Preview: Nashville SC v. Tampa Bay Rowdies

Nashville got a road draw against Tampa what feels like ages ago. Can they improve the result when they welcome the Rowdies to First Tennessee Park?

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Lebo scored last time. It was cool and good.

The essentials

Opponent: Tampa Bay Rowdies (9-12-7 USL). 37 GF, 37 GA so far in 2018, 13th in USL East, 13th in USL East Power Ratings and 18th in combined-table Pure Power.
Recent form: TBR (W-L-W-L-D) NSH (D-L-W-L-D)
The Line: None yet (will update when available).
Time, Location: Tuesday, Sept. 18 7:30 p.m. CDT  • First Tennessee Park
Tailgate: With The Assembly at the green space just East of the stadium, with The Heaters at Von Elrod’s, with The Roadies at Pastime.
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 81ºF, 3% chance of rain, 61% humidity, 4 MPH NNE winds
Watch: Locally on MyTV30, stream on ESPN3 (no subscription required, which is not usually the case). See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch in a game atmosphere.
Listen: Locally on 94.9 Game2 in English, 96.7 El Jefe FM en Español.
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, @TampaBayRowdies, #NSHvTBR
Elsewhere: Nashville SC preview. USL league preview.

Tampa Bay Rowdies

So. This is a team that’s sort of average overall, but they save all their good stuff for home, and all the bad stuff for the road. Does that sound like Nashville? Well, imagine they’re not nearly as good at home, and much, much worse on the road (for all the hand-wringing among fans, NSC is actually barely below-average away from home). It is also the second-most expensive team in USL (and to the best of my knowledge, would be one of the most expensive in USL history if not for FC Cincinnati smashing those records as they prepare for next year’s jump to MLS). There’s no excuse to have the amount of talent the Rowdies do – albeit while overpaying for over-the-hill Premier League talent like Joe Cole – and be as straight-up bad as they are.

They’ve added even more talent recently: while Cody Mizell has played the majority of the minutes between the pipes this year, Daniel Vega has started all five games in net after signing from Miami FC at the end of the NPSL season (the same team from which Nashville SC signed Kris Tyrpak). They also signed forward Jaime Chavez from the same club on Friday’s roster deadline, and he was an unused substitute in their 1-0 win over Atlanta United 2 Saturday. They loaned out forward Jochen Graf (three shots on goal in limited time this year) to Reno 1868 for the remainder of the season in the wake of the Chavez signing.

“With a couple injuries we’ve had, the choice to bring him in was a no-brainer,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “It’s no secret that we want to score more goals and Jaime can help us do that.”

That injury was to new signing Stefano Bonomo Aug. 22 (Bonomo started the season with Red Bulls II, and is a former US Youth international). Whoever plays, they are a fairly low-scoring unit: 37 goals in 28 games is less than a quarter-goal per game better than Nashville’s (somewhat famously) meager output. In their 3-4-3 (which plays out like a 3-1-4-2, 3-2-3-2, 3-4-1-2, or a true 3-4-3 alternately), they generally rely on Georgi Hristov and Junior Flemmings to get the job done, and they lead the way with six and five goals this year, respectively. Kwadwo Poku plays in the No. 10 role when they have one on the field, and is otherwise a central midfielder of another variety. He has, uh, one goal and one assist all year.

“I think when we played them last time it was on the end of a tough stretch of Open Cup,” Nashville defender Liam Doyle said. “We scored early and we defended well, but they were actually really good that game. They made the pitch big and were very good going forward. I think this time we need to be a bit more offensive and take their attack away as well.”

Their typical three-man backline (sometimes they have four in the back, but that’s more a changeup) has included Abdoulaye Diakite in the middle, Tarek Morad on the left and Hunter Gorskie on the right when all are available. Zach Portillos – who otherwise plays as a left-sided midfielder and a pretty conservative one at that – is drawn into relief duty in the backline when needed.

Cole, the Premier League vet and team captain, is almost always one of the central defensive midfielders (he missed the previous NSC matchup with a red card suspension). His minutes have been limited lately, which seems to be more of a “he’s 37 years old” thing than any specific injury. They will be without CDM Dominic Oduro (yellow card accumulation), so that should make Cole’s presence more important.

