Preview: Nashville SC @ New York Red Bulls II 2018

Nashville’s long stretch away from home continues tomorrow. Their third consecutive game on the road, and just their third match overall in 23 days will go down in Harrison, New Jersey.

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“Score some goals, y’all” – Gary Smith, probably. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

The essentials

Opponent: New York Red Bulls II (3-1-4, 15 GF, 8 GA so far in 2018, No. 9 in USL East Power Rankings)
The Line: NYRBII -147, Draw +278, Nashville SC +301
Time, Location: 1:00 p.m. EDT (Noon in Nashville)  • Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J.
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 61ºF, 46% chance of rain, 8 MPH ENE winds
Watch: Stream on ESPN Plus. See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch remotely – please note it is not on myTV30 so you should call ahead to see if your bar of choice will be streaming. The Roadies’ usual spot, Pastime, will not be hosting a watch party today, The Assembly’s Tailgate Music Row will be the venue of choice for both of those supporters groups.
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, @NYRBII, #NYvNSH
Etc.: Q&A with Once a Metro. Press conference video and transcript.
Elsewhere: USL recap of NYRBII’s most recent gameSoccer Speedway preview podcast. NSC official site preview. An extremely limited preview that is unaware Nashville has been off for almost two weeks.

New York Red Bulls II

The book on NYRBII is pretty well established by this point: awesome, high-scoring at home (while still remaining iffy on defense), very low-scoring away from Harrison. They’ve scored 12 and conceded three in three home wins, and scored three and conceded five in a loss and four draws outside of the Garden State.

Until the past three weeks, I would have said it was just a bit of a statistical anomaly: a huge home win over Tampa Bay at home, sure, but a couple mediocre teams (at best – Toronto FC II and Charleston Battery) in Red Bull Arena, and a more difficult schedule elsewhere. However, their most recent three results are draws on the road against what are – by far – the three worst teams in all the USL: LA Galaxy II, Toronto II, and Ottawa Fury. Is it the home-road split, or a poor run of form? Many think the former:

“The road form was one my main concerns heading into the season for this team,” said Once a Metro‘s Joseph Steen. “We know how good they are at home, but getting results on the road was going to a big key. I wouldn’t say the three draws are a big concern, I’m more concerned with the slow first halves for this team.”

There’s a couple ways to explain what the Red Bulls want to do. They play on an enormous, beautiful field at Red Bull Arena – though not necessarily in front of raucous supporters, as they’ve yet to break 1,000 fans at a home contest this year (standard operating procedure for MLS2 sides) – and that plays into their offensive style of having skilled, athletic attackers.

Like their senior side, NYRBII are also known for an intense press. They push high up the pitch, trying to force giveaways in their offensive third to create quick offense. Obviously, these are mostly younger guys trying to break into the senior team, though, and they’re still works in progress in terms of executing the system. That’s where some opportunities will arise.

“They’ve got to be able to work together to get that job done,” Nashville SC headman . And then ultimately, when they do lock a team out or they do win the ball or get in a position to win the ball, they’ve got to be good enough, and sensible enough, intense enough to win it. These young players lack experience in some cases, they’re not on the same page all the time, and that’s why they’re in the developmental group: they’re trying to improve. So there will be times where they don’t get it quite right. However, when they do get it right, they’re bloody good at it. There’ll be areas that we can take advantage of.”

Offensively, they’re led by 22-year old forward Brian White’s four goals, with midfielders Amando Moreno and Andrew Tinari each boasting three themselves (it’s worth noting they’re not Nos. 2 and 3 on shots taken, though neither Ethan Kutler nor Cristian Cássares has put one in the back of the net yet). Tinari also doubles up the next-closest player in chances created – he’s going to be the engine for this offense, more often than not. USMNT prospects Stefano Bonomo and Ben Mines are working their way into the attack – the 17-year old Mines would have a bigger role if not for the time he’s spent with the senior team.

It should be unsurprising, given the high-pressing tactics I mentioned above, that Kutler, Cásseres ,and Tinari are among the more disruptive players, with plenty of interceptions and tackles: they’re trying to win the ball back to spark some offense (it’s worked, given that they lead the league in shots taken and goals scored).

Defensively, there are more question marks. Only giving up one goal in a three-game stretch against the dregs of the league is the bare minimum for a team with any sort of goals: it’s necessary but not sufficient to say that they’re on the upswing defensively. They’ve given up as many goals as any non-terrible team in the East (tied with Tampa Bay and Charleston, both of whom it should probably be noted were smashed in five-goal outbursts by this very NYRBII team), and goalkeeper Evan Louro – a Michigan Wolverine – also leads the league in saves despite not being an every-game starter: this team gives up a lot of shots, and it gives up a lot of shots on goal. While the goals conceded number is better than previous years, there’s a bit of luck involved. Of course, this Nashville team has been king of the “create chance, don’t score goal” script so far this year, so we’ll see if that holds to form or if the sheer number of shots allows NSC to get on the board.

They have yet to put a defensive field player on the team of the week yet this year, and that’s probably not a coincidence. They have talent there, but the emphasis on developing that talent (perhaps sometimes at the expense of results) hasn’t always been pretty.

The Boys in Gold

I understand that it’s frustrating to keep reading (whether in quotes or my analysis pieces) that this team is really close to having a non-horrible offense… but I swear to you, it’s true. Let’s get more of the “we’re close” talk.

