USL playoffs preview: Nashville SC @ FC Cincinnati

Four games, four draws. The deadlock will end in the USL Playoffs. Will it be Nashville or FC Cincinnati taking home the first win in the series?

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What the first playoff media availability in NSC history would have looked like if anyone other than Gary Smith and your humble photographer were there. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

The essentials

Opponent: FC Cincinnati (23-3-8 USL) • 72 GF, 34 GA in 2018 • 1st in USL East, 1st in USL East Power Ratings and 1st in combined-table Pure Power
Recent form: TOR (D-D-W-W-W) NSH (D-D-W-D-W)
The Line: FC Cincinnati -244, Draw +353, Nashville SC +455
Time, Location: Saturday, Oct. 20 4:00 p.m. CDT  • Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
Event: USL Playoffs first round
Weather: 58ºF, 24% chance of rain, 55% humidity, 20 MPH Westerly winds
Tickets: Here. Use code “NASH18” to be seated with Nashville fans (and wear Gold).
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. The club is hosting a watch party at Bavarian Brewhaus.
Listen: Locally on 94.9 Game2 in English, 96.7 El Jefe FM en Español.
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, #CINvNSH
Etc.: Game story from last week. I appeared on Cincy Soccer Talk’s March to Matchday podcast. My look at how the shape of the rivalry over the past seven months can give us insight about the final 2018 entry.
Elsewhere: USL preview… Orange & Blue Press playoff predictions and match program… USA Today Network Tennessee preview-type substance… Cincinnati Enquirer video preview. And Nashville can’t even get the local paper to show up to an eight minute and thirty-four second press conference! … Cincinnati Soccer Talk five things to watch.

FC Cincinnati

This is basically the same team we saw Saturday, with a couple notable exceptions: defensive midfielder Richie Ryan made his debut after a couple months on the shelf Saturday, and is probably ready for a full appearance (he played about 20 minutes) if necessary.

The usual suspects are the usual suspects: Emmanuel Ledesma should be the USL player of the year after a campaign with 16 goals and 16 assists from a midfield position. Striker Fanendi Adi is an MLS-caliber player who, uh, was in MLS for most of this year.

The defense is the question mark (as much as this team has one), and it was still tied for third-best in the Eastern Conference. There’s a bit of a sample deal here: their three-plays were good teams, but three of those good teams – Nashville, Indy, and Pittsburgh – were not offensive powerhouses in the slightest. Uh, “their defense only looks good because they’ve played Nashville a bunch” is hardly comforting when we’re previewing them from the standpoint of [checks notes] Nashville.

FCC is probably better man-for-man across the board, aside from most likely keeper and another spot or two. They also will be playing in front of 20,000-plus home partisans. Of course, that number shouldn’t impact NSC’s play on the field, according to defender Bradley Bourgeois.

“To be honest, I’m not really expecting much impact] because it’s just on the field,” he said. “It’s 11 v 11. They can bring out 40,000 fans, they can bring out four. It’s win or go home so that’s all it is.”

Regardless, this is a tough test.

It is also an opportunity for this FCC organization to win its first-ever playoff game. Sure, this year is not 2016, nor is it 2017. The failures of those seasons don’t directly impact what this team is capable of (Cincy wasn’t even a shadow of this team in either of those seasons, either). But you bet your ass the Orange & Blue have been asked about it incessantly this week, and inserting just the shadow of a doubt into their mentality…

“The Cincinnati group is expected to win and not just win tomorrow, they are expected to win the championship,” Nashville coach Gary Smith said. “That is the pressure they are under. They have a fabulous group and a tremendous amount of depth as well as being ready for the next step in their franchises’ history, which is into MLS. That in and of itself brings pressure and Alan (Koch) will know that, their players will know that, 20,000 to 25,000 people in the grounds will know that and expect them to win.”

Popping the balloon and sending Cincinnati off to the next step in their franchise without ever having won a playoff game would be hilarious and great. It’s also a difficult ask.

The Boys in Gold

Lebo Moloto and Michael Reed are both listed on Nashville’s injury report as questionable, though when I asked Gary Smith directly about Captain Reed’s status, he was a little more optimistic than that.

