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.
Opponent: Pittsburgh Riverhounds (36 points from 32 matches (8-12-12), 13th place USL East in 2017)
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): Nashville SC -200, Pittsburgh +210, draw +120. O/U 2.5.
Time, Location: 5:00 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium, 1 Titans Way
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 63° F, 60% chance of rain, 12 MPH Southwesterly winds.
Watch: Get yer tickets Watch locally on MyTV30 or stream below. See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch remotely.
Pregame tailgate: With NSC’s Supporters Groups in Lot R.
Follow: @ClubCountryUSA, @NashvilleSC, @RiverhoundsSC, @Austin_Gwin
Etc.: The importance of a potential attendance record, Q&A session with Riverhounds podcast Mon Goals. Coach Gary Smith and defender Taylor Washington look forward to the crowd. Photos and video interviews from NSC training. News from Friday afternoon. A recap of the loss to Louisville City.
Elsewhere: Golden Goal preview. Season preview podcast from Mon Goals. Riverhounds Rabbi scouts the Boys in Gold. Preview from 615 Formation. Music City Soccer brings the info. USL Matchcenter.
So: the Riverhounds were pretty bad last year. They won just eight times in 32 matches last year, and finished 13th of 15 teams in the USL East. However, they’ve made a ton of changes – from a coaching change necessitated by USSF Pro League Standards rules, to plenty of personnel changes accordingly – and this won’t likely be last year’s Riverhounds team. In fact, it’s more likely to resemble last year’s Rochester Rhinos team, given that new coach Bob Lilley and seven of the players were with the now-defunct squad in 2017:
- Keeper Kyle Morton
- Defender Ray Lee
- Midfielder Jordan Dover
- Forward Christiano François
- Midfielder Kenardo Forbes
- Defender Todd Pratzner
- Keeper Daniel Lynd
Only six are returning from last year.
- Defender Tobi Adewole
- Midfielder Kevin Kerr
- Forward Kay Banjo
- Defender Joe Greenspan
- Forward Romeo Parkes
- Midfielder Benjamin Fitzpatrick.
It’s probably just as relevant to look at Rochester (53 points, fourth in USL East) as it is to look at Pittsburgh when trying to figure out what this team is like. Though Bob Lilley’s reputation has wide-ranging views (most positive, but a lot extremely negative), NSC gaffer Gary Smith falls on the favorable end of that spectrum.
“Bob Lilley’s teams over the years – and he’s done a fantastic job at Rochester – were very well-organized,” Smith said. “I think a lot of their work was based around their team ethics and defensive attributes. What he has in this group is a front nine [striker], whether that’s two, three, or one, certainly some wider players with pace and good attacking ability. We certainly should be concerned about what they can achieve going forward, as well as how difficult they’re going to be to break down.”
Smith is spending just as much time looking at Rochester as he is at last year’s Hounds team. Of course, he can get a bit of intel on the 2017 players that have carried over from one who didn’t: Nashville SC defender Taylor Washington, who was a key player for the Hounds last year.
“You can look at last year: Pittsburgh didn’t have the greatest of seasons,” Smith explained. “There’s a lot of changes there: new coach, six or seven players that he’s brought from Rochester with him that understand his style, and will appreciate what the coach wants out of them.”
“I’m excited,” Washington said of the game. “I’m still friends with a lot of guys on the team – Joe Greenspan, Kevin Kerr – and I even know some of the new guys that came in. I played with Hugh Roberts in college. I think Bob Lilley does a great job. The turnover was big, but he wants the certain players he has.”
(Washington’s wingback compatriot can probably answer more about the team we’ll see tomorrow – Ryan James was a Rhino last year under Lilley).
Let’s look at returning players first – or those who aren’t back. Corey Hertzog was the beginning and end of the offense last year (14 goals, two assists), and is now with St. Louis FC. No. 2 behind him was Chevaughn Walsh (five goals, two assists – you can sense the precipitous dropoff), who re-signed with the club in January, but is no longer on the roster for reasons Google couldn’t quickly uncover. Kerr and Parkes – who, quite frankly, should have a lifetime ban from USL – each had three goals last season, so the scoring is going to have to come from elsewhere.
Defensively, there’s not much returning, either. Victor Souto is now with an NPSL club, Taylor Washington, as previously mentioned, will be on the opposite sideline, Jamal Jack plies his trade for Colorado Springs now, Marshall Hollingsworth was just a loan player from former parent club Columbus Crew… all gone, and that quartet accounted for nearly 40% of the team’s total tackles last year.