“I think it’s a confidence thing throughout the team,” said Robin Shroot. “I know I had some good chances [against Penn FC], and I’m actually positive that I was able to fashion those. I think the more games you play, the more consistently you get in those positions, I think it’s like anything in life: trial and error. The more you’re there, there more percentage you have of scoring. I think it’s evident of any top team, any top player: the more they score goals, it’s because they’re there more often than not.”

“There’s a lot that needs to be constructed to create a chance, and then obviously on the end of it, have the clinical edge as you’ve said, and the right culture to finish that chance,” said coach Gary Smith. “We’re constantly working towards that, as are a lot of teams. My hope is that one of the forwards gets into a bit of a vein in form and confidence, and they can give everyone else just a little bit of a lift, and the end product is some really good play.

“It’s confidence in the group that they can find the back of the net, and I think we need one of those games, where two or three goals are a real confidence for everyone, shows everyone that we’re capable of just converting some of those chances, and it just gives everyone a little bit more of a spring in their stride. One of those games would be great for us – this weekend, hopefully.”

NSC will have its opportunities in this one, as I described above. It’s up to the players to finish them. By sheer force of a high number of chances, though, some should have the opportunity to go in.

I do think that a now-healthy Alan Winn (his absence from last Tuesday’s game was due to a minor injury) both 1) is in position to create of finish more chances per appearance than other players and 2) has shown the ability to finish them better than almost anyone on the team. That should see him re-enter the lineup, though the rest of the personnel in the front will remain consistent with what we’ve seen.

There are different challenges when it comes to the size of the pitch (NSC has played mostly on small ones; this is a big one)… but I think there are opportunities, as well.

“When the field’s that much wider, we have to change a little bit because it’s more conditioning, more running, things like that,” said Michael Reed. “Keeping track of balls may be different, and then spacing’s different. There’s a lot of different aspects to it, but it’s a challenge, and I think we’re up to the challenge and up to the task, and I think it’ll be a good game for us.”

Typically it’s a smaller field that plays into the hands of a high-pressing team like NYRBII. Nashville should have the speed in the channels to exploit some of the openings that are created by the Baby Bulls trying to get high up the field. Whether that means going Route One with a target striker or running the flanks, there should be attacking opportunities.

Again, finishing them is a bigger question mark than whether they’ll exist in the first place.

Projected lineups

With major help from Joseph on the NYRBII side of things:

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Bonomo’s absence from the NYRBII lineup is due to his persistent fitness issues (though after taking Wednesday off, I personally wouldn’t be surprised if he got on the pitch).

For Nashville, this is pretty darn close to what I think is a Best XI at this point. The relationships between the fullbacks and the wide midfielders have developed well. Bolu Akinyode seems to have taken over the No. 6 role. The centerbacks may be up for grabs when London Woodberry is back to full health and when Liam Doyle has a couple games to rebuild confidence, and I could see mixing at the non-Moloto striker spot. However, this is pretty darn close to Plan A at this point in the year.

Matt LaGrassa, Robin Shroot, Tucker Hume, and of course Doyle are likely to be among the subs available, along with Kosuke Kimura (who is pretty close to the Best XI himself, but on a huge field, a pacier right back option is probably the move).

Predictions

I keep talking myself back and forth on whether NYRB is more vulnerable at home (and less bad on the road) than they’ve seemed so far this year. I also think, despite a decent goals-against mark and Nashville’s poor goal-scoring record to date, there are going to be opportunities, at the very least.

  • One of Nashville’s goals comes on a pure counter: we’ve seen it a number of times (Atlanta United friendly, the run that earned the penalty against Bethlehem, to a certain extent both goals against Charlotte) out of this team, and with New York’s high press and NSC’s ability to put speed in dangerous spots in the form of Washington and Winn, there’s going to be a chance or two from that game state, and it says here Nashville finishes one.
  • New York Red Bulls II are going to show that their poor run of form in the past three games is indeed more about their bizarre home/road split than simply being bad enough to draw both Canadian teams and Los Angeles Galaxy. They create some seriously dangerous chances.
  • Matt Pickens’s performance will determine the outcome of this one. There might be a temptation to switch back to the 5-3-2 for a bunker/counter strategy against a high-pressing, weak-at-the-back NYRBII: you have more passing options in midfield, and you give up fewer chances with numbers back. However, I think the 4-4-2 switch is an evolution of this team’s tactics, not a matchup-oriented choice: it’ll be the base. That means a little more pressure on the keeper, and I thin kto this point we’ve seen enough to expect him to be up to it.
  • Your goal-scorers are: Alan Winn and Bradley Bourgeois (set piece – yes, this one is probably more “hoping” than “expecting) for Nashville, Tinari and Bonomo for NYRBII.
  • NSC’s subs are Matt LaGrassa and either Tucker Hume (earlier, if Route One is needed) or Robin Shroot (defensive sub toward the end). Michael Cox may also get some time.

The game ends in a 2-2 draw. Against a playoff team, the draw is a less depressing result than it was last week at a poor Penn FC side – indeed, against this team on the road, it’s going to be considered a major victory if it comes off. The only corollary to that is I’m closer to projecting a 2-1 NSC victory (New York hasn’t faced a defense like Nashville yet, in my opinion), so depending on the flow of the game, there’s a chance that even a draw feels like a bit of a letdown.

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