Preview: Nashville SC v. Penn FC 2018

A scoreless draw in Harrisburg may have been the nadir of Nashville SC’s season to date. Can they get revenge against Penn FC and come away with all three points in First Tennessee Park?

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Less of this a second time around. Thanks.

The essentials

Opponent: Penn FC (2-3-5, 6 GF, 7 GA so far in 2018, 13th in USL East, 12th in USL East Power Ratings)
The Line: Nashville -159, Penn FC +333, Draw +276 (side note: this is the first time since odds have been regularly available that NSC is a favorite).
Time, Location: 7:30 p.m. CDT  • First Tennessee Park
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 85ºF, 15% chance of rain, 60% humidity, 4 MPH NNW winds
Tailgate: With The Assembly at Von Elrod’s, Eastern Front and Music City Supporters at Germantown Depot, The Roadies at Pastime.
Watch: Locally on MyTV30 or stream on ESPN Plus. See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch remotely (or for more details on the above tailgate locations).
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, @PennFCOfficial, #NSHvPEN
Etc.: Q&A with Chris Bratton of The Brotherly Game. USL Power Ratings. Breakdown from Pittsburgh Riverhounds win.
Elsewhere: USL feature on new signing Brandon Allen. Mini-preview from the NSC siteGolden Goal previewSpeedway Soccer with several games to cover. From the other side of the fence, The Brotherly Game‘s preview.

Penn FC

This is a team that was 0-1-3 when Nashville headed to town, and the scoreless draw was understandably a disappointment at that time. Penn has improved – but not a ton – since then. They’re 2-2-1 since, with the wins a single-goal affair over a moribund Toronto FC team and, uh, a 3-0 blasting of a Tampa Boy Rowdies team that perception seems to hold is good, though it’s objectively quite bad. When the losses came to North Carolina FC and Ottawa Fury – teams that are likely to finish comfortably out of the playoff hunt – it’s a mixed bag, for sure.

do think we have enough information at this point to say Penn FC has a legitimately good defense. Seven goals allowed through ten games is eclipsed only by the defenses of Nashville SC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds in terms of stinginess. The offense, on the other hand, has not improved.

“They’re still struggling with a lot of the same issues, primarily goal scoring,” said Brotherly Game‘s Chris Bratton. “They did get the wins over Tampa Bay and Toronto FC II to start off May, which helped them to build some momentum. But then they had a long break from league play, so I worry they might have cooled back off.”

Dispute-with-Cincinnati-FC-over-contract-violations victor Tommy Heinemann remains the team’s most dangerous scorer. With three goals (half the team’s total), the USL/NASL veteran is the major threat here. The help is somewhere between inconsistent and non-existent, though. That issue was exacerbated when central mifielder Mauro Eustáquio went down with an ACL tear in the win over Tampa Bay.

As I mentioned above though, the defense is bordering on actually quite good. No, Penn hasn’t played Louisville, Cincinnati, or Red Bulls II – the strength of competition is far from impressive – but you can only prevent the goals in games you’ve actually played. They’re doing a good job preventing the ball from getting into the back of their own net. The defense shouldn’t be condemned just because of the trouble on the other end of the pitch. The various 3-5-2, 5-4-1, and 5-3-1-1 shapes we’ve seen from them (they went with the latter against NSC) are stout.

“I think Penn FC had played with a strong defensive shape in their earlier games, so that helped their defenders get settled in, but it made scoring tougher,” Bratton said. “I think the key players on defense have been the goalkeepers Romu Peiser and Sean Lewis. Having a veteran presence like Peiser to run the defense from the back has been huge… Lewis has stepped up when he’s gotten his opportunities. He’s only allowed one goal in three games.”

Nashville had its opportunities to beat Penn FC’s keepers last time these teams played: A bit of good fortune certainly plays into their low goals-against. If Nashville can create similar opportunities this time, I bet their improved form sees them finish.

The Boys in Gold

So, uh, will they create similar opportunities? There’s something to be said for the improvement in Nashville’s form since that Penn contest: 2-0-2 with 1.25 goals per game – indeed, Penn FC was the last team to keep Nashville out of the back of the net – three of those games coming on the road.

