Nashville SC will go from its toughest preseason test to likely its least difficult in the span of five days, with a match against NCAA side Lipscomb this afternoon. What should we expect?
Opponent: Lipscomb Bisons (NCAA Division I). 10-10-1 (5-1-0 A-Sun), NCAA Round of 16.
Time, Location: Wednesday, Feb. 27 5:00 p.m. CST • Lipscomb Soccer COmplex
Event: Preseason friendly
Weather: 62ºF, Coudy, 6% chance of rain, 57% humidity, 5 MPH NNW winds
Follow: Twitter list here (will be embedded on front page during the game).
On the face of it, Lipscomb is not just an NCAA team – which shouldn’t stand much of a chance against a pro team – but also one that was only OK last year. The Bisons finished with a .500 record, and while they qualified for the NCAA Tournament, it was only by winning the Atlantic Sun championship and earning the mid-major conference’s automatic bid.
What they did once they got there, though, cast a whole new sheen on the season Lipscomb had: They knocked off No. 25 Washington and No. 9 UCF before losing a 2-1 heartbreaker to No. 3 Kentucky. This team wasn’t consistent over the course of the year, but certainly they were capable of standing tall against some of the top teams they faced. You can be certain they’ll give their best against the local pro team.
“I think every team in preseason that plays an amateur side, a local college or university, they run into the same problem, which is a lot of young, exuberant, energetic individuals that want to impress,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith. “The way that they play, they structure their groups, are normally a far throw from what we’re going to see come first day of the season, and it’s a completely different challenge.”
Most of NSC’s players have been through the college soccer experience, and the spring contest against a professional or semi-pro team is an annual rite of passage. North Carolina graduate Tucker Hume, now a striker with Nashville SC, recalls being the young player attempting to prove himself.
“I’ve been on that side on a college team, playing against a pro team,” Hume said. “You’re hungry, you want to win, you want show the pros that you can play there. So they’re going to come out with a lot of energy. They only have a couple games in the Spring so they’re going to want to make the most of it.
“It was very enjoyable. We always loved playing against ex-Carolina players and guys that we know. We’d play against Wilmington Hammerheads and NCFC now, so we enjoyed those games a lot and we got up for them.”
That dynamic will certainly come into play today.
Lipscomb won’t have the player who is likely the best in program history today: Third-team All-America selection Logan Paynter exhausted his eligibility in the fall season, and while he was briefly on trial with Nashville SC, he isn’t anymore, and won’t suit up against his former teammates either. Midfielder/forward Ryan Birchfield, last year’s second-leading scorer, has also exhausted his collegiate eligibility.
That leaves a pair of freshmen as the leading players for Lipscomb: Louis Robinson and Daniel Zapata scored four and three goals, respectively, in the Fall, and Zapata added a pair of assists as the duo tied for third on the team in points with eight (collegiate stat-keeping has a hockey-like two points for a goal and one for an assist).
Sophomore keeper Luke Wilson was the team’s backup last year, but with starter Christopher Zappia also moving along after finishing his eligibility, look for Wilson to play the primary role this evening.
The Boys in Gold
How will Nashville SC approach this game? Certainly not the way they did last year, with three trialists from Lipscomb on the field for the Boys in Gold (that is not the plan for tonight), and a host of players whose only significant playing time on the year came in the contest: keeper Micah Bledsoe, centerbacks Ian McGrath and Michael DeGraffenreidt, and midfielders Martim Galvão and Ramone Howell (only Howell would see USL minutes, in the final two games of the year).
There isn’t the level of depth on this year’s team that will see a bunch of guys get their only playing time of the year.
“We’ve kept it tight, I’ve kept the squad and roster slightly more compact than last year, because I think overall we’ve got more experience, and we’ve got a better balance to the group,” Smith said. “I want all of the players to be ready, I want them to have playing time regularly, so there may well be a reasonable rotation early on. I want them to be sharp and engaged, and I want the whole group to be competing towards what I believe to be a successful season.”
You can look for a couple of the guys who seem least likely to see meaningful minutes on the year (keeper Danny Vitiello, centerback Malcolm Stewart, and centerback/defensive midfielder Genki Miyachi) get their run-out for the Boys in Gold, but the rest of the group should be A-list.
As with the rest of the preseason – and notably, there’s one fewer preseason game this season than last year, so the opportunity to “waste” a preparation opportunity isn’t there – Nashville SC has specific goals to get out of the game.
“There’ll be certain aspects of the game that we ‘d love to try and layer into the performance tomorrow night,” Smith said. “Ultimately, it’s minutes for players, they take a step closer to where they need to be come March [ninth], and the good and bad we can evaluate.”
Nashville won’t be out to embarrass the local college side (nor should they), but at the same time, the talent available should be overwhelming for a college side that has lost a couple of all-timers in the program.
My projected lineups (I’ll admit the Lipscomb group is basically just a straight-up guess beyond what I listed above):
Essentially everyone will play for NSC, but this is certainly an opportunity to let a few guys rest before Saturday’s biggest game of the preseason.
Nashville SC wins 5-0. Your NSC goal-scorers are Daniel Ríos (2), Ropapa Mensah, Ramone Howell, and Alan Winn.