LCFC remains the measuring stick until such a point when they are not the reigning USL Champion, a status they’ve now held for 453 days running (and will continue to hold for at least another 278, the earliest point for the USL title game this year). Nashville SC is a second-year club with signs of hope and moments of frustration in its inaugural campaign, and a beefed-up squad going into year two.
Opponent: Louisville City FC (19-6-9, 66 points, 2nd place USL East in 2018. USL Cup Champions)
Time, Location: Saturday, Feb. 9 2:00 p.m. CST (3:00 p.m. Local) • Bradenton, Fla.
Event: Preseason friendly
Weather: 76ºF, 3% chance of rain, 72% humidity, 7 MPH SE winds
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @LouCityFC – There is no stream, but Nashville SC has more staff in Florida than last year, so the updates will be more substantive.
This was, by some margin, the second-best team in USL during last year’s regular season, and if you include playoff results, they probably overtook FC Cincinnati as best overall at the conclusion of their run to the league championship. They had the third-best offense in the league, and the 11th-best defense.
It is a very different team as things stand today, though. Of the team’s 71 goals scored last year, 26 of them left the building with striker Cameron Lancaster (who will suit up – though maybe not play – for the opponent this afternoon), and 13 more with attacking midfielder Ilija Ilic (who will play with Indy Eleven this year). Ilic alone had 10 assists – while Lancaster, a pure finisher, had only two. On defense, they’ve managed to mostly keep the band together, but keeper Gregory Ranjitsingh and right back Kyle Smith have both made the leap to MLS Orlando City SC.
Fortunately for Louisville, many of the replacements are fairly obvious choices: they signed forward Lucky Mkosana to bang home goals (in addition to retaining most of their scoring forwards outside of Lancaster), while midfield-by-committee could ultimately prove to be more sustainable than simple reliance upon Ilic to be such a scoring and assisting force. At goalie, they’ll add FC Cincinnati loanee Ben Lundt to the force to compete with the returning Tim Dowbrowolski (two appearances last year) and Chris Hubbard.
It will be a new-look Louisville City team, even if it ends up being just as good as last year’s side. The question, of course, is obvious: will the remade team be as good as last year’s? It’s hard to replace a guy who set the league’s single-season scoring record, like it’s hard to replace a guy who helped account for 23 through either scoring or assisting. Ranjitsingh and Smith may not have gotten quite the accolades as their teammates, but there’s a reason that they were tapped to go to Major League Soccer (whereas most departures ended up at other USL clubs – even if it’s a one-year stint in Lancaster’s case before he makes the leap along with Nashville).
Throw all that in a blender and add in the complicating factor of not knowing how Louisville approaches this preseason game – try to send a message to a Nashville team that appears to be gunning for the crown? Simply go give as many players as possible a simulated contest workout? – and there are plenty of questions to be answered about Louisville that will have very different answers between now and the teams’ first regular-season meeting July 6.
Aside from the lack of access to a useful stream (Montreal’s Periscoping provided some scratch for the itch, but it was mostly unwatchable), the disappointment from Wednesday’s friendly in Florida was the absence of NSC’s two big offseason signings from the offensive end of the pitch.
Will we see Lancaster and/or Daniel Ríos on the field today? It’s entirely possible that they get time as Nashville wants to send a message of its own to Louisville in the preseason. It’s just as possible that Gary Smith wants to keep wear-and-tear off their legs for the time being, save them for a reveal in front of a home crowd in Nashville, or simply let both be fully healthy (Lancaster missed the title game last year with injury and has had past issues, while Ríos has had minor knocks early in camp) before they need to see the field.
It would be nice to get a first glimpse of them, though, especially given that Nashville’s limited chances against the Impact Wednesday were left wanting. Bad luck played into that (Kharlton Belmar barely missed the post on one breakaway and probably deserved a penalty on another, Lebo Moloto had a decent striker from a tight angle saved, Liam Doyle had a couple chances from corner kicks), but that was the case last year too, and NSC has added a couple guys who seem capable of making their own luck. You’d like to have a bit of confirmation of that before the games get real.
Pending their availability, I’d expect as close as possible to a first-choice squad in the opening half before liberal substituting after the break from the gaffer. That’s an opportunity to both test the level of improvement in his squad and give stars some rest and test out depth a bit. The one question mark might be at keeper: we know what we’re going to get from Matt Pickens, so a second game in a week may not be necessary, while Danny Vitiello may get his first look between the pipes. A start from Connor Sparrow and a switch to the rookie at halftime may be the move.
3-1 Nashville. Your scorers are Ríos, McCabe for Louisville City, Doyle from Michael Reed on a set piece, then after halftime Ropapa Mensah from Alan Winn to close out the scoring.