Pitch Points plays in Germany

Welcome to Pitch Points, wherein I round up some of the interesting links around the world of Nashville SC and US Soccer. As always, if you have something you want me to share, let me know in the comments or through social channels on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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Photo by Reto Stauffer (Creative Commons license).

Bundimericans. The Bundesliga’s official site is perhaps not an unbiased source when it comes to why the Bundesliga is a good fit for young Americans, but the point remains: it has proven to be in recent years. One of those reasons is fairly obvious:

There are several factors that make the Bundesliga more suitable for American players than Europe’s other top leagues, and one of them is purely administrative: it is easier to get hold of a work permit in Germany than in the UK, where non-EU players are required to have featured in a certain percentage of their country’s recent competitive matches to obtain an endorsement from the English FA.

I wonder if that’ll change when the Brexit fully extricates England from the EU. The British are going to have a ton less access to top European talent (in the way they currently have limited access to American talent), and while that won’t bring about an untimely death of the Premier League, of course, it could certainly help the other four of the Big Five leagues strive to surpass it in global reach.

Of course, our most well-known export to Deutschland in recent years will end his German adventure in the Summer Transfer Window. Christian Pulisic is headed to Chelsea. The style/fit is one thing Pulisic cited for being interested in the move, and how he adjusts to what many consider a higher level of play will be one of next season’s most interesting storylines.

Ayre Force One. Quick quote or two from Nashville MLS CEO Ian Ayre, though the entire article is behind a paywall that’s probably not worthwhile for somebody who’s overseas. The difference between building an MLS club versus heading a Premier League team is obviously a large one. How Ayre navigates it will write the story of the club’s early days.

Speaking of whom, a little bit on how the CEO role was diminished with the hiring of a sporting director, which partially facilitated his departure from Anfield. Ayre announced he was leaving the club no so long after that, and retired even earlier than was scheduled. The personnel on the front-office side – and what he learned about how that should be structured from his trials and tribulations at Liverpool – will be informed by his time there.

Personnel. MLS Multiplex covers the Cameron Lancaster signing. Speedway Soccer has its profile of the USL’s single-season goal-scoring record holder. It’s almost easy to forget how exciting a signing this was, only a couple weeks removed from its announcement.

Another signing (and one that I think was both under-heralded at the time and remains so) is Kharlton Belmar. At least from a fan perspective, seems like it made sense for Sporting KC to unload him to Nashville, to allow Swope Park to give minutes to younger kids. That’s always the intriguing tightrope walk that MLS2 sides between trying to win and trying to develop players for the first team.

What’s in the USL’s future? The league made vague hand motions toward “pyramid structure” and what that might mean in the long-term when announcing its rebrand, but this story is as definitive as I’ve seen in suggesting (from an official league source) that pro-rel is not only something they’re aware of, but actually interested in, if feasible.

Discussion of a new cup competition that would include all Championship and League One clubs to launch in 2020 has already begun, with long-term potential for promotion and relegation between the two professional divisions.

It remains vague, yes, but does demonstrate a willingness to consider in the long run. Obviously I’ve been a skeptic on the topic, but a limited scope (like between two USL divisions) beginning at a lower level is certainly a path toward a long-term future including promotion and relegation.

Etc.: It appears Ramone Howell is playing domestically in Jamaica during the offseason. … MLS Combine is this week. … One Pittsburgh Riverhounds game to catch? When they host Nashville SC. … Doesn’t directly relate to us, but the 2019 MLS schedule will be released this afternoon. … Ropapa Mensah held a mini-tournament in his hometown over the Christmas season. … University of Tennessee senior Khadija Shaw has an incredible (at times heartbreaking) story, and was The Guardian’s female footballer of the year. … How will NYCFC compensate for the loss of MLS all-timer David Villa? Nashville SC will be among the first to find out Feb. 22.

