Preview: Louisville City 2018, Round One

At long last, it is here. The regular season doesn’t start with a breather, as NSC travels to defending champion Louisville City FC to open its USL account.

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Courtesy USL

The essentials

Opponent: Louisville City FC (62 points from 32 matches (18-8-6) USL East, USL Champions)
The Line: I will invent lines since there isn’t betting on USL as far as I can find (if you know a book that offers it, let me know): Louisville City -240, Nashville SC +500, draw +140. O/U 2.5.
Time, Location: 3:00 p.m. EST (2 p.m. Nashville) • Louisville Slugger Stadium, Louisville, Ky.
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 53° F, 64% chance of rain, 2 MPH Northeasterly winds.
Watch: Get yer tickets (use code “NashvilleSC” to be in the visitors section). Watch locally on MyTV30 or stream below. See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch in an exciting atmosphere in Music City.
Pregame tailgate: With the Roadies, Assembly, and LCFC supporters group The Coopers in the parking lots west of the stadium.
Follow: @ClubCountryUSA, @NashvilleSC, @LouCityFC
Etc.: Lots of preview content this week: Q&A with Not So Ultra Capo, pregame pressers from NSC and one from Louisville, takeaways from yesterday’s training session. Gary Smith’s 5-3-2 is relevant to Louisville’s formation, as well.
Elsewhere: Music City Soccer Preview (will link when available), Golden Goal preview and picks615 Formation mini-preview. Preview from the league.

The Stream

Louisville City FC

This is last year’s championship side, and the personnel losses from that squad are minimal: backup keeper Micah Bledsoe is now the No. 3 for Nashville SC, but defender Tarek Mosad was their leader in appearances last season, fellow defender Sean Reynolds moved over to rival St. Louis FC after several performances himself, and midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye actually moved up a level in joining MLS expansion side Los Angeles FC after 43 appearances and five goals over the past two years.

That’s one relatively inconsequential loss, and sort of an escalating impact as you move along. That Kaye has played in both LAFC games so far this season indicates that he’s truly an MLS-caliber talent now, not just a developmental guy for Bob Bradley.

LAFC didn’t add too much star power to replace those losses, though they made some solid signings. NCAA (Bowling Green state University) defender Alex Souahy is probably a bit more of a developmental guy, whereas midfielder Pat McMahon played for a solid FC Cincinnati side last year – though he only made 28 appearances in 2016 and 2017 combined and FCC let him leave on a free – and defender Shaun Francis is coming off five years in MLS (he made six appearances for the Montreal Impact after a mid-season transfer from San Jose Earthquakes).

The core of this team rests in the returning players: Striker Luke Spencer was the leading scorer and second-leading assist-man last year, while wingback Oscar Jiminez and second striker Richard Ballard both added some service and a bit of a scoring punch of their own. Cameron Lancaster isn’t even in the starting lineup despite coming in second in goals last season, speaking to the great depth of the team.

Let’s not overlook that this was one of MLS’s best defenses last year, and while the personnel losses were a little more notable on that end of the pitch, there’s still plenty of talent. Centerback Paco Craig was a best-XI player last year in USL, I already mentioned the offensive punch of Jimenez (while glossing over his ability to track back), and keeper Gregory Ranjitsingh tied for second in the league in clean sheets (11) while not coming close in terms of saves made: he’s  good goalie, but a lot of his success is augmented by a great defense in front of him.

With a similar formation to what NSC does (perhaps with a little more diversity in tactics simply because they’re more experienced in their system), there’ll be quite the chess match in play here.

The Boys in Gold

Obviously, regular readers of the site are very familiar with what Nashville SC will try to do on both ends of the pitch. We know the top attacking and defensive personnel.

The questions will be whether there are major changes on a matchup basis. With a fully healthy team (one NSC doesn’t have, particularly at centerback), they might try a couple different options. For example, Bradley Bourgeois in the center over Liam Doyle, given that the latter has been a little careless with the ball in the short passing game, probably not a good fit against a pressing team like LCFC. There may not be those sorts of options though.

The offensive personnel has been a work in progress all preseason as well, and how it shakes out will be something to watch. Robin Shroot and Michael Cox are unquestionably choices 1 and 2 (though Shroot hasn’t always been 100% healthy this preseason, he appears to be getting there at the right time), with Tucker Hume the next striker off the bench (himself more a matchup guy with the hold-up play he provides that his teammates really can’t), Ropapa Mensah somebody who just goes out and gets goals, and Alan Winn a bit more versatile and speedy. They can’t all make the 18, simply because NSC needs a bit of diversity positionally on the bench.

