Preview: Nashville SC v. New York City FC (2019 Friendly)

We return tonight! Some Nashville SC fans made the trip to Birmingham last weekend to see the team’s 3-0 win over a fellow USL Championship side, but tonight, it’s the friendly confines of First Tennessee Park for MLS opposition.

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The essentials

Opponent: New York City FC (16-8-10) – 56 points, 3rd MLS East last season. Fourth round US Open Cup.
Time, Location: Friday, Feb. 22 7:00 p.m. CST  • First Tennessee Park
Event: Preseason friendly
Tailgate: With The Assembly at Germantown Depot, The Roadies at Neighbors Germantown, Eastern Front SG at Von Elrod’s (details on those bars here)
Weather: 51ºF, 97% chance of rain, 90% humidity, 6 MPH Easterly winds
Follow: New idea for this year: I’ve put together a Twitter list. It’ll also stream on the front page here during the game.
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 (local television), NashvilleSC.com (stream), YES (New York region), Fox Sports App (stream) • 94.9 Game2 (English radio), 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español)

New York City FC

So: Nashville SC’s home MLS opponent last year, Atlanta United, went on to win the Cup. NYCFC: you’re welcome. Of course, this was also a very good team last year, finishing third in the Eastern Conference. While New York Red Bulls and Atlanta basically lapped the field (second-place ATL UTD finished 13 points ahead of NYCFC), the Blues also shouldn’t be dismissed as being second-class.

A member of the massive City Football Group amalgamation that is led by Manchester City, it should come as no surprise that former Pep Guardiola assistant Domènec Torrent (he was with Pep from 2007 at Barcelona through Summer 2018 at Manchester City, including the stop at Bayern Munich in between) has a similar philosophy. New York City FC wants to win possession by huge margins with a clean passing game and dedication to a high press. That’s been successful in Major League Soccer (though the results could be considered mixed, which I’ll get to in a moment), and in all reality should be even more so against a USL Championship team, which is unlikely to have the ability to play through the press with foot skills a step below the MLS guys.

For basically anything you could want to know about New York City FC, including the transition to Torrent from former manager Patrick Vieira, I would recommend the American Soccer Analysis playoff preview from October. Caution: it’s extremely dense. Even an avowed stats and tactics nerd like myself has to work through the piece to absorb all the info. I’ll pull out some important aspects for you.

Sean Johnson looks for his center backs. This is pretty much the defining feature of a team that builds from the back, but NYCFC is especially dogmatic about it… Johnson rarely trusts himself with short forward passes to a defensive midfielder, so if the center backs are marked they’ll often split wide toward the touchline to provide a safer outlet or create space over the top.

USL teams (aside from MLS2 sides, which are designed to develop for the senior team, not win games) do not do this. There’s going to be an adjustment for NSC – which plays long from the keeper itself, for the most part – and some frustration at not having much of the ball at times.

How does NYCFC try to get into the scoring positions that they’ll need to get into if they want to put the ball into the net?

The attacking phase starts on the wing. Once NYCFC breaks the first line of pressure, the tendency is either to look long for a center forward over the top (which works approximately never) or else to kick it out to the wing and then move forward as a group into a sturdy attacking shape (which is an objectively better idea but also less exciting I guess).

Like a lot of teams nowadays – especially those going for an aggressive, possession-based philosophy – they settle into formations with a lot of bodies forward when they’re in the attacking third. The center backs will hang out near the midline with three midfielder-types ahead of them (though the outside players there can be the fullbacks pushed up offensively), and five forward players, including the three players up front in the 4-3-3 formation, and either the attacking central midfielders slotting in somewhere in the middle, or the fullbacks over- or under-lapping the midfield to get into offensive positions. (It does seem that they primarily have the fullbacks, rather than midfielders, pushing forward):

Working the ball wide is important because that’s where the five-man front can find numerical advantages and break through the back line with over- or underlapping runs. While one of either the winger or fullback holds the ball on the touchline, the other shoots the channel between the opposing center back and fullback.

It’s worth noting that, while the preview only touches on David Villa at times, the former Barcelona standout and Spain International easily led the team in xG (10.8, which he over-achieved by converting into 14 goals) and was second in xA (6.1, on which he recorded five assists), which were Nos. 20 and 30 in the league, respectively. He is gone, off to a huge contract in Japan.

To replace their star DP, NYCFC has brought in Alexandru Mitrita from the Romanian first division, about whom there’s understandably little known on this side of the pond. Can he replace the production of a guy who’s considered an all-time MLS great (or should be)? It remains to be seen, but City Football Group isn’t out here with blindfolds on when it comes to international scouting.

I would say it’s entirely possible that last year’s assist leader (Maxi Moralez, who plays as a No. 10) becomes an even more crucial part of the offense in the absence of a proven guy like Villa.

The Boys in Gold

Gary Smith has made it clear that he’s planning to give a group of players more time than perhaps we’ve seen in recent friendlies. That may or may not be what he sees as the first-team XI come the start of the regular season, but at the very least it’s guys who are both close to that group and ahead of some of their teammates when it comes to match-fit conditioning.

“There’ll be a group of players that play slightly longer than [45 minutes],” he said. “Does that mean that they’re going to be the starting lineup come the 9 th of March? Not at all. There’s an awful lot that can happen between now and that kickoff date, but what it does mean is that those guys are getting a bit more match play time against very good opposition.”

To me, that reads very much like trying to work the starting XI into game shape – or closer to it – even if there are still some pieces that are variable. That means the position battles that appear to be closer (and will perhaps see more rotation when the games actually count) won’t necessarily have a ton given away this evening.

I also wouldn’t expect that Smith is playing his best lineup just to win. Certainly he wants to entertain the fans, but he’s realistic that it’s preseason for both squads, and that the preparation is more important than the result.

“Results are immaterial because you can never be sure what they’ll be putting on the field, and you can never be sure what their attitude is to the game with a week out to their season,” he said. “You expect it to be as cut and thrust as possible and as realistic as can be. But, for us, there’s a lot of things that we’ve been looking at with new bodies in the group, what do we look like in the defensive shape, what do we look like as we’re regaining and countering, what do we look like as an attacking force and building some creation?”

Evaluating the starters and the players who should get any variety of meaningful time during the season will be the priority, even if a win is certainly nice. The players aren’t going out there to go through the motions, and neither is Smith, even if the substitution patterns end up being a little more pragmatic for future considerations than for taking home the W in this one.

Elsewhere

Nashville SC official site preview. NYCFC official site preview.

Projected lineups

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Mostly a non-controversial Nashville first-choice XI from me. Ropapa Mensah will draw some shouts, perhaps, but he’s very much not been one of those “guys closer to game shape who deserve more than 45 minutes” in his two preseasons in Nashville, and is probably bound for a super-sub role. I think Vinnie Vermeer gets the nod over Bolu Akinyode primarily as a “hey this guy signed today” overall special day given to him by the club. As mentioned above, basically everyone will play.

I’m assuming basically a first-choice XI for NYCFC, if only to start the game.

Predictions

Keeping these briefer this year, including Nashville goal-scorers (and when I have a better feel for the opponent and the games count, I’ll including opponent scoring predictions, too):

  • Kharlton Belmar opens the scoring on an in-cutting strike from the counter-attack when Nashville plays over the top of the NYCFC press.
  • Daniel Ríos scores in a substitution appearance for Nashville. Let’s say… a header. That sounds good to me.

NYCFC wins 3-2.

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