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The Wrap(s): Pittsburgh Riverhounds 0-1 Nashville SC, Nashville SC 3-1 Penn FC

After each USL game – or sometimes after two in a row! – I provide a handy recap of all the content related to that outing so you can find everything you need to get knowledgable about what went down. As always, if I missed anything, hit the comments, or the inbox via Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail

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Waning stages of the win over Penn FC. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

So as to ensure I’m not burying the lede here, for his efforts in both games, Brandon Allen was named the USL’s player of the week. He’s NSC’s first-ever recipient of the award (second nominee after Lebo Moloto’s brace against Louisville City just a couple weeks ago).

Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Local Content

 

Game story:

Playing Pittsburgh’s game (the Riverhounds dominated possession, and only two of Nashville’s 10 shots were on-target) and still coming away with a win is indicative of Smith’s ability to adapt in the second matchup against the same team – the Boys in Gold also beat Louisville City FC 2-0 at First Tennessee Park after a 2-0 road loss to begin the year.

“Really good win: really, really tough place to play,” Smith said.

Much more there.

Don’t forget you can always vote in the community ratings. The results thereof are included in the Breakdown and Ratings, in which I named Matt Pickens MOTM:

Matt Pickens 14.36 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 8.33

Pickens definitely was not perfect. He had some sketchy moments dealing with back-passes from teammates, and came out awkwardly to deal with a cross or two. At least one Pittsburgh effort would have beaten him if it’d been on-target. However, the rare shots the Riverhounds didn’t miss the frame with were handled by the veteran keeper, including after one of those goofs by a teammate. He was strong in dealing with corner kicks, his distribution was solid (especially on a night when “put it over the top of the defense” was an important tactic), and at the end of the day, the Hounds had zero goals, despite an NSC defense that wasn’t always great in front of Pickens.

He was good, folks. You can see the rest of the players’ ratings by clicking through above.

Elsewhere – Blogdom

Golden Goal match story and player ratings.

Elsewhere – Newsy things

USL site recap. DK Pittsburgh Sports on the match.

Penn FC

Local Content

Halftime reset:

It’s worth noting that, like they did in Harrisburg, Nashville’s players dominated the run of play. They had nearly 60% of possession, and while they were outshot 6-4, it certainly felt like a reluctance to pull the trigger on shots (like we saw in the previous game) played a bigger role in that disparity than Penn FC’s play.

…and the game story:

Nashville’s opening goal showed how slim the margins can be between utter disappointment and a cruise to victory. Once Allen’s ball found the net, it seemed the pressure left the pitch, with NSC more able to play freely. Moloto’s goal only made it a two-score advantage, but from that point forward, it felt like a rout.

The postgame presser video. Don’t forget about those community player ratings, and the results – as always – were included in the breakdown and ratings. Unsurprisingly (given he’s potentially the USL player of the week), Brandon Allen was your MOTM:

Brandon Allen 20.51 (81 minutes) – Community rating: 8.75

As I alluded to yesterday, Allen had about the closest thing as a striker can to a perfect outing. There were a couple missed opportunities (a Matt LaGrassa early cross hit him right in the numbers, but he couldn’t control the chest for an open shot at the top of the 18, for example), but it’s hard to fault him for not doing everything perfectly. He worries opposing backlines, making more room for Moloto and the midfield, and even if that were his only contribution, he’d be a valuable addition. Instead, he’s also dunking speculative crosses and dishing out assists on golazos. Oh, and being a factor in the high press in a big way – which is especially encouraging because that’s something he had the reputation for not doing at Bethlehem at the beginning of this year.

Community comment: “Best performance from anyone this year!”

See the rest of the players’ reviews at the link. “As I alluded to yesterday?,” you ask? That was The Graphical. Best of all, though (at least in my opinion), is the Film Room piece on Lebo Moloto’s banger to open the second half. A true team goal with a moment of individual brilliance to tie it all together:

Check it out (and follow the Gram while you’re there).

Elsewhere – Blogdom

Music City Soccer game story, and a little column on Gary Smith’s apparent beef with Penn FC coach Raoul Voss. Golden Goal game story and ratingsBrotherly Game with the view from the other touchline.