The defensive midfield pairing of Michael Reed and Matt LaGrassa is the most solidly established on the team, in terms of who the first-choice options are, but the backup situation there will be a bit of a question, too.

There’s still plenty of intrigue around the lineup, even if the first-choice (or “Senior XI” as the club calls it) is relatively obvious.

Projected lineups

As you can see, the shape of Louisville City’s formation is a little different (they go with one defensive midfielder and stack their target striker and secondary forward), but the general concepts are similar. Here’s what we expect to see:

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Graphic by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Predictions

I’d absolutely love to see this game go well for NSC, but a road start against the defending champs is obviously a tough ask for a new club.

  • The non-starting gameday squad includes Tucker Hume (F), Alan Winn (F/M), Bolu Akinyode (M), Michael DeGraffenreidt (M/D) Taylor Washington (D), Bradley Bourgeois (D), and CJ Cochran (GK).
  • Nashville SC actually gets on the board first, with Robin Shroot assisting Lebo Moloto (even though I’m not extremely comfortable projecting Shroot at full health). A strike from just inside the 18-yard box is the first official goal in NSC history.
  • The Boys in Gold have a tough time playing out of the back on the ground, thanks to a relentless press from Louisville City. Even a shift to a more long-ball oriented approach sees a turnover at the back lead to one of LCFC’s goals.
  • Spencer and DelPiccolo notch goals for the Boys in Purple, with the game-winner coming in the 70th minute.
  • Hume, Washington, and Bourgeois all make it onto the field for NSC, in approximately decreasing amounts of playing time (so Hume is subbed on first). Hume provides some good hold-up play, but NSC isn’t clinical enough in the final third to score when he’s on the pitch.

Louisville City wins 2-1. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades (or your phrase of choice with the same meaning), etc., but this ends up feeling like a pretty good result for NSC. While they’re a little less organized getting the ball out of the back, when they do, they’re comfortable building – just can’t notch more scores.

The defensive postures look very solid, and while they don’t get  result, a one-goal loss to the defending champs on the road is hardly something to be embarrassed of. That’s a confidence-builder for the return leg May 13 (the rubber match is in Louisville).

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Nashville soccer 102: What is Gary Smith’s 5-3-2

This is part two of an ongoing series helping Nashville SC fans understand the game – and specifically how the Boys in Gold are set up to attack it. In this edition: the team’s apparent base formation.

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Gary Smith: a guy who knows what he’s doing. Tim Sullivan/For Cub and Country.

When last we spoke about some of the more basic soccer concepts (to share with friends who are ew to the game, or to educate ourselves), it was unclear what the philosophy of Nashville SC’s inaugural team was going to be. Would they be defense-first, high-scoring-oriented? What formation would the Boys in Gold use?

If preseason training and friendlies are any indication, we at the very least have an answer to the latter question: this team will base out of a 5-3-2 formation.

What’s it look like

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When the team hits the field, the above is an approximation of the shape: five defenders, three midfielders, and two strikers. (This is also a reasonable guess at a starting lineup – it’s one I projected for a preseason game – too, though it’s not quite the one I’ll be projecting for the season opener).

There are many ways this personnel can shift its roles depending on need, though. First, let’s address what appears to be the focus of the formation.

Looks pretty defensive, dude

Indeed it does! But in practice, this is a far more offensively-oriented formation than it appears at first glance. Five defenders and two holding midfielders with only three offensive-minded guys on its face, that’s a recipe for bunker-and-counter.

In practice, though, it’s more versatile – and packs much more punch going forward – than it appears at first glance. The outside backs can play high up the field in possession, serving the function of wingers. One midfielder is almost strictly an offensive specialist (and in recent games, one of the defensive midfielders has functioned more as a box-to-box guy, with the other serving as a lone holding mid).

So let’s take a look at how this functions.

The concepts

While the formation is nominally a 5-3-2 (NSC lists the outside backs as defenders on the roster and on lineup sheets), Gary Smith has interchangeably called it a 3-5-2, as well. That speaks to not only the multiple roles of those wingbacks, but the type of players needed: guys who can get all the way back defensively (we saw the other day that they can help give up scoring chances if they don’t quickly flip the switch from offense to defense), but also those who are dangerous going forward.

Take a look at the wingbacks shortly following a turnover gained against Chattanooga Saturday evening:

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Turbo speed forward.

