Preview: Nashville SC v. FC Cincinnati friendly 2018

Here’s an opponent we’d best get familiar with: NSC will face FC Cincinnati three times this season, and will likely see plenty of them after the move to MLS, as well. There’s a first time for everything, and in this rivalry, that time comes tomorrow afternoon.

The Essentials

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Pictured: a different stadium than the one they’ll play in today.

Opponent: FC Cincinnati (12-10-10 USL East, first round USL Playoffs, semifinalist US Open Cup 2017)
The Line: No line, this is a friendly, you degenerates
Time, Location: 4:00 p.m. EST (3 p.m. Nashville) • Gettler Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
Event: Preseason friendly
Weather: 48° F, 0% chance of rain, 8 MPH Northeasterly winds.
Watch: Sold out, no online stream.
Follow: @cincysoccertalk, @FCCincinnati, @NashvilleSC
Etc.: Q&A with Cincinnati Soccer Talk. The return leg over there.
Elsewhere: Five things to knowGolden Goalpreview, Music City Soccer Preview.

Cincy

This is a team that captured the hearts of many American Soccer fans last year thanks to their run to the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Along the way, they knocked of eventual USL champion Louisville City, MLS sides Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire, and the NASL’s Miami FC. They lost to New York Red Bulls, but won a lot of new followers along the way. They also crushed USL attendance records with an average of 21,199 in the house and a high of 30,417 in league play.

All that obscured that they were… only an OK USL team? They finished sixth in the Eastern Conference, and were handled 3-0 in the first round of the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Magical cup run aside, they were just a team.

That shouldn’t be the case in 2018. They spent a ton of money (in USL terms) acquiring talent this offseason. A lot of that came from the collapse of the NASL, but they also snagged some USL, MLS, and international players, as well.

“I genuinely think if Alan puts his strongest group out, it’ll be our toughest game,” NSC head coach Gary Smith said. “Just purely because they’re an intraconference group. He’s made some very good additions to that group in the offseason. I’m sure with the proximity of the teams, they’ll want to do well. They’re unbeaten in preseason at the moment. In my mind, it will be the biggest challenge and probably the most realistic challenge that we’re going to run into.”

The additions to the roster are going to make major impacts. From centerback Dekel Keinan to deep-lying No. 8 midfielder Richie Ryan to winger Manu Ledesma, the new players are not just guys to fill out a roster: they’re going to re-make the overall appearance of this FC Cincinnati team. Ryan and Ledesma were Best-XI players in the NASL for Miami FC and New York Cosmos, respectively, last Summer. Keinan was a big-money signing from one of Israel’s consistent powers, Maccabi Haifa. Players of this caliber don’t often move into the USL (though obviously the mismanagement and ultimate collapse and interminable lawsuits of the NASL played a role in that).

There is something to be said for their ages, though: Ledesma is the whippersnapper of the group at 29, while the others are both 33. There are a lot of mile on those legs. It’s not a huge detriment in the USL, and particularly for a preseason game a couple weeks out from the beginning of the season.

There’s returning talent as well, including striker Danni König, who wasn’t far behind the leading scorer with 11 tallies and an assist. You could probably say Cincinnati’s need to rely on him will be diminished (which is better for the group in the long run). Leading scorer Djiby Fall (12G, 3A) was released at the end of last season, but you’d have a hard time saying FCC didn’t improve nonetheless.

Cincinnati will also have to replace its starting goalkeeper, Mitch Hildebrandt, who has moved along to MLS’s Atlanta United to be the No. 2 behind Brad Guzan. Evan Newton comes over from Sacramento Republic while Spencer Richey joins on loan from Vancouver Whitecaps. Newton had a .689 save rate last year, and is obviously experienced in USL (Richey spent much of the season with Vancouver’s reserve team in the USL, and was only marginally worse at .679).

The Boys in Gold

NSC ran out a reserve lineup against Lipscomb Thursday in preparation for heavy playing time from the first-choice XI today. You can expect both them (and Cincinnati’s top unit) to get around 70 minutes – or possibly more – in a very competitive portion of the game before major substitution happens. If the game is competitive but not nasty, they may go the whole 90.

“All of the young guys now have played 90 minutes [Thursday],” Smith said after the Lipscomb game. “At the weekend, I’ll be looking to try and stretch out some of those other guys. I think they’re in a very good physical place. They’re moving forward nicely game-by-game.”

That sure sounds like they’ll get as much playing time as possible. With Alan Winn and Ropapa Mensah earning the start – and the full 90 – Thursday, that leaves three strikers available, with Robin Shroot and Michael Cox likely to get the start (unlike that pair, Tucker Hume was available on the bench Thursday, for what it’s worth). Both have had spurts of solid play this preseason, but haven’t combined in the final third consistently enough to unlock the potential of the NSC attack. If that happens today, it could be a very good season.

Another position group to watch is centerback, where there has been a bit of rotation in the top unit. Justin Davis and London Woodberry have played with what appears to be the first-choice XI whenever that group has been on the field, while Liam Doyle has taken over in the middle (and indeed, Bradley Bourgeois hasn’t seen the field since starting against Atlanta United – unless he got playing time against Orlando City in the closed-door friendly). Look for that trio out there.

Meanwhile, don’t expect the starters to just go through the motions for the Boys in Gold. Smith was very clear that his team cares about the result, even if it’s just a friendly.

“The result really is immaterial because it’s preseason, but let’s not all think that winning a game is not important, because it is,” he said. “If the group that I put out for the opening exchanges do well again, I’ll be very very pleased.”

That would likely portend very positive things about the rest of the season, as well.

Projected Lineups

Cincinnati has a couple different formations that they can potentially trot out, but I’l stick with the 4-2-3-1 that they’ve primarily rolled with in preseason, rather than the 3-5-2 they can also pull out of the bag of tricks. Many thanks to Bryan Weigel of Cincinnati Soccer Talk for the intel:

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Predictions

Both teams will come out with their starting units early in the game. They will try to win with regular-season-like intensity for at least the entire first half, and more likely for at least 70 minutes. There will be subs prior to that, but strategic subs more than the “get our guys out of there” type.

Depending on the flow of the match, that status may extend the whole 90.

  • Cox maintains his solid form (a goal and an assist against Orlando City in his last time out), and combines with Shroot for some dangerous moments, even if they don’t necessarily result in goals.
  • NSC gives CJ Cochran some minutes after Pickens starts the game, even if the outing remains competitive the whole time. Seeing live bullets in the most competitive game of the year will let the coaches evaluate him a little further to see how much Nashville’s No. 2 can be leaned on this year.
  • Alan Winn and Bolu Akinyode are among the players who get subbed in to test game-like substitution patterns.
  • Both teams score early, but the game settles in a bit and it takes until the second half for either side to find another.

The match ends in a 2-2 draw. Nashville SC’s final high-level friendly of the Spring comes to a conclusion leaving fans itching to see the regular season series. A blend of starters and backups will be used against Chattanooga next week.

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