Elsewhere – Newsy things

USL official site game story. The league also touches on the game as it relates to the bigger picture (at the bottom), and some in the notebookPenn Live doesn’t have a good feel for game flow, given that there was never really a comeback chance. USA Today Network Tennessee on the game.

Community ratings: Nashville SC 0-0 Penn FC

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Will Brandon Allen’s goal and assist earn him top honors in the community ratings? Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

What did you think of the players’ performances in a 3-1 victory over Penn FC this evening? Have your say in the community ratings! It’s anonymous and takes just a couple minutes to complete:

While you’re here: follow the site on Twitter, Facebook, and now Instagram. Feel free to share this post with friends, to build a robust voter pool for the game.

Breakdown and player ratings: Pittsburgh Riverhounds 0-1 Nashville SC

Nashville was the first team to beat Pittsburgh or score on them at Highmark Stadium in league play. It wasn’t the strongest performance, but they got the result.

Quick note: my ratings are score-based after a film review, and on a scale that… there’s technically no range but anything over 15 is generally good and under 9 or so is bad for a full game worth of performance. Community ratings are on a traditional 1-10 scale.

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He wasn’t perfect, but Matt Pickens did enough to earn Man of the Match honors. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Formation and tactics

Pittsburgh pressed really hard (and fairly high) early in the game. Nashville was forced to pass it back to keeper Matt Pickens for hopeful long balls plenty of times early in the contest. The possession disadvantage that NSC had may understate how much control Pittsburgh had early (since the possession Nashville did have was ineffective). Once NSC settled in a bit, they were able to achieve some of the same things with their press, evening up the game a bit (the strikers were a little more active up top than we usually see – an especially good sign because Allen wasn’t known as an effort guy at Bethlehem – clearly Gary Smith is getting more out of him than the Steel were).

At times, NSC seemed to try to counter the pressure from Pittsburgh by almost shifting to an unbalanced 4-3-3. Michael Reed would drop as more of a lone CDM while Bolu Akinyode would shift wider left, and Taylor Washington would play up the wing with the two strikers in the box. It created more space and made it harder to press in central midfield (and of course, the Boys in Gold could quickly shift back into the more standard 4-4-2 in an instant as long as Washington wasn’t caught way upfield).

Moloto moved to the wing while LaGrassa went in to the No. 10 role after halftime. Almost more a 4-2-3-1 at that point with LaGrassa sinking even deeper than the 4-4-1-1 we sometimes see, and the three guys in the line able to trade across the field. When Hume replaced Allen, it went to a more typical Moloto-up-top traditional “two blocks of four” formation.

London Woodberry played right fullback – something he’d never previously done – with Ryan James on the left. Everyone else’s positions were the same that we’ve become used to (or with slight tweaks broken down above).

Gary Smith community rating: 8.00

Community comment: “First time Pitt’s given up all three points this year. Gary Smith deserves plenty of credit.”

Goalkeeper

Ladies and gentlemen, your Man of the Match:

Matt Pickens 14.36 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 8.33

Pickens definitely was not perfect. He had some sketchy moments dealing with back-passes from teammates, and came out awkwardly to deal with a cross or two. At least one Pittsburgh effort would have beaten him if it’d been on-target. However, the rare shots the Riverhounds didn’t miss the frame with were handled by the veteran keeper, including after one of those goofs by a teammate. He was strong in dealing with corner kicks, his distribution was solid (especially on a night when “put it over the top of the defense” was an important tactic), and at the end of the day, the Hounds had zero goals, despite an NSC defense that wasn’t always great in front of Pickens.

Defenders

London Woodberry 13.11 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00

Live, my opinion was similar to the fans: Woodberry had a good day, but nothing to write home about. Like Pickens, there were some obvious mistakes he made (he let some crosses get off way too easy man-marking on the edge), but he was willing to play the width of his side of the pitch, got forward a bit more readily than a guy who’s been a centerback in the past, and had some nice one-on-one tackles. He faded hard about midway through the second half, which is expected for a guy going the distance in league play for the first time since St. Patrick’s Day. Getting back to full fitness should allow him to be a regular fixture in the side.