Not only do they immediate turn to an offensive mindset, they’re athletic enough to turn a ho-hum play in their own end into a serious counter-attack threat.

Get you a wingback who can do both. NSC has at least three: veteran Kosuke Kimura (near side in the GIF above) is an all-motor, all-the-time player who has the energy to get up and down the field all game, contributing both in his own end and the attacking third. Taylor Washington (top of the screen) has the pure speed to make teams pay on the counter, or hurry back for defensive coverage. Ryan James – who is actually playing right centerback in the above GIF, but is able to contribute on either wing and will likely start at left wingback – is a bit of a combination of both, obviously with a major jolt of versatility.

The chemistry and complementary skillsets of the midfielders also help make this formation work in a big way for the Boys in Gold. Lebo Moloto is a pure attacking midfielder, but can cycle back into defensive coverage (Alan Winn, likely his primary backup while also backing up striker positions, is similar. Martim Galvao ). The other two midfielders, Josh Hughes and Michael Reed above (but more likely Matt LaGrassa joining Reed in the starting lineup) have two-way ability, and the gameplan can see them execute differently. Either two can stay back filling holes in the back line (the centerbacks will spread wide, especially in possession), or one can be an offensive/defensive threat as a box-to-box No. 8 as the other stays at a No. 6, or we’ve increasingly seen both push a little higher up the field with the pace to track back if the ball is turned over.

Only three true defenders at a given point is the norm, but any combination of four different players (the wingbacks or the defensive midfielders) can quickly change that tone.

Overall

The concept of the 5-3-2 relies upon its ability to be either offensive or defensive as the situation calls for, and we’re expecting that NSC takes the scoring pushes to the maximum when possible.

It can be a 3-4-3 with the CAM between the strikers and the wingbacks pushed into midfield, it can be a 3-3-4 in extreme offensive postures (with those wingbacks far up the flank, ready to cross, and the defensive midfielders in position to cover for them in the event of a turnover), and it can easily have seven or eight players back to stave off advances from the opponent.

With Nashville’s personnel (there are some variations available, too – Winn is most comfortable as almost a left winger, so a more conservative LWB and an offensive-minded box-to-box CM to balance the formation a bit when he’s on the field are among the many possibilities), there is a lot this formation can do.

The main things NSC fans want it to accomplish, though, come in the form of wins.

Just how settled is Nashville SC’s starting lineup?

We saw the first starting lineup in Nashville SC’s history Saturday afternoon, and it came with a few surprises. There was also heavy rotation (including a wholesale line change at the half), so what should we expect going forward? More importantly, what will the first-team eleven look like?

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Robin Shroot and Lebo Moloto started Saturday… but are they locked in? Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

The base assumption here is that the primary formation we’ll see out of NSC this year is the 5-3-2 we saw in the first half, rather than the 4-4-2/4-3-3 that debuted in the second.

Locked in?

While CJ Cochran can certainly provide some good minutes between the pipes, Matt Pickens seems a very solid bet as the first-choice keeper. So too with Justin Davis and Kosuke Kimura in the defensive line ahead of him. Bradley Bourgeois is fairly close to this honor, as well.

the three midfield spots seem the safest of them all to remain relatively consistent, with Michael Reed and Matt Lagrassa (though LaGrassa had some moments to improve upon against Atlanta United) in the defense-oriented roles, and Lebo Moloto perhaps the closest thing to a lock at the central attacking position.

Relatively solid

With seven spots seeming safe, that leaves four roles in the starting lineup up for grabs, and only one of them seems like a guy who is looking over his shoulder, but not feeling the heat too much yet. That’s the final member of the center back trio, London Woodberry. Like several of the other guys in the previous category, he has a bit of MLS experience, and unlike most of them, he’s relatively young at 26 years old. There are still some good years ahead of him, and he was already good enough to earn a starting role for the first appearance of the team.

In a battle

Three players started Saturday, but may not be fully entrenched (or close to it) in their roles. The shakiest of them all is left back Ryan James. In practices open to the media, he’d been the top backup at both left back and right back, but he earned the starting nod Saturday, over Taylor Washington, who had been neck-and-neck with him as the left back. The left-footer Washington has a different skillset than James, so there are some matchup considerations to make, but either way, there’s still a healthy competition for minutes there.

