Last time Nashville lost a game, the Boys in Gold rebounded with a home draw in their next outing. Can they do even better in Harrisburg tonight?
Opponent: Penn FC (0-1-3, 2 GF, 3 GA so far in 2018)
The Line: Penn +136, Nashville +167, Draw +239
Time, Location: 6:30 p.m. EDT (5:30 p.m. in Nashville) • FNB Field, Harrisburg, Pa.
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 57ºF, 43% chance of rain, 12 MPH ESE winds
Watch: Stream on ESPN Plus (which, impressively, does not have links to upcoming games available. Just really a top-notch effort from a great company). See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch remotely. This site will be watching at The Centennial.
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, @PennFCOfficial
Etc.: Q&A with Chris Bratton of The Brotherly Game. USL East Power Ratings.
Elsewhere: USL official site preview. Mini-preview from the NSC site. Golden Goal preview. Speedway Soccer reviewing Indy, previewing this game, and more. From the other side of the fence, The Brotherly Game‘s preview.
There are a few ways to look at this team’s resume to date, first and foremost among them that expectations were low to begin with, and thus earning three draws in four games might not be that much of a disappointment. The pre-rebrand Harrisburg City Islanders finished 11th in the East last year, and the league got (much) better around them while they have very little personnel consistency.
“Some people had Penn FC at the bottom of the league in their preseason predictions, but I didn’t think that was fair with all of the talent that they picked up during the offseason,” The Brotherly Game’s Chris Bratton told me. “I think expectations should be similar to previous years where they stick to the middle of the Eastern Conference and just try to get hot at the right time.”
The personnel consistency has been a major issue, with only five returning players (defenders Jake Bond, Tiago Calvano, and Christopher Hill; midfielder John Grosh; forward Frederick Opoku) from last year’s City Islanders side, a new coach, and while I don’t think the rebrand is super-impactful, there’s a potential sense of lost history that can ding early-season motivation.
The most important way to look at the team from a Nashville perspective is that they’ve had very solid performances on the defensive end of the pitch: only three goals conceded through four games, albeit two in two games already against the Charleston Battery, which has three in three other games this year, including two in a 5-2 loss to NYRB2 in a not-particularly-difficult early-season schedule. A formation change under new manager Raoul Voss has played a role in that – as well as the lack of offense, most likely. Sound familiar? Yep, they’re running out the now-scrapped (at least temporarily) 5-3-2/3-5-2 that Nashville started the year with.
Bond and Calvano are important pieces of that effort, but even more so is Ken Tribbett, who leads the team in clearances, interceptions, aerial duels, etc. Bond is playing both wingback and right centerback, with Harri Hawkins at CB when he’s playing the former. Central defensive midfielder Mauro Estáquio is a major player as well, leading the team in duels and tackles of the non-aerial variety.
The attack has been poor, with Tribbett – yes, a centerback – accounting for 50% of their scoring (obviously on a corner, though after a recycle, not immediately from the initial service, that coming in the 89th minutes of the second Charleston game). He also mustered the only shot in eight minutes of a man-up and goal-down game state in the first game against Charleston, which ended in a 1-0 loss. Presumably, there will be a bit more offensive cohesion when the team has a bit more time to jell – we’re looking for the same thing from NSC, after all – but there’s a long, long way to go.
“There’s been a lot of scoring chances where it has felt like the players are just a step or two out of sync and the opportunity fizzles out,” Bratton told me. “We don’t have many guys who can make a goal happen on their own, so its gotta be a team effort. But many of the guys, not just Tommy, only officially joined the team in March or later and they were playing all over the place last season. I think as they spend more time playing together, they’ll learn to read each other better and that’ll help with the scoring.”
Former FC Cincinnati depart-and-dispute forward Tommy Heinemann has been a productive player in the NASL in the past, and probably will be once he’s a little more integrated with the squad. However, he has only two games: he came out in the 50th minute against ATL 2 (after scoring in the first half but rolling his ankle), and didn’t make the 18 over the weekend. He’s not on the injury report, but if he can’t go… where in the heck are goals going to come from? Midfielder Richard Menjivar assisted on Heinemann’s goal and might be a bit of a threat going forward, Tribbett’s tally over the weekend was a nice bicycle kick but almost certainly not replicable… I don’t know the answer. Against a Nashville SC team that is solid at the back, there’s little to worry about, at least in such a way that it can be predicted ahead of time.
The Boys in Gold
Unlike Penn, which took the field three days ago, Nashville should be well-rested after nine days off (and with ten before their next game, too, they don’t have to worry about getting burned out any time soon).
“The weekly format that we had has been broken up a little bit, but I’m not sure it makes a huge difference,” Nashville SC gaffer Gary Smith said. “The players had an extra day to really have some down time and go again.