Bradley Bourgeois 10.20 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 8.00

The book on Bourgeois is pretty much the same each week: a monster in the air much more than any player his size has right to be (including yet another header on a set piece – though he fouled the keeper getting to this one – that makes it seem like he’s close to scoring). He was a little more… frantic?… dropping into defensive postures on Pittsburgh’s runs down the middle and right side. He seemed to be playing catch-up a bit, and though he did draw even with his mark, you’d rather not have him have to do that. Some of it appeared to be poor communication/awareness with a new player (Woodberry) next to him, so it could be a one-game deal.

Liam Doyle 9.57 (98 minutes) – Community rating 7.00

Doyle probably should have given up a goal early, with some poor man-marking and then a really weak attempt at a headed backpass to Pickens resulting in one of Pittsburgh’s best chances (Pickens made a great save), but was decent other than that. His longball service was good, his marking on corner kicks – with a lot of opportunities – was up-and-down, and he can bang free kicks, missing one just high. Aside from one potentially game-changing error, it was a fine day.

Ryan James 7.69 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00

James was a big piece of the puzzle in the part of the game before Mensah went out (more on that in a bit, of course), but seemed to fade a bit as the game wore on. I believe a big part of that was the shift in gameplan – the forwards didn’t press as high and as hard, so the fullback didn’t have to get forward to cut out the passes and runs that were created with an aggressive strategy. It’s not that he was doing anything bad, he just wasn’t super-involved overall.

Midfielders

Bolu Akinyode 13.54 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00

The book on Akinyode is pretty well-established at this point, too: he’s generally going to be conservative with his passing (though there were some nice attempts forward, as well as quick-pass gives-and-go in this one), but very consistent in completing those passes. When he gets caught upfield, he doesn’t have the motor to run things down working back every time, but he’s a physically intimidating presence in midfield, and due to his lateral range teams can’t really avoid him.

Matt LaGrassa 13.00 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00

I’m happy to see LaGrassa carving out a role, because he’s too good a player to not see the field (as was the case for a few games in a row after Akinyode’s appearance). His versatility was on display in this one, playing as a right-sided wide midfielder, across the middle as a box-to-box guy, and even as the No. 10 in place of Lebo Moloto when the two traded roles after the half. He’s prone to making a total head-scratching decision here and there (just booting it aimlessly upfield when he’s the most advanced player on the team, for example), but his technical quality is notable.

Taylor Washington 11.03 (73 minutes) – Community rating: 6.33

Presumably, Washington’s community rating slipped simply because he didn’t spend as much time on the field, because he was fantastic when he was out there. He didn’t whip in quite as many crosses as we’ve seen from him as a wide midfielder, but he managed to work his way into the box, and got down the sideline on long runs. He even had a couple headers that could have found teammates waiting back post on a luckier day.

Michael Reed 8.19 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.33

Reed’s up-and-down form continued, in my eyes. He’s continuing to be a bit more adventurous with his passing and dribbling technique, but the first tough seems to let him down a little too frequently to accomplish what he’s going for every time. His headed passes aren’t a keystone of his game, but he had a couple mistakes with them in this one. More than anything, he just wasn’t as involved in the second half (which is understandable: it seems a trend with this team that one CDM or the other has a big game while the other lets him have his moment. It was Akinyode’s day to be more involved).

Ismaila Jome 3.38 (25 minutes) – Community rating: 6.33

He hasn’t had enough time on the pitch to make a serious impact yet, but I think NSC fans are really going to like Jome. Stylistically, he’s similar to Washington (a little less one-sided to the left, but not as fast), in that he likes to get forward and whip the ball in, and isn’t afraid of getting a little dirty defensively. Two players with different skills but the same style of play can be like-for-like replacements, and Jome coming in seemed mostly designed toward getting Washington rest, not because of poor performance.