So, Rhinos: Forbes scored three goals for them last year, François had one. Uh, that’s not a lot of production, either. I know Riverhounds fan media has been pretty indignant about the “we’re not last year’s team so it doesn’t matter that we lost our goal-scorers,” but, uh, when you don’t really replace them, where is the scoring going to come from? I don’t see a lot of it on this roster. That may not be a huge factor with a bunker-and-counter mentality that Lilley is sometimes known for, but winning 1-0
(even if you’re able to do it consistently) sort of limits upside here.
The defense should be a bit better – though Dover was the only consistently productive outfield player to come over from Rochester – given that the Rhinos gave up an Eastern Conference-best 28 goals in 2017. Lynd was Rochester’s second keeper last year, and had only a mediocre 64.7% save rate. Part of that is the quality of the defense in front though: teams only shot on the Rochester net when they had a great look, because they were hard to come by.
The Boys in Gold
Meanwhile, Nashville is coming off a somewhat demoralizing loss. Not “shut out by a college team” bad, but certainly not good. They couldn’t get a rhythm offensively and allowed two counter-strike goals to Louisville City last Saturday. LCFC is the defending champs, it was a small pitch, yes. You’d still like to see an NSC team that fancies itself a playoffs participant muster a bit more threat.
Smith made it clear that the performances from Louisville were inadequate, and there may be some personnel shifting in order to get the most out of his side.
“I have some question marks over certain players,” he said. There were aspects of the game last week I was really pleased with; there were other areas we needed a little bit of improvement. I’ve got a great front line, I’ve got options up front – I’ve got players that can give me more pace, I’ve got big Tucker, who’s a great target, and I’ve got two guys that are very, very intelligent. Finding the right combination to beat this team will be a big piece of the conundrum in Saturday’s game to be successful.”
An enormous field – compared to the gym locker of last week – should help. NSC’s strengths are speed and workrate, both of which were neutralized by the constricted space in Slugger Stadium. Nissan will provide plenty of acreage for the likes of Kosuke Kimura, Lebo Moloto, and possibly the team’s speediest player, Alan Winn, to make an impact. (And Washington, Winn’s challenger for fastest, may get a slightly longer run than the nine minutes he had against Louisville, though I’m not projecting him in the starting lineup).
The challenge will be getting more consistency and production out of the strikers, who were bottled up (with less of a “no space” excuse than their flanking players) by Louisville. I think you could see some personnel shifts there – Smith certainly alluded to it above – to try to get a different flavor to the attack on the field.
Once again, we’re expecting an opponent to come out with a similar formation to NSC’s 5-3-2. Maybe I’ll actually be right this time!
I made just a couple changes from the lineup against Louisville, replacing London Woodberry with Bradley Bourgeois (which I think is all-but a guarantee after Woodberry was not in training yesterday UPDATE: The club officially announced he will miss the game with a knee injury) and Michael Cox with Tucker Hume – both because NSC needs a target-man, to an extent, and for the reasons Gary Smith alluded to above.
I also think Taylor Washington will get pretty significant run in this one – he had only nine minutes last week, but this pitch size plays to his speed. Kosuke Kimura’s workrate was limited by the small pitch last week so this is a better fit for him, too, so he may stay on while Washington is a second-half like-for-like sub with Ryan James on the left.
I think this will go better than last week. As skeptical an eye I’ve tried to take toward the “Pittsburgh has no scoring” concept… Pittsburgh has no damn scoring.
- NSC gets on the board first with a somewhat fluky goal – it could be weirdness in the box or a long-range Lebo Moloto shot.
- For a while after that, the compact shape of Pittsburgh’s defensive structure proves extremely frustrating for NSC. Hopeful high balls to Tucker Hume (a la against Louisville) and/or long-range attempts without much of a chance form a significant part of the offensive effort.
- NSC will settle in after that, and take advantage of plenty of space along the wings. Crosses into the box and give-and-go between the wingbacks and the defensive midfielders/strikers gets the Boys in Gold (here’s another prediction: not in gold for this one) into dangerous spaces along the flanks.
- Taylor Washington comes on either at halftime or around the 60th minute, assuming he doesn’t earn the start. A nice run up the sideline and a solid cross earns him his first NSC assist.
- Ropapa Mensah or Alan Winn replaces Shroot in the second half and looks good (maybe even scores?) continuing the calls from fans for more playing time.
- Pittsburgh does get one goal on a frustrating counter-attack from their own defensive end. A slow trackback by a midfielder with no replacement player in coverage opens the opportunity.
- Romeo Parkes does not scissor-kick somebody in the back during a stoppage, thus further delaying his inevitable lifetime ban from USL.
- NSC sets the record for single-game attendance in a debut for the league (they are currently over 18,000 sold). That also spurs some season-ticket sales and they hit the 6,200 goal within the next week.
Nashville SC wins 3-1. The first regular-season win in club history comes in front of a major crowd.