Nashville SC stands seventh in the league table. Charlotte Independence is first. Can the Boys in Gold change that this evening?
Opponent: Charlotte Independence (2-0-1, 8 GF, 3 GA so far in 2018)
The Line: None available.
Time, Location: 7:30 p.m. CDT • First Tennessee Park
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 41° F, 1% chance of rain, 10 MPH Northerly winds.
Watch: Limited tickets still available. Watch locally on MyTV30 or stream below. See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch remotely.
Tailgate: With the Assembly at Von Elrods, with Music City Supporters at Germantown Depot, with the Roadies at Pastime.
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, @Austin_Gwin, @CLTIndependence.
Etc.: Q&A with the Charlotte Post‘s Ashley Mahoney. Breakdown of new signing David Edgar. Gary Smith and players (Michael Reed/Edgar) presser video and transcripts.
Elsewhere: USL weekly notebook. Queen City Football Chronicle preview. Golden Goal Q&A with Talkin’ Jacks host Ben Goshorn.
The standings say a lot here: Charlotte is atop the table, whereas Nashville SC is still working its way up. There’s something to be said for competition (the Independence have played the bottom two sides in the league in their two wins, whereas NSC has taken on two teams currently in playoff positions and another that would be if it’d played three games to this point), and something else to be said for location (Charlotte hasn’t left home yet, and Nashville has two road games under its belt).
All that said, this is still one heck of a tough test. The Independence is led offensively by Jorge Herrera, who’s currently tied for top scorer in the league with four goals. He’s played most of his career in Colombia and Charlotte (most of it with the openly hateful Charlotte Eagles organization), and at 37 years old, is obviously no spring chicken. Still gets goals tho.
“He’s very active,” said Nashville defender Michael Reed. “For a player of his age and his skill, he’s very active – which is impressive to see. It’s going to be on us to stay tuned in to be aware of his movement, and it’s going to be a team effort – it’s not going to be a one-man show back there to defend him. As long as we’re organized, I think we’re going to be all right. Put pressure on him, and let our defenders defend. We’ve gotta have faith in them.”
Over-focusing on one player is risky, of course. Thanks in large part to Herrera’s ability to put the ball in the net, four of his teammates are on the league leaderboard in assists (which includes everyone with at least one, in fairness. Also in fairness: Nashville has zero). Target striker Caleb Calvert leads the way with two (tied with defender Joel Johnson), and he’s also put in a goal. Midfielder Cordell Cato has a pair of goals early in the season.
There are fewer answers defensively, in large part because we just don’t know how good the competition is: by early returns, Toronto FC II is going to be bad, Ottawa Fury will take a while to hit its stride, and while Atlanta United 2 seems poised to be a little more win-focused than purely development-oriented than other MLS B-sides, certainly getting minutes for young players is more important than results nonetheless.
ATL UTD 2 scored twice against Charlotte, and a re-watch indicated that the 2-2 draw was probably a fair result (if not slightly generous to Charlotte – at least one of the goals was completely against the run of play, and Atlanta’s midfield seemed to control the game a bit).
Keeper Andrew Dykstra has made only four saves while allowing three goals on the year – seven shots faced through three games indicates solid things from his defense or bad things from the opponent, as debated with myself above – not a great indication of his ability just yet. Certainly what we’ve seen to date indicates that NSC might as well just try to put shots on him and see what happens.
Defender Donnie Smith has suffered a groin injury and was questionable at last check, so that could provide a little bit of an opening for NSC if he’s out or at less than 100% due to the strain.
The Boys in Gold
Well, there’s a win under the belt, and while it wasn’t the most dominant result, it feels good to get that particularly monkey off the team’s back (especially on the road). If you’ve read what I wrote in the aftermath of the Bethlehem game, you know I think the Boys in Gold were more dominant than the scoreline indicated. Head coach Gary Smith agrees with that.