Forwards

Lebo Moloto 10.72 (64 minutes) – Community rating: 7.33

Gary Smith clearly seemed to want to rest Moloto (who has carried this team to a large extent through 10 games), but didn’t have the opportunity when Mensah went out. Moloto showed off his versatility by first stepping in as a like-for-like (ish) replacement for Mensah, then shifted out to the right wide midfield position – to me, it seemed like a way to not have to make him run down long balls, saving some of that energy – then played his more usual false nine toward the end of the game when Tucker Hume came on. He had some spectacular dribble moves, and instead of trying to force something at the end of them, was willing to cycle the ball back and make sure he’d consolidate possession for his team.

Brandon Allen 8.95 (87 minutes) – Community rating: 8.00

I alluded above to Allen’s effort in the high press, and it’s pretty notable because he quickly developed a reputation in his short shift at Bethlehem Steel for not being willing to put in that defensive work: clearly this was a guy who lost faith in his squad early, and was mailing it in until a better situation came along. The goal that he got was a total garbage goal – and while the nomenclature may sound insulting, believe me that it’s not: it’s the sort of goal NSC wasn’t finishing before he came along, and he’s exactly the one they needed to clean up the trash and put the ball in the net. His hold-up play was iffy in this one, but that’s hardly the greatest sin for a goal-getter.

Tucker Hume 2.58 (11 minutes) – Community rating: 6.33

Hume didn’t get much playing time, but he was inserted for a specific purpose, and executed it perfectly: serve as a hold-up guy for the Boys in Gold to lob it downfield to, killing time and potentially getting lucky for an offensive rush and counter-attack goal to seal the game. He showed effort in the press too, which for a big (sometimes slow-moving) guy, that’s a nice addition to his game.

Ropapa Mensah 2.29 (34 minutes) – Community rating: 9.00

 

I try to get these posts done before the press conference on a regular gameweek, but with this heavily-populated portion of the schedule, I’m actually glad we got to hear from Gary Smith before I wrote, because his explanation made Mensah’s performance clear. Something was just off with the talented Ghanaian, from a bit of technical quality dropoff to a couple bad decisions with the ball at his feet. Suffering from illness (and that being what took him out of the game, rather than an injury sustained during play) makes sense. Mensah still put in effort, particularly in the high pressure, but didn’t have it on the day, and wisely made the choice to call it early and maintain energy for future outings.

Thanks for participating in the community ratings. Check back after each USL game for your opportunity to participate!

Community ratings: Pittsburgh Riverhounds 0-1 Nashville SC

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Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

What did you think of the players’ performances in a 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds last night? Have your say in the community ratings! It’s anonymous and takes just a couple minutes to complete:

While you’re here: follow the site on Twitter, Facebook, and now Instagram. Feel free to share this post with friends, to build a robust voter pool for the game.

Nashville SC hands Pittsburgh first loss of the year

It may not have been pretty – games featuring extensive #Lilleyball rarely are – but Nashville SC was able to head to the Steel City and take all three points from the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. That was the first this season anyone has dealt defeat to head coach Greg Lilley’s side, regardless of location.

Despite losing striker Ropapa Mensah to injury in the 34th minute, being outshot 16-10, and giving up nine corner kicks while earning only two, NSC was able to find the winner in the 69th minute. It came when one of those corner kick opportunities paid off, with Lebo Moloto’s service finding defender Liam Doyle at the back post. While captain Michael Reed’s attempt didn’t pay off in an assist for Doyle, it did find new signing Brandon Allen at the goalmouth, and the 2016 USL Rookie of the Year continued his run of scoring form since joining Nashville SC midseason (two goals in 181 minutes across three appearances).

Allen was forward-looking with his postgame comments.

“It’s nice to get rewarded for my hard work,” he said, “but we need to keep working hard to get three points Saturday and the game after that.”

