So here it is: a preview of what should be an epic battle at or near the top of