to try to score some goals.

The stakes for this game are huge. Win it, and Nashville SC gets really close to locking down its playoff spot.

Projected lineups

A bit of explanation below:

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Richmond has gone with a 4-2-3-1 the vast majority of the year, but did trot out a 4-1-4-1 last week. Their official site also talks up central midfielder Prince Agyemang as a potential contributor, so there’s a possibility you could replace Umar with him and move him up to the 3-line making it a four-man midfield. I made the graphic before they published their preview though, so whatever.

Nashville has gone with a few different formations lately as Gary Smith tinkers to try to find a bit more offense. That’s even included a bit of a true 4-3-3 since Lebo Moloto went out, and I’m tentatively predicting we’ll see that against a Richmond team that’s fairly toothless in the attack and won’t be able to punish a Nashville team that puts a bit more offensive a lineup out there.

Predictions

Richmond is a bad team in both directions, whereas Nashville is diminishing defensively in recent weeks, but still elite (as they struggle to find offense, like they have much of the year). A Western Conference version of Richmond would actually be really fun, throwing numbers forward and either winning or losing 5-2 every week. As it stands, they’re more likely to lose 3-1 every time because they try to bunker and counter.

  • For the second game in a row, Nashville gets a first-time goal-scorer (it was captain Michael Reed against the Red Bulls). I’ll go with Kris Tyrpak in a substitute appearance, shortly after halftime. His lone goal on the season was scored when he was still with San Antonio FC.
  • Tucker Hume gets an assist on a Ropapa Mensah goal, and Mensah pays it forward to Matt LaGrassa. Mensah’s opens the scoring, while LaGrassa’s comes shortly before halftime.
  • The recent trend of giving up one iffy goal per game (or conceding a penalty, yet still saving it) continues, and Richmond is able to strike on the counter once. Agyemang feeds Shriver for the tally. The score makes it 2-1 before Typak’s clincher.
  • Your NSC substitutes: Tyrpak for Winn at halftime, Bolu Akinyode replaces LaGrassa in the 60th minute (with the score still 2-1), London Woodberry for Ish Jome after the Boys in Gold go back up 3-1.

The numbers that the Pure Power spreadsheet pumped out predict Nashville 1.25-0.71 Richmond, which is… not the margin you’d expect against the worst team in the USL. Nashville wins, 3-1. There are concerns about Nashville’s road performances (which are dragging the numbers down, along with a general lack of offense), but Richmond is a whole different question in that regard.

Preview: Nashville SC @ Atlanta United 2 2018

Nashville has only (ever) beaten one team twice: that’s Atlanta United 2, whom they swept at home earlier this Summer. Now, that have a chance to go 3-0 against the Baby Five Stripes by taking the show on the road.

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The essentials

Opponent: Atlanta United 2 (5-15-8 USL). 29 GF, 61 GA so far in 2018, 14th in USL East, 14th in USL East Power Ratings and 29th in combined-table Pure Power.
Recent form: ATL (L-L-W-W-D) NSH (D-L-D-L-W)
The Line: Nashville SC -122, draw +247, Atlanta United 2 +278
Time, Location: Wednesday, Sept. 26 6:00 p.m. CDT (7 local)  • Coolray Field, Lawrenceville, Ga.
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 76ºF, 41% chance of rain, 84% humidity, 3 MPH Westerly winds
Watch: 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, #ATLvNSH

Atlanta United 2

This team has gone in spurts of being competent, but has mostly been one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference over the course of the season. They’re already officially eliminated from the playoffs, though they’re quite a bit better than the two teams that have joined them down there, Toronto FC II and Richmond Kickers.

As with all MLS 2 sides, the biggest question is what personnel they’ll have available. The first game in First Tennessee Park, Atlanta brought a fairly weak roster. The second time, it was as strong a roster as they’d played all year. With the MLS and USL roster freeze deadlines now in the rearview mirror, at the very least we won’t see anybody completely new.

US Youth internationals Andrew Carleton and George Bello have been with the MLS side (which has a road trip to New York this weekend) lately, so I wouldn’t imagine we’ll see either of them. We also won’t, unlike last time, see an academy keeper brought up for the game. Jon Gallagher, who’s appeared in all but two contests, remains the leading scorer with six goals, despite being a right wingback. Lagos Kunga’s behind him with four, and has the sixth-most minutes on the team, appearing in only one fewer contest. Those guys are consistent presences, and I’d expect that to continue tonight. Centerbacks AJ Cochran and Andrew Kendall-Moulin are also mainstays in the lineup.

Beyond that, it’s basically guesswork who will play.

“I would fully expect, and I know that their group can be interchangeable at any point, but we will go there expecting their strongest team will be out,” said NSC coach Gary Smith. “They did it here, so why would they not do it there. I will prepare for that. They have some extremely talented individual players and some very good team players that may well be in their side. It won’t be easy, but we have not seen one yet that was. It has been a tough season.”

ATL UTD 2 looks to be on as good a run of form as they’ve been on all year, with two wins and a draw in their last five, but their two most recent games were losses, with a 6-1 beatdown by North Carolina FC put on them Friday. One of the wins also came against Toronto FC II, so there’s only so much to read into it. Still, with a more consistent lineup possible, I would bet they round into form to end the year, even the best they can do is third-bottom in the table.

The Boys in Gold

Lebo Moloto is out, which can be a blessing and a curse: the team relies on him to create a lot of the offense… but without him available, spreading the ball around and adding a bit more creativity from non-Moloto players may help those guys find their form heading into the end of the regular season.

“It is getting to the point where we need to get a result down there,” said defender Justin Davis. “We saw what North Carolina did there [Friday] night, so we need to do something similar.”