Aside from starting two pure strikers – Moloto came off the bench to replace Mensah – there were a few other differences from what we’ve come to expect as Nashville’s first-choice lineup. In his return to the lineup in league play, defender London Woodberry was drawn in as a right fullback (he’d previously played mostly centerback), while the versatile Ryan James played left fullback – giving typical starter Justin Davis his first rest of the year.

That rest is much-deserved, and much needed in the third game of a stretch that includes six in 18 days.

“London and Ryan were very terrific,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith. “The guys that came in did a sterling job. Quite honestly, the depth of group will be tested on Saturday and then the big game midweek next week.”

Playing Pittsburgh’s game (the Riverhounds dominated possession, and only two of Nashville’s 10 shots were on-target) and still coming away with a win is indicative of Smith’s ability to adapt in the second matchup against the same team – the Boys in Gold also beat Louisville City FC 2-0 at First Tennessee Park after a 2-0 road loss to begin the year.

“Really good win: really, really tough place to play,” Smith said. “The field is very difficult to try and deal with. It’s very quick and tight, and [Pittsburgh] is very well organized. They are extremely committed to their cause. There weren’t too many chances either way, but we were able to capitalize on the set piece.

“It’s a bit of your experience of the team you are playing against. It’s an improvement of the team and individuals. We are that much further down the line, and we are seeing a reward from it. They are all very competitive and really tight games in this league. It’s an even league.”

Penn FC looms after just a couple days’ rest. After a scoreless draw in Harrisburg earlier this season, Nashville would certainly prefer a better result at First Tennessee Park Saturday evening – and recent history in rematches indicates they stand a heck of a chance to earn one. Then, the squad will head across town to Vanderbilt Football Stadium for a Wednesday US Open Cup tilt against MLS side Colorado Rapids (whom Smith led to the 2010 MLS Cup title, along with goalkeeper Matt Pickens and defender Kosuke Kimura, who both suit up for his NSC side).

With the win, Nashville moves up to eighth in the Eastern Conference, losing the “games won” tiebreaker to Tampa Bay Rowdies, despite a better goal differential (which breaks ties in the table in other leagues around the world). The Boys in Gold have a game in-hand on the majority of the teams ahead of them (all except league-leading Louisville City and fourth-place Charlotte Independence), and two in-hand on Charleston Battery, whom they battled to a draw Saturday.

With some of the more difficult games already in the rearview mirror (two against Louisville City, two against Pittsburgh, road matches in Charleston, Indianapolis, and New York), and five of the next six contests in Music City, Nashville SC could be poised to keep climbing.

Lineups

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Match events

  • 34′ NSH Substitution – On 10 Lebo Moloto, off 3 Ropapa Mensah (injury)
  • 44′ NSH Yellow card – 23 Taylor Washington (foul)
  • 45’+4 – Half-time
  • 58′ NSH Yellow card – 20 Matt LaGrassa (foul)
  • 61′ PGH Yellow card – 3 Raymond Lee (foul)
  • 66′ PGH Substitutions – On 10 Kevin Kerr and 27 Romeo Parkes, off 4 Joseph Holland and 14 Noah Franke
  • 69′ NSH GOAL – 32 Brandon Allen (left foot)
  • 70′ NSH Substitution – On 11 Ismaila Jome, off 23 Taylor Washington
  • 83′ PGH Substitution – On 15 Dennis Chin, off 12 Connor Maloney
  • 84′ NSH Substitution – On 12 Tucker Humer, off 32 Brandon Allen
  • 90’+5 – Full-time.

Preview: Nashville SC @ Pittsburgh Riverhounds 2018

We’ve seen this team once before. Let’s take a second look at the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

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One of NSC’s best chances from the first meeting