“I think the bigger question is one game in three weeks. But, it has actually given me a good amount of time to get a group together and look at a couple of areas of our game that certainly need some work. To be a little more comprehensive about the work the guys are doing and almost have a mini preseason program. There’s a lot of intense coaching and the players are spending a bit more time on the field and that’s not all bad.”
Any Nashville players seemed banged-up lately? None that immediately spring to mind, other than the still-unavailable London Woodberry, whose presence on the injury report has been persistent since the beginning of the year (though it’s likely he’s getting closer to match fitness: I don’t expect a sprain to keep him out all year).
NSC has gone away from the defense-first formation that they’ll see across the field, and it’s led to mostly good results: fewer goals against (aside from a nice individual play by Indy that Penn… uh… doesn’t have the personnel to replicate, and one from a set piece), while finally feeling a more consistent threat going forward. That improvement offensively has been partially a result of getting more speed on the field.
“It’s nice to have someone with a bit of pace,” said defender Ryan James. “We all have different qualities, but when you don’t have someone with pace, it invites that space. As a defender, if someone is pacing you’re worried about them getting behind you, but also if you have someone with good skill it opens up the wing field a little more. It just depends on how you want to play your role. There are advantages to both sides.”
Given the difficulty in breaking Penn down if Nashville goes with more defensive tactics, and the not-City Islanders’ inability to score even if NSC isn’t conservative, the 4-4-2 seems like a very solid bet. Ropapa Mensah has probably earned his starting role for the time being, while I think defender David Edgar is deserving of a bit longer runout at the back, as well.
“I was very pleased with [playing against Indy],” Edgar siad. “Obviously, Gary had spoken with me before the game and wanted me to play some part of the game. Things happen in football, and I got in after halftime and it really helped me chipping away at my fitness.”
The “chipping away at my fitness” note probably indicates that he’s not ready for a full 90 just yet. Fortunately, there are good players on the bench, and I still have faith in Liam Doyle’s ability to come on as a sub and be solid, weak game against Indy notwithstanding.
A whole lot of personnel changes on the way? Not likely. But some decent tweaks and the opportunity for some of the more exhausted (read: Lebo Moloto, who had played every minute until coming off late against Indy, and at a very taxing position) guys to rest up in advance of this one should see the strongest available NSC side.
With an assist from Mr. Bratton on the Penn side of things:
I have the more defensively-oriented Kosuke Kimura replacing Ryan James on the right, because defensive acumen is going to be favored over speed (which was needed against Indy’s dangerous left side), and the elder statesman Kimura has had plenty of time to rest up. That switch allows Taylor Washington and Alan Winn to play their natural sides – given Winn’s defensive deficiencies early in his pro career – where they’re more crossers and finishers than inside-foot shooters at a greater distance. Edgar enters the starting lineup in favor of Doyle (as I mentioned above), and Mensah and Moloto continue to start up top.
I went with the Penn lineup that has played the plurality of minutes to date, with a couple of the key changes mentioned.
Penn’s offense is bad. I don’t expect Heinemann to play, unless Penn sacrificed points against Charleston (against whom they can get some) to try for the upset against Nashville (which seems an unlikely outcome). Before writing the preview, I kind of had a 2-1 scoreline in my head, but that is not what I’ll be picking in the end.
- Lebo Moloto gets his first goal of the year. It’s incredible that he still leads the team in shots and shots on goal (Bradley Bourgeois, almost exclusively because of headed efforts on corner play, is second in shots) and hasn’t found the net yet, because he’s seemed due for a while. This would be a nice time to have access to Opta’s xG data for USL.
- Nashville makes a sub a bit earlier in the game than we’ve seen. Pure subs (not for an injury or performance reason) haven’t really come before the 60th minute, but I think Edgar gets his rest around 50′ or 55′ – just enough time to test himself after a halftime break and make sure he can pull off that transition on his way to full fitness.
- Another striker gets on the field. This is an easy one – we’ve seen a striker sub in every game so far. There’s a decent chance Michael Cox is a starter in the first place (though Moloto’s cemented position in the starting lineup and Gary Smith’s positive review of Mensah after Indy led me to not project it), but even if he’s not, I think the Canuck gets back on the pitch.
- A defensive midfielder or defender gets a goal. Nashville has been very close on set pieces, whether through Moloto’s tries against Pittsburgh or Bourgeois’s several headed chances in Indianapolis. I think a set piece (or reset after a set piece) leads to a goal, and it will be scored by Michael Reed, Justin Davis, or one of the centerbacks.
Nashville SC wins 2-0. I could see this being a goal different in the Boys in Gold’s scoreline, but I really don’t see a way a poor (and possibly additionally depleted) Penn FC offense solves Matt Pickens in this one unless it comes as a strike out of nowhere or after the game is already decided. A scoreless draw would be a not-huge surprise, but anywhere from 1-0 to 4-1 seems totally plausible.