“With the resilience that we’ve shown, I think we of course expect to go into the game and win the game and pick up three points,” said midfielder Robin Shroot. “Hopefully we can win 3-, 4-nil and give fans something to be happy about going home. Of course, we’d take a win however it comes.”

Shroot is an interesting test case when it comes to NSC’s improvement on offense. He’s very open that he had opportunities he should finish in the previous Penn game, and he’s smart enough when it comes to soccer and statistics that a player of his caliber might have bad luck in a given game, but that creating chances and not finishing them speaks positively, not negatively of the potential to score going forward.

“No one means to miss,” he said. “I’ve played in many games where you don’t get a chance, and then in the last minute you score. To be honest, I don’t think the chances I had against Penn before were that great, it just so happened that they were three chances in a game that didn’t otherwise have many.”

Ropapa Mensah may not be quite 100% after coming off against Pittsburgh mid-week feeling under the weather, but Nashville has more forward depth now with the arrival of Brandon Allen, who could be due for a big year the more comfortable he gets with this side. Lebo Moloto get less rest than planned against Pittsburgh (due to Mensah’s departure from the contest just 34 minutes in), but should be at least a little rested.

The defense has had a fairly solid rotation on the edges, while the central midfield and central defense have mostly been ironmen.

The question becomes what type of lineup Gary Smith wants to trot out. This is the fourth of six games in 16 days – not a ton of rest to be had – and while it’s probably the weakest USL opponent of the bunch (Mississippi Brilla FC kicked off the stretch), he seemed to have a bit of an issue with Penn FC’s coach, Raoul Voss, publicly ripping the Boys in Gold (comments I haven’t been able to find, for what it’s worth).

“I’m not sure we did an awful lot wrong down in Penn. For what it’s worth, we created by far the better chances. Contrary to what their coach has said, if he’s sensible enough to look at the stats on our team, he’ll find that we keep the ball for longer periods than they’ve every done, we make more passes generally in the game, and if you look at the way we’ve played in certain venues, we’ve been able to adapt.

“At home, we have a very creative, possession-oriented style. If he thinks we’re going to crash it at home, then he’ll be greatly mistaken. We’ve got a group of fans that want to see good possession, creative play, and nice individual moments, and I think we’ve shown that. I’m not sure he’s done his homework properly on that one.”

Those are the words of a guy who wants to win, and win convincingly. Even if a bit of rest before Colorado Rapids is advisable, that doesn’t mean we’ll see the bare minimum personnel that Smith thinks he can trot out there and still get a win.

Projected lineups

With an assist from Mr. Bratton on the Penn side of things:

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A lineup for NSC that’s mostly starter-caliber and rotation players. A 4-2-3-1 for Penn FC.

Predictions

This is going to end with the same prediction I made last time, but I’m far more confident it actually comes to fruition:

  • Brandon Allen bags a brace. Ropapa Mensah gets some playing time, but Gary Smith tries to hold of on his minutes as much as possible to rest him for the Colorado Rapids Wednesday.
  • Robin Shroot and Justin Davis (corner kick) are responsible for the assists, even if Davis’s ends up being more of a hockey assist – like Moloto’s was Wednesday, even though he gets no assist credit.
  • Penn puts only one (1) shot on-target, and Matt Pickens saves it. The City Islanders still launch a bunch of shots, but plenty of them come from outside the box and aren’t particularly close to frame.
  • Alan Winn gets a few minutes of playing time to keep his foot injury loose (without playing enough to aggravate any injury).
  • My main weirdness in the lineup projected above is Woodberry playing in place of Bradley Bourgeois (whom I consistently have among the best players in each game). That’s more a matter of getting him rest – he’s played almost every USL minutes since Woodberry’s initial injury – and getting Woodberry game-fit than any indictment of Bourgeois.
  • Penn concedes early, and actually goes to a more defensive lineup, trying to bunker-and-counter while the game is still close, rather than chase the game. This is hilarious, given the (apparent) comments from Voss.

Nashville SC wins 2-0. This is a better team than is was in mid-April, and Penn FC may not be worse, per se, but they definitely lost one of their key players, so… maybe they are? NSC tries to put in the second one to put the game away early, and that allows the Boys in Gold to not expend too much energy in advance of the US Open Cup blockbuster.

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