The essentials

Opponent: Pittsburgh Riverhounds (4-0-6, No. 4 in USL Eastern Conference, 12 GF, 5 GA so far in 2018. No. 6 USL East power ratings)
The Line: Pittsburgh +108, Nashville +234. Draw +210
Time, Location: 6:00 p.m. CDT (7 local) • Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 79° F, 44% chance of rain, 70% humidity. 13 MPH SSE winds.
Watch: Stream on ESPN Plus. See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch remotely. The Roadies and Assembly will be at their usual watch locations. This blog site will be watching at The Centennial.
Pregame tailgate: With NSC’s Supporters Groups in Lot R.
Follow: @ClubCountryUSA, @NashvilleSC, @RiverhoundsSC, @Austin_Gwin, #PGHvNSH, USL Gametracker page.
Etc.: Breaking down why Nashville SC tends to cross the ball offensively against the three-man backline. Wrapping up the previous game. Q&A with Justin Ashcraft of Mon Goals. Previously on
Elsewhere: Golden Goal preview and fearless forecast. USL preview of the week. Riverhounds site official preview. NSC official site preview. Some opposition preview material.

Last time we met

Neither team could do much of anything in the friendly confines of Nissan Stadium (and a light-but-constant drizzle). Nashville had a couple chances late, including a ball saved off the line, but ultimately a 0-0 draw seemed a fair result.

This was really when the “Nashville’s offense is bad” feelings started to settle in, and even though that’s been chipped away recently, we’re still waiting for the true breakout game. In hindsight, ending scoreless against the best defense in the USL is less depressing than it seemed at the time – and if we’d known then that Pittsburgh was going to be so good on that side of the ball, the narrative might not have started, much less persisted to this point.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Last time around, we had to make some assumptions based on Bob Lilley’s history and some of the personnel holdovers, since it was Pittsburgh’s season-opener. Now, we have a much better picture (and as noted above, the ultimate result is much better-received). The Riverhounds’ defense is good, and their home pitch is a tough place to play.

“It’s probably going to be one of our toughest away games of the year I suspect,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “They are a very competitive and organized team. They are on a really good run. They play on a tight turf field, and it will make the game more different than many we have played in so far.”

 

Indeed, Pittsburgh’s defense is completely unblemished at home so far, with all five goals conceded to date coming on the road. That’s… it’s good. Of course, their home games – indeed, most of their games to date – have come against the dregs of the league: Penn FC and Ottawa (tied for the fewest goals scored in the entire USL with six apiece through ten games), Toronto FC II (the worst team in the entire USL by multiple standard deviations), with Atlanta United 2 and Indy Eleven being something of outliers. Atlanta is terrible but does score a lot en route to losing games, while Indy has a mediocre offense – about on par with Nashville’s – while being decent in terms of earning results.

So, how much of Pittsburgh’s early-season success is on account of actually being good versus the schedule they’ve played? It’s more the latter than Riverhounds fans would care to admit (or even recognize, it seems), but that might not be good enough for NSC to earn a result on the road.

There are plenty of key players in Black and Yellow. However, the main threats to keep an eye on have been revelations to Pittsburgh followers.

“Tommy [Vancaeyezeele] has been all over the field for us this season, and I have been super impressed with his play,” said Mon Goals‘ Justin Ashcraft. “We also were hearing that Romeo Parkes and Dennis Chin were going to be the strikers this season, but Neco Brett has emerged as a really good striker and he just finds the net.”

Brett leads the way with five goals, no other Hound has more than one (a six-way tie – they also benefitted from an own goal against Tampa Bay Rowdies). Four of his goals – and two assists – did come in a four-goal explosion and then a 2-1 nail-biter against the awful TFCII, so consistency hasn’t necessarily been the name of the game in his production: he could be a bit closer to a cog in the machine just a touch ahead of the rest of his teammates when against reasonable opposition.

Van Caeyezeele is primarily a defensive-oriented midfielder or centerback, but does have an assist and a (game-winning, in a 1-0 victory) goal on the year. Defenders Tobi Adewole and Jordan Dover have both been named to the USL Team of the Week once for their defensive efforts (including holding both Atlanta 2 and Indy to zero shots on target – and those aren’t TFC-level bad defenses), and Adewole has the lone goal in a game – a win over Ottawa Fury – himself.

