And so it begins. Finally, the Boys in Gold will be able to “kick somebody else” as centerback Bradley Bourgeois put it last week.
Opponent: Montreal Impact (14-16-4, 43 points, 7th place MLS East in 2018)
Time, Location: Wednesday, Feb. 6 3:00 p.m. CST (4:00 p.m. Local) • Bradenton, Fla.
Event: Preseason friendly
Weather: 76ºF, 3% chance of rain, 72% humidity, 7 MPH SE winds
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ImpactMontreal – There is no stream, but Nashville SC has more staff in Florida than last year, so the updates will be more substantive.
It’s impossible to know exactly what teams will do philosophically in the preseason. In their first game in Florida (NSC is their second opponent), the Impact mixed in a mostly first-unit squad with a few youngsters, and made wholesale subs at halftime. I expect the same philosophy today.
Montreal was a mediocre MLS team last year, despite boasting a few standout performers. Goalkeeper Evan Bush was one of Major League Soccer’s top shot-stoppers last year, saving 6.82 goals over what opponents’ expected goal numbers would predict, according to American Soccer Analysis (5.92 saved over a replacement-level player according to Everybody Soccer).
The headliner, though, was Ignacio Piatti, the Argentine No. 10. He was the straw that stirred the drink for the Impact, coming in No. 6 in MLS in goals scored with 19 and in assists with 11. He overachieved expectations in both regards, with his xG only 11.2 and xA 7.9. The team’s second-leading scorer was midfielder Saphir Taïder, who played largely as a box-to-box guy with a focus on the left side last year (even though I have him at right wing in the graphic).
A player who wasn’t a star last year, but seems to be developing into one with a recent call-up (complete with impressive showing) to the US Men’s National Team is left back Daniel Lovitz. He had 25 key passes last year and only notched three assists (on 3.77 xA), so if the 27-year old take another step forward, he could be an important key to the season.
Lastly, perhaps the player to watch more than any other this season is new to the squad: forward Maxi Urruti was a difference-maker for FC Dallas last year. His finishing was a little off, with eight goals on 12.1 xG, but his assists numbers slightly overachieved, notching seven on just 4.4 xA. It’s probably fair to say that neither Piatti nor Urruti has played in MLS with a player as good as the other, so the Impact could be due for an offensive explosion.
Of course, that would require their getting the ball into solid scoring positions more frequently (they were worst in the league at that last year), which is where putting a more dangerous player like Taïder into positions to be the one shuttling the ball forward could help. I don’t have midfielder Samuel Piette in the starting lineup above even though he led the team in minutes (among field players) last year, simply because of the mix-and-match nature of early preseason friendlies, but he should get 45 minutes today, and be a key player during the season for Montreal.
The Boys in Gold
While we don’t know for sure how Montreal will approach the game, we have a pretty good idea of what Nashville will do in its two-game trip. We probably won’t see the starting lineups that are going to hit the field in the first couple games of the regular season, but rather what will help get ready to put those ones on the field.
“Probably, the same as a lot of other teams, there’ll be a mixture of groups,” NSC head coach Gary Smith said. “It won’t necessarily reflect what we’ll look like in 5-6 weeks’ time. It’s pairings, relationships…
“It’s a matter of making sure as many of the players as possible are really getting the workload they need, so physically they’re in the right place, and they’re able to get the right amount of structural work so that whoever’s in or out of the side, they’re ready for what comes next. We’ve got a game in six weeks’ time, we want to be ready for that, and I want as many of the players available and fighting for those spots as I can have.”
From my perspective, that will come with a solid core of returning starters, but with some of the newcomers to the roster mixed in to be acclimated to their teammates and tactics at game speed. Of course, defender Bradley Bourgeois has already been extremely impressed with how the new signings are fitting in with the returning players, so they may be ahead of the curve there.
“To be honest, it feels like they were here last year,” he said. “That sounds kind of weird, but in a sense of we have a core group of guys that we know what to expect, we know what kind of values that we’ve established, and we know what kind of culture that we want here in the club. The guys have just seamlessly entered in, and it seems like they’ve been here for a while, so it feels good.”
So, getting a few of those guys (I’d bet on Darnell King, Kharlton Belmar, and Daniel Ríos) to begin the game with the returning guys you’d expect (Pickens, Davis, Bourgeois, Reed, Akinyode, Moloto, et al) to get them all comfortable together will be the starting lineup. Unlike what both Montreal and Cincinnati did over the weekend, I see substitutions for NSC coming not wholesale, but rather one at a time to sort of mix and match the personnel groups with a little more variety in a single game.
We see a Nashville goal-scorer who wasn’t with the team last year – smart money is obviously on one of Belmar, Cameron Lancaster, and Ríos.
The Impact are still working through their issues moving the ball into scoring positions (though I expect them to make some strides this preseason). If they’re improved there, they could actually end up being a great squad in 2019.
Piatti and Taïder both score.
The game ends in a 2-2 draw. Nashville scores one goal on Bush and another on whoever the second keeper into the game is. Michael Reed assists both, and Alan Winn (second-half sub) is your second NSC goal-scorer.