“I think he’s in good shape; he’s trained the last two days,” Smith said. “It’s now my choice and my decision whether Michael’s part of that group [as he’s received full clearance from the medical staff]. He looks like he’s ready and available.”

I would not, on the other hand, expect to see Moloto, despite the fact that he’s been working his way back from a knee injury suffered just over a month ago against Charleston Battery.

Despite the absence of the team’s best playmaker though, it’s clear the shift to a 4-3-3 has overcome much of what was lost there. Placing Ropapa Mensah on the wing, where he hadn’t previously played, has seemed particularly effective, and more so against Cincinnati last Saturday. While there’s a chance the FCC personnel gets a bit of a shakeup to overcome that, Mensah on the wing seems like it’ll last as long as the season does.

“At the very worst, [we place him in] a creative position and maybe give us a little more balance filling that #10 pocket with somebody else should it not go well. It has really evolved from there as he has grabbed that position by the scruff of the neck and he has really made a spot for himself. He looks like he has been playing the position for most of his career even though he is still very young, and he has been very effective.

“What I think it has done, is it has given him the opportunity to see the picture and see the game a little bit clearer without having bundles of bodies around him in that central role. When he gets isolated, he is able to show all the qualities he has; his pace, his invention, and I certainly think, as we move on, there is a lot more to come out of it.”

There has been a slight issue of the team giving up slightly more goals, which you might expect from a shift to an offense-heavy formation. Toronto FC II scored a pair, and FC Cincinnati became only the second side to put three goals on Nashville (the other was North Carolina FC) last weekend. Based on a review of the goals themselves, though, I’m fully in agreement with Bourgeois’s take on them:

“It the small things,” he said. It’s the momentum and the little mental turn offs and the little mental lapses in judgment. Now that it’s playoff time, it’s do or die, and it’s time to really lock in.

“I don’t think it’s anything individually, it’s collectively as a unit. It’s going all the way to the front to Pickens in the back. It’s going to be a group effort honestly to get the job done, and I think we can do it.”

It’s been more individual and team letdowns than a tactical choice that have led to the increased opposition scoring (with nobody, even Pickens, blameless), and if Nashville plays a clean mental game, they have the horses to get it done.

Projected lineups

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I think we’ll mostly see the same from both teams with a couple changes: as alluded to above, Richie Ryan will probably be one of Cincinnati’s defensive midfielders. There’s also a decent chance they make a change at left back after Ropapa Mensah ate Blake Smith’s lunch all night last Saturday, but I don’t know who the replacement LB is.

For Nashville, I suspect the Davis/Kimura benchings Saturday were more of a “rest up because we’ll be seeing these guys soon” deal than anything performance-related. They make a bit more sense as the fullbacks with offensive-minded wingers than Washington and James do, in some ways.

I also think Bolu Akinyode will have to come off the bench after receiving 100% of Matt Pickens’s ire for the final Cincinnati goal (and Pickens was HEATED). While obviously nobody was perfect on that one, I’ll take Pickens’s reaction over my own lying eyes in terms of who deserves blame (even though my lying eyes saw something similar to what they have for much of the year – not enough effort to track back defensively from a player who’s otherwise very good). Kris Tyrpak starts as the offense-minded central midfielder with Matt LaGrassa sliding back into a pure defensive role.

Predictions

Man, I really want to pick a Nashville win. Not sure I can though:

  • Cincinnati fans’ first discussion point is how few Nashville fans made the trip up, regardless of whether there are 15 or 15,000 of them.
  • Ropapa Mensah scores Nashville’s only goal.
  • Emmanuel Ledesma scores one and gets an assist (to Corben Bone, or perhaps a center back on a set piece) to get the winning margin for Cincinnati.
  • Nashville’s subs:Akinyode for Typrak (and LaGrassa pushes into that Tyrpak role) after the half. Washington for Winn as Nashville moves to more of a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 after the score is already 2-1. Allen for Hume late in the contest.

Cincinnati wins 2-1. I could absolutely see this being a tie game after regulation (at which point, as I said on the Cincy Soccer Talk podcast, I’d take Nashville either in extra time or a shootout), but I’m predicting a winner without more than 90 plus stoppage required, and that means the team with more talent wins out.

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