Romeo Parkes is a talented striker whose role on the team has been reduced by the emergence of Brett (leaving him zero opportunities to get yearlong bans from the league thus far). Keepers Daniel Lynd and Kyle Morton have split time a bit with Lynd getting the majority of the time, and neither facing a whole lot of rubber: 14 saves and five goals conceded between them all year.

The Boys in Gold

Nashville SC is in an interesting position: they want to advance in the US Open Cup, but this is a major contest for playoff seeding, and they should want to win it – or at the very least get a result.

Does that mean they go with a stronger lineup tonight, a bit weaker one against a (worse) Penn FC team Saturday, then with everything they’ve got next Wednesday against Colorado Rapids? That’s probably what I’d do. There’s absolutely value – even if it’s only in perception – from giving Pittsburgh its first loss of the year. It obviously won’t be easy, even in the event NSC managed to keep a clean sheet.

“The Eastern Conference is much more resilient [defensively] and different than the West,” said Nashville SC captain, midfielder Michael Reed. “How we both defend is very organized. This will be a chess match with how it will play out. The first games of the season are always tricky. Now that we have settled in, it will be battle of wits and character.”

If I said you have a guy on Nashville SC’s roster who has scored three times against Bob Lilley teams, is that somebody you’d want in your lineup? Brandon Allen scored away against Rochester last year, and twice in the 2016 playoffs (once on a penalty), both in draws (his New York Red Bulls II team would go on to win that contest after extra time and a penalty shootout, too).

That’s not the only type of familiarity Nashville SC has with Pittsburgh: midfielder Taylor Washington played his home games in Highmark Stadium last year, so he’s familiar with the grounds and some of the players on the team, no doubt. Ryan James played for the Rochester Rhinos (Bob Lilley’s 2017 side), so he knows the style of play and even more of the personnel than Washington does.

“Every game you get an opportunity to play again is very exciting to me,” James said. “It will be great to see some old teammates and coaches, but to me every game is important and we will come with the mentality to win.”

It remains to be seen exactly how it will all play out, of course, but I’ll take the new version of NSC – with the 4-4-2 formation as opposed to the comparatively-toothless 5-3-2 we saw to begin the season – to be improved in the rematch.

Projected lineups

 

I think we’ll see a lot of what we’ve been seeing from both teams:

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I have Allen, James, and Winn in the starting lineup for the reasons stated (or alluded to) above. I project the substitutions to be Ropapa Mensah (for Allen), Matt LaGrassa (for Winn), and a mystery third one – maybe Kimura late, depending on game status.

Predictions

 

I’m highly tempted to pick a Nashville SC win. Will I do it?

  • Allen gets his first league goal for Nashville SC. He’s scored against Bob Lilley teams (not always easy to do!) in the past, and obviously has a knack for scoring in general. He gets replaced by Mensah around the 60th minute for a burst of speed against tired Pittsburgh legs, a bit more hold-up play for a team that will want to maintain some semblance of offense while keeping more numbers behind the ball, and maybe a chance to score?
  • The Riverhounds’ compact defensive shape proves hard to crack. Nashville wings a lot of crosses, just like they did in the first matchup between these teams, and Pittsburgh does a better job than Charleston did just a couple days ago in making those look fairly routine, rather than threatening.
  • Van Caeyezeele is (to my annoyance) the goal-scorer for Pittsburgh. I thin kit probably comes on a set piece.
  • There’s quite a bit of what one might call “boring play” throughout the course of the game. Others might call it “Lilleyball.” It’s not quite a bunker-counter mentality, but it’s closer to that than “let’s go out and try to score.”
  • Neither team is able to find a winner (but I think Nashville is more likely than Pittsburgh if one does).

The game ends in a 1-1 draw. This Nashville team will be the second-best (maybe best, on current form) Pittsburgh has hosted this year, so while their home record looks pretty impressive, it – like their general results – hasn’t had to deal with a whole lot of tests. Still, until I see some ruthlessness out of Nashville, I’m assuming they’re content to settle for a draw on the road, and they play a bit of Lilleyball themselves, with neither side mounting a serious threat late.