The other two players who seem to be in real battles are those who started up top: Robin Shroot and Michael Cox. While one of them is likely to remain in the starting lineup, it’s too early to say which for sure – the offensive output in the first half certainly wasn’t as impressive as it could be. Attacking talent in the form of target-man Tucker Hume, left winger Alan Winn, and striker Ropapa Mensah all combined for the first goal in NSC’s history as a professional club.

Indeed, it seems likely that Mensah may have already been in the starting lineup if not for arriving a week late to training due to travel snafus (and Winn’s signing wasn’t even announced until the day prior to the game, so he’s behind, as well). While Shroot and Cox both bring serious ability, there’s just far more attacking firepower than we might have expected prior to Saturday’s game.

Challenging from behind

I already mentioned Cochran, and there’s a decent chance the 26-year old can learn from his elder statesman enough to make this a little more of a goalkeeper rotation than a starter-backup scenario at times this season. Cochran certainly has the opportunity to be in the long-term future of the club.

The wholesale changes on the defensive lineup didn’t just give Washington a chance to continue competing fo a starting role against James: it also showed that there are other players ready to get minutes. Centerbacks Liam Doyle and Jordan Dunstan, and right back Michael DeGraffenreidt had some sketchy moments, but Doyle was one who had been rotating with the first team in the training sessions open to media, and all three showed signs of life (and obvious things to improve, not least of which “play on a drier pitch”) against Atlanta United. That was also the case for defensive midfielder Josh Hughes and Bolu Akinyode. Hughes’s back-pass through a puddle led to the first Atlanta United goal, yes, but he provides more in terms of pace and workrate than a lot of the other options in the position group.

Several backup midfielders got a bit of time in the offensive end as well: Martim Galvão, Ramone Howell, and Ian McGrath got their first taste of the field with NSC, and there’s no guaranteeing than one or all of them cant break through into heavy rotation. Of course in the case of Galvão, the former U-23 standout is a fan favorite and could be an impact sub late in games when the competition level isn’t quite “the most expensive team north of the Rio Grande.”

Wait-and-see

While the majority of the healthy players got time against Atlanta United, we’re still waiting on NSC debuts from a couple rostered players. Don’t assume just because they weren’t on the pitch a couple days ago that they’re nailed to the bench all season (or even all preseason):

  • Goalkeeper Micah Bledsoe (signing announced the day before the game)
  • Midfielder Charlie Dennis

Here’s hoping they manage to show their stuff in the preseason in hopes of getting time down the line.

Possible lineups for the Atlanta United friendly

I’ll have much more preview material in the coming days, but here’s a potential Atlanta United v. Nashville SC lineup comparison for Saturday:

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My Atlanta United takes (including the 4-3-3 formation and the deployment of the players within it) are largely based on my chat with Dirty South Soccer’s Haris Kruskic the other day. NSC takes based on personal observation as well as a little sleuthing.

What’s the primary surprise (and basically the only thing that’s different from the lineups put out by every other site so far)? I have Tucker Hume in the starting lineup. There are a couple reasons for that – not least of which that I expect the Boys in Gold to substitute liberally – but one of them is from the perspective of strictly viewing this game as an exhibition and preparation for the regular season.

NSC is going to push the wingbacks high up the field to lump crosses into the box, and Hume is your target forward. Against a high level of competition, they’re going to want to see how viable an offensive strategy this is going to be. If it doesn’t work, look for much more of Robin Shroot early in the regular season. For now, they want to know what they’re going to get out of Hume (Shroot is more a known quantity as a goal-getter). A little tinkering – and in a game where there was already going to be basically as much turnover through substitution during the course as is possible – and you get a better idea of what your pieces are.

I do expect Atlanta to high-press a bit, but only a bit. Similarly, they’re going to want to see if they can pull if off (especially with a defensive non-factor like Darlington Nagbe in the lineup) during MLS season. However, Nashville SC isn’t the same caliber of competition as the average top-flight team, so while a high press could give them plenty of offensive-third turnovers and opportunities, they don’t want to go to that well too often when it’s only going to be a part-time deal in the regular season.

Atlanta’s attacking talent is exciting, and all the new additions are going to be another story of this game. If NSC’s defense can stand up just a bit to the Barcos and Nagbes of the world, they’re going to be able to handle many of the best players the USL can throw at them.

Roster complete, a potential Nashville SC lineup

Now that Nashville SC’s roster has its full complement of players, let’s take another run at a lineup for the team. This is semi-hastily thrown together, I’ll admit – Shroot seems more like a 60th minute sub to go out and get a goal, for example. I’m trying to start some conversation here now that we know who the players will be (even if we still don’t know formations, tactics, etc.).