I’d expect the 4-4-2 without him available, simply because there isn’t the forward depth to play the 3-5-2 (with a true No. 10) without him. Kris Tyrpak has moved off the injury report, so I’d expect the goal-getter to find the field, with Alan Winn on the other wing. Matt LaGrassa probably plays that second striker position behind Tucker Hume, who’s found some form lately.

I’d expect the usual out of the defense, with perhaps an appearance from CJ Cochran rather than Matt Pickens. The game’s in Cochran’s hometown (well, a couple suburbs over), and there’s a really packed schedule to end the year. With Pickens not on top form over the past month or so, it’d be unwise to wear him down with midweek-weekend through the end of the regular season.

Projected lineups

IMG_56F895B93005-1

Predictions

Let’s wrap this up, yeah? Nashville wins, 2-0.

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:

IMG_8FFC4366CBA3-1.jpeg

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.

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
Elsewhere: Nashville SC preview. USL league preview.

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:

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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.

Preview: USMNT v. Mexico friendly Sept. 11, 2018

It is time. We may not have all the stars in Nashville, but a solid USMNT will take on hated rivals Mexico tonight in our town. What should we see?

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The essentials

Opponent: Mexico (No. 16 FIFA World rankings, USA is No. 22)
Recent form: MEX: L-L-L-W-W (most recent a friendly, all others WC2018). USA: L-D-L-W-W (all friendlies
The Line: USA+ 165, Draw +224, Mexico +177
Time, Location: Tues., Sept. 11 • 8:10 p.m. CDT  • Nissan Stadium
Event: International friendly
Weather: 73ºF, 4% chance of rain, 76% humidity, 5 MPH NNE winds
Watch: ESPN (English), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @miseleccionmxEN
Elsewhere: Stars and Stripes FC preview and Mexico scouting. Is the rivalry diminished? TBQH this is a horrible (read: clickbait) way to frame what is actually a decent story. SHAME! MLSSoccer.com previewUSA Today Network – Tennessee actually managed to get some soccer talk in(!) thanks to the homie Nick Gray.

Mexico

El Trí was thrashed by Uruguay Friday evening in Houston, with a 4-1 victory going the way of the inaugural World Cup champions. José Giménez opened the scoring in the 21st minute, before Mexico’s Raul Jiménez responded with a penalty kick just four minutes later. The biggest international name in the game – Barça’s Luis Suárez – would put Los Charrúas up in the 32nd minute, then cement that lead with a PK of his own in the 40th. Gastón Pereiro would put the finishing touches on in the 59th to make for a resounding scoreline.

It’s worth noting, this is not an A-team for Mexico (especially since they, like the USA, released several players back to their clubs after their first game in the International Window). No Memo Ochoa in net (neither of the available keepers traveled to Russia, either), and only four defenders (Oswaldo Alanis, Jesús Gallardo, Hugo Ayala, Edson Alvarez), and one midfielder (Jonathan Dos Santos of LA Galaxy) are holdovers from the latest failed attempt to make el Quinto Partido on the world’s biggest stage.

Aside from Dos Santos, the most recognizable name for USA fans is likely 20-year old American Jonathan Gonzalez (though I can’t imagine why anyone would have heard of him), who did not make the World Cup squad for Mexico.

Like the United States, this is a reasonably young squad, though the presence of dudes in or approaching their 30s (basically restate all the guys listed above as World Cup holdovers) makes it a bit more of a transitional group than an American side that includes just two players older than 25. When you make the World Cup, you have the opportunity to blend in young and old without the pressure to throw out the baby with the bathwater, I guess.

Like the Americans, Mexico is operating under an interim manager after Juan Carlos Osorio left (he was ultimately hired by Paraguay). In his last go-round as interim, Ricardo Ferretti – whose day job is Tigres in Liga MX – went 2-0-2 at the helm, drawing friendlies against Trinidad and Argentina while beating the USMNT in the Concacaf Cup (Confederations Cup playoff), and Panama in a final friendly.

USMNT

My personal opinion is as follows: getting trashed by Brazil was not fun. #HotTake

However, there’s also an element of “well, it’s Brazil,” which is only amplified by the fact that they called in something a heck of a lot closer to an A-team than did US interim manager Dave Sarachan. The downside? Still have that non-A-team, minus one of the few surefire A-team starters that was on Friday’s roster in John Brooks, and another guy who at least started that game in Pau Arriola. Since those guys are back with their clubs, we’re even a little further removed from A-team status.

That said, plenty of the guys on this team who aren’t considered First XI locks right now are on pace to be there when meaningful games resume (at least in the form of World Cup qualifiers), including some who are pretty close to top billing right now, like Tim Weah, Weston McKennie, and Matt Miazga.

The question then becomes how Dave Sarachan approaches this game. One would hope he runs out the best lineup available with the talent that remains in camp. Or I will be very upset.  Let’s do it.

Projected lineup

Assuming the same 4-1-4-1 that we’ve seen under Sarachan, here’s a guess/hope for close to the Best XI players available:

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The only changes from Friday are Weah for Arriola and Carter-Vickers for Brooks. I wasn’t enamored with the Trapp/McKennie/Adams central midfield (a lot of overlap in skillsets there), but think Sarachan probably liked it. You could just as easily put Kellyn Acosta in one of those roles.

Depending on game flow and desire to win a friendly, Andrija Novakovich for Wood, Acosta, Marky Delgado, and Christian Roldan for some combination of the midfielders, Shaq Moore for Yedlin, and Alex Bono for Steffen (half) are my most likely six subs.

Predictions

Dos a cero. That is all.

(Maybe more a hope than a prediction, but let’s get it, y’all).