“They have got some exceptionally talented players,” said NSC head coach Gary Smith. “They have constantly been a team that has looked and tried to find the remedy and solution for success and silverware. They have kept their quality and experience around the group, with guys like Joe Cole who is capable of really talented and creative things.”

Their leader in key passes on the year is Marcel Schäfer… who hasn’t been with the team since mid-June, after moving back to his native Germany with VFL Wolfsburg (where he subsequently retired). They have a problem creating, and don’t do a ton of finishing, either.

The Boys in Gold

So, Nashville’s recent run of form isn’t great. Does a long break between games – they haven’t seen the pitch since last Saturday’s wild 3-3 draw against North Carolina FC – help them bounce back? Previous long gaps haven’t meant a ton to the performance:

  • 10-day break after 2-1 road loss to Indy Eleven, 0-0 draw at Penn FC.
  • 11-day break after that draw at Penn FC, 1-1 draw at New York Red Bulls II.
  • 13-day break after 2-0 win against Louisville City, 1-1 draw at Charleston Battery (two Open Cup games in between)
  • 10-day break after 1-0 win over North Carolina FC, 2-0 loss to Indy Eleven (Open Cup loss in between)
  • 10-day break after 1-0 loss at Charlotte Independence, 2-0 loss at Ottawa Fury.

That’s three bad results, and the two good results are road draws to decent teams. Long breaks in-league haven’t necessarily meant Nashville SC gets back to form with more training time (rather than focusing on the game-to-game preparation with quick turnarounds). Hopefully this break, coming off the thriller in North Carolina, gets the team ready to hit the stretch run.

“I think with four games coming up in 12 days it is always nice to get a little downtime,
mentally as much as physically,” Smith said. “You get a chance to catch yourself in what has been going on in the competition and the stresses and strains of weekly games, and we’ve been able to do some decent work again. We’ve had nice downtime and some good rest. We’ve been able to look at certain areas and try to polish them off towards these seven games.”

The team should be in reasonably good health with a long layoff, but sadly that may not be the case: wingers Kris Tyrpak and Alan Winn are both questionable for NSC with an ankle injury and a strained hip flexor, respectively. Those are your two scoring wingers, so does a gameplan that relies upon defense-and-service wingers make more sense? I think so.

That’s why the 3-5-2 with defensive-minded wingbacks who also like to run the sideline, along with a physical presence at striker, seems to be the right choice. We’ll see if that’s what comes out of the team sheet this evening.

Projected lineups

I gave away my predicted gameplan above, and Tampa Bay has been pretty set in its 3-4-3 ways in recent weeks, so not a ton of surprise available here:

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You have your target guy in Hume, a “tries shit” complement in Mensah, and a creator behind them in Moloto. The back eight is about what you’d expect.

Predictions

Nashville could really, direly use a win here. They’re playing a very bad road team. Can they get it done?

  • The defensive strength that Nashville showed early in the year has abandoned them (no truly good defensive game since Aug. 18 against Louisville City). It comes back in this one, against a Rowdies team that typically struggles to score.
  • Hume’s hold-up play and heading ability work well with the lineup, and he gets an assist on the game’s opening goal, with Mensah finishing it off.
  • Mensah is replaced by Brandon Allen around the 70th minute, a bit of a “defend a little more stoutly, and do it with a guy who can still score” replacement. Allen does not score, but he assists a Lebo Moloto goal.
  • I think we see the end of Ish Jome’s timeout that he’s been on since a first-half red card against Bethlehem Steel. He’s made the bench the past two games, and I think he comes off it in this one (replacing either wingback, more likely Washington).
  • Your third sub is a pure defensive one, bringing on Matt LaGrassa to replace Hume – while Moloto pushes to the front a bit – as Nashville tries to ride out the two-goal lead with something approximating a 3-6-1.
  • Tampa Bay does find a goal, but it’s too little too late.

Nashville wins 2-1. Recent home form has probably been better than it feels (4-1-1 in the last six, with the loss to Bethlehem the lone true blemish, and weighing more heavily than it probably should), and NSC has scored multiple times in three of those six. Against a bad road team – without a key defensive midfielder – that continues, and Nashville is back in the good for a stretch here.

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