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What say you, people of the internet?

Can’t wait until Feb. 10 when we have our first chance to see the actual formation, starting lineup, and first few options off the bench.

Pitch Points has projected lineups

There are enough players to make a team. The official USL website hazards a lineup with the current NSC signings. I make it into graphics:

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USL lineup
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My lineup after cheating and waiting for more players.

I’d been planning to do a little of the same sort of exercise, but frankly I didn’t (and don’t) see a way all the players they had before this morning fill out a lineup. I sort of cheated by waiting to put this post up and then having four more players available; I went with a 4-4-2 diamond thanks to the influx of defenders and midfielders making that far more reasonable.

Putting a pure scorer like Shroot (and a striker like Cox) on the wing for the simple matter of “this is who they have now” seems to me to be more like a “wait until they have more players signed” try-again-later sort of deal. Unless you think a seven-foot dude is not the target striker. In which case you’d be wrong. Yes I know Tucker Hume is not seven feet tall in a literal sense.

Speaking of personnel… Nashville Golden Goal looks at the offensive firepower for NSC. They probably need to add more (and there’s kind of a weird concentration of guys with similar attributes). Will we see U-23 standout Martim Galvao on the USL side? That would be popular among the existing fanbase, but reading between the lines, it’s unlikely to happen.

Owner John Ingram is The Tennessean‘s sports person of the year.

The US Youth Summit in Florida this weekend is interesting. You can see the rosters and a bit of analysis from American Soccer Now here.

While I do think there’s value in getting players from multiple age ranges (U-16 to U-20) together at once, it doesn’t feel like something that expands the player pool so much as it works on the already-discovered players in it. Developing those guys is a good thing, as well, but I feel like a wider net might have been a more important priority than multiple age ranges coming together.

Stars and Stripes FC has a few players to watch at the event.

The development of the American footballer. Fifty Five One lays out a case that radical reform isn’t necessarily needed in US Soccer. Some of the arguments are compelling, others elicit little more than a shrug from me. I sort of agree: there’s no need to burn the whole thing down. Radical change because “what we do now doesn’t work” without analyzing whether the new idea will work is unwise. Still, some pretty significant change – with an eye toward making things better, rather than saying “screw the old guys!” (cough cough wynalda cough) – is probably warranted.

Speaking of which, American Soccer Now has some ideas for a bit of reform in MLS. Here’s a big part of the lede:

IN THE RECRIMINATIONS that followed the US national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, nobody escaped blame.

Major League Soccer certainly did not escape the line of fire. The league has invested heavily in youth development but it cannot be ignored that top American and Canadian teenagers have found minutes in the league extraordinarily hard to come by.

There’s an extremely important distinction that needs to be made: it is not MLS’s job to look out for the US Men’s National Team (insert $UM joke here). It’s MLS’s job to look out for MLS, and specifically for its franchises’ owners. Any change proposed has to first and foremost be for the good of the league. While some seemingly counter-productive changes for the league could help the USMNT and ultimately benefit MLS because of that long-term, unfortunately it’s important to keep in mind that the owners are going to be resistant to anything that’s designed to aid USMNT without simultaneously helping them (and in more obvious ways).

That said, some of the ideas Jamie Hill puts forth are good ones, including some I’ve mentioned in the past. Letting teams keep 100% of the transfer fees for homegrown players – a profit motive and also increasing the incentive to give them first-team minutes while they’re young – is a big one, but he has some others in there that fall under the “good idea for USMNT, no damn way the owners will go for it” category.

It’s gonna suck when he picks Mexico. A little fluff on US starlet Jonathan Gonzalez, whose Monterrey finished runners-up in the Apertura portion of Liga MX this Fall. Mexico is (predictably) now trying to poach him for its national team. Not calling him in for the Portugal game (whether or not he would have actually been able to play) was dumb.

Etc. New Year’s resolutions for the US Soccer fan. I co-sign ’em. … The Nashville Ledger on some Nashville SC stuff. … Two of America’s top-50 most-attended soccer games of 2017 took place in our fair city. … Interesting take on the possession style of Man City and others in the Premier League turning anti-possession into a viable tactical choice (as a counter-attacking philosophy). … Memphis goin’ USL. Announcing it Monday. … Always have to keep tabs on MLS. Goal‘s Ives Galarcep with the top prospects for the SuperDraft (including Michigan Wolverine Francis Atuahene). Soon enough, The Boys in Gold will be picking the the draft.