Preview: Nashville SC v. Toronto FC II 2018

Nashville SC is the only team in the USL East to not earn at least one result against Toronto FC II this year (related: the only team in the USL East to not play them at least twice, and the only one not to play them at home, as well). Will that status change this evening?

The essentials

Opponent: Toronto FC II (4-24-4 USL). 40 GF, 75 GA so far in 2018, 16th in USL East, 16th in USL East Power Ratings and 31st in combined-table Pure Power.
Recent form: TOR (L-W-L-L-L) NSH (W-D-W-D-L)
The Line: Nashville SC -526, draw +498, TFCII +980.
Time, Location: Wednesday, Oct. 9 7:30 p.m. CDT  • First Tennessee Park
Event: USL Regular season
Weather: 76ºF, 3% chance of rain, 72% humidity, 7 MPH SE winds
Tailgate: With The Assembly in the green space just east of the stadium, with the Roadies at Pastime.
Watch: Locally on MyTV30, or stream on ESPN+. 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, #NSHvTOR
Elsewhere: USL preview slash Richmond recap. TFC preview. Waking the Red preview.

Toronto FC II

The last time these teams played, it was one of Nashville’s worst results of the year: a 2-0 loss (the only ones even close are the 2-0 home loss to Indy and the loss at Ottawa a couple days before this result). It’s worth noting, though, that this is a different Toronto team, for all intents and purposes: they were 0-15-3 heading into that game, and are 4-9-1 since, including a 4-1 pasting at Louisville City in late August. Early-season Toronto was terrible, the current version is actually an OK squad. Not a playoff squad, but an OK one.

Nashville, on the other hand, wants to be a playoff squad. This is still a team that a playoff squad should easily dispatch at home.

Hendersonville’s own Caleb Patterson-Sewell has been the man between the pipes when available (he’s on an MLS contract and has made the squad for the A-side a few times this year, though I don’t believe he made the pitch, even in the Voyageur’s Cup). He’s about as solid as you’re going to get on this team, saving .607 of shots faced.

The lineup in front of him has pretty much settled in recent weeks, with Tim Kübel at right back, Kyle Bjornethun and Robert Boskovic in the center, and Terique Mohammed on the left (they mix it up a bit, with Ryan Telfer also getting time on the left, Noble Okello Ayo on the right, and Lars Ekinrode centrally, but the four I listed are their first-choice group in recent weeks). Mohammed returns from a suspension for yellow card accumulation tonight. Kübel tends to get forward quite a bit more than whoever is playing at left back, but against teams with a bunch of offensive firepower – namely Cincinnati – he’s been willing to hang back, so if Nashville manages to give TFC trouble up the left wing, he’ll probably stop pushing forward. He’s created a grand total of zero chances all year, so he should probably be playing a little more defensive-minded anyway, in personal e-pinion.

Liam Fraser and Dante Campbell are the defensive midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 setup, with Akello Ayo slotting in for either of them at times when he’s not playing along the backline. Fraser is actually tied for the team lead in assists – albeit only with three, so there’s a small sample size issue here – so he can get forward as more a true No. 8 than a deep-lying guy (long passes also account for barely 15% of his attempts, so he’s not banging it over the top onto runners here).

When available, Ayo Akinola (one assist in three MLS appearances) is the choice at striker. He has five goals in 14 appearances this season, though he has yet to record a USL assist. I would consider winger Tsubasa Endoh the even more dangerous offensive player, though: even though much of his production came in one game (he had a hat trick against FC Cincinnati in September), his scoring rate includes eight goals in one fewer game than Akinola, and he’s a much more frequent and accurate passer (despite also looking for his first assist still), making him a more well-rounded threat.

“Endoh has been a standout for them,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith. “They can play with [Jordan] Hamilton out front who is very, very capable. They have certainly improved going forward. I would think we will see the attacking and creative mentality from a team that will predominantly fighting for their careers rather than a playoff spot. So, nothing lightly will be taken in this game.”

Matthew Srbely (3G, 3A in 27 appearances) plays as the central midfielder, and is not only one of the most-deployed members of the team – more minutes than anyone but the two center backs – but one of the few playmakers on the side, too. He’s very much a “tries shit” guy, with a tie for the most key passes on the team, but also a much lower passing accuracy mark than Endoh, the player with whom he shares the distinction.

The Boys in Gold

Lebo Moloto remains questionable, though he’s now the only play on Nashville SC’s injury report, with center back Bradley Bourgeois moving off it. I would expect Bourgeois makes the 18 but only sees the field in case of emergency (or, knock on wood, late in the game with a lead to protect, so he can work back toward full match fitness), with upcoming matches probably requiring him a bit more than this one should.

Will we see basically the same lineup for the third game in a row? I think there’s something to be said for Nashville getting comfortable in this 4-3-3 look with Mensah on the right wing. The central midfield depth is there to allow it to happen, and perhaps most importantly, when Justin Davis is playing center back, it allows for a left fullback (Taylor Washington) who likes to get forward to play on the same side as an inverted winger (Alan Winn) with complementary skillsets and a lot of speed up that side.

If we see that 4-3-3, I would imagine you’ll get more of a “two defensive, one offensive” distribution in the midfielder – the opposite of what we saw in Richmond – at least until the team shows it can handle the meager TFCII attack with only one defensive midfielder. Otherwise, I like the lineup we’ve been seeing, and hope to continue to see it.

“There is no getting away from how important this is,” Smith said. “Once you get towards the end of the season, and the ability to clinch a playoff spot gets in sight, each game carries more importance than the next. Every team is going through that. This one does have a slightly different edge to it, not just because we can solidify a postseason berth, but because that game in July against Toronto was the low-point of our season. That was the reality of it.”

You can see the breakdown of just how important the game is here.

Projected lineups

IMG_585E783EF46C-1

Predictions

Despite the records, Toronto is a lot better than Richmond, especially at this point in the year. How much does Nashville gain by playing at home instead of on the road?

  • Ropapa Mensah-as-setup-man is finally flipped, and the big Ghanaian gets one to open the scoring after not getting credit for two assists (the correct scoring, just a bit of bad luck from a personal stat perspective) Saturday night. It’s a self-created goal with some of the technical ability he’s shown lately allowing him to beat a defender and take it to the rack.
  • Taylor Washington earns his first USL assist by dropping a pass across the top of the box, where Matt LaGrassa bangs it top corner, just a couple minutes before halftime.
  • Toronto manages to make things a little interesting by scoring out of the halftime break. Endoh fires in a shot that rattles around in the box a bit, and eventually manages to find its way into the back of the net. A teammate is credited for a goal that’s truly all him.
  • Bolu Akinyode puts the game away by heading home a set piece in the 70th minute, and Nashville easily rides out the remainder of the contest.
  • Your Nashville subs: Jome for Washington (65′), Shroot for Mensah (75′), Bourgeois for LaGrassa (78′).

Nashville wins, 3-1.

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