“When we looked back at the footage, there were numerous moments in the game that we really should have extended our lead,” Smith said. “If you look at the amount of moments we had in front of goal, it was disappointing we couldn’t just put the game to bed, and feel a hell of a lot more comfortable about where the result was going. So it’s chances that are key. If we can create anywhere near those opportunities this weekend, I’ll be very, very pleased.”
A shift to the 4-4-2 allowed for a bit more personnel going forward – outside midfielders and fullbacks had the opportunity to get into the attack with overlaps, while the early man-down status for Bethlehem meant some runs in behind. Nashville simply didn’t take advantage of those runs.
Alan Winn got onto the field in a formation that’s a little more natural for his ability (it was nominally a 5-3-2 with him up top, but by the time the squad hit the field, it was a 4-4-2 with Winn on the right wing). While he was responsible for some of those missed chances, he definitely added a dimension.
“He absolutely attacked the game,” said Gary Smith. “He showed tremendous energy, and if you look at some of the creative moments, Alan was involved in quite a lot of them. For a young guy, he conducted himself tremendously well, he gave the group another dimension and some more balance, and I thought it was a terrific league debut for the club.”
So. Will we see the 4-4-2 again? I think the starting lineup will be listed in the same 5-3-2 manner that we saw last weekend, but thanks to the abilities of the personnel (particularly of right back/midfielder Ryan James and left back/midfielder Taylor Washington, along with center/fullback Justin Davis), there’s versatility to flip between odd backline and even backline formations as the game situation dictates.
I think Winn has to be on the field, I think Washington has to be on the field: each impressed in the first starting opportunity of the year. The bigger questions come up top. Michael Cox scored the lone goal to date, and is pretty clearly the team’s top option at striker. Who will join him, though? Does the speed of Winn and Washington allow for the target-man Tucker Hume to make an impact despite less speed? Can Robin Shroot get out there to get goals (as he does)? Can Ropapa Mensah, perhaps the most impressive physical specimen among the strikers, put together a consistent enough training week to earn a starting gig? We shall see.
As mentioned above, I think NSC’s personnel is basically the same in a 5-3-2 or 4-4-2 formation, and Smith will run out a lineup that allows thew team to flip between them. Meanwhile, Charlotte is a 4-2-3-1 base with Herrera has the deeper-sitting striker.
Here’s what I’m thinking we’ll see:
I think Mensah gets an even more significant run than he has in past weeks (possibly even a start if Nashville goes with more of a pure 4-4-2 look, with Winn on the wing and Moloto staying in a midfield role while Akinyode comes off the field).
It wouldn’t surprise, based on game situation, for the three subs to be a different striker, Matt LaGrassa coming on in the defensive midfield, and a club debut for centerback David Edgar.
Charlotte has been a really good team thus far – at least results-wise – whereas Nashville is still finding its way. That said, I’m not impressed with what I’ve seen from the Eagles’ midfield and goalkeeping. While that hasn’t bitten them too much yet, they’re scoring a lot of goals now because they’re probably going to have to in order to get wins when the slate toughens up.
- Herrerra gets on the board annoyingly early (from an NSC perspective), allowing Charlotte to control much of the first half of the game.
- Alan Winn continues to be dangerous up the wing, and on this day, he’s far more comfortable, willing and able to cross the ball in or connect the final pass. However, it doesn’t result in an assist on the day.
- Nashville gets a goal back on a set piece, with Justin Davis delivering a header that Liam Doyle finishes.
- Kevan George is carded for Charlotte late in the first half, and is either subbed off or has to play more conservatively, to Nashville’s advantage. Bolu Akinyode is also carded for Nashville on a physical tackle.
- Lebo Moloto nicks a late winner for the Boys in Gold.
That’s a 2-1 Nashville SC victory. I went back-and-forth on the result – though I feel relatively confident in a 2-1 game one way or the other – and ultimately, I just feel like a Nashville team that’s on the verge of breaking out gets the job done against a Charlotte side that doesn’t look quite as good as the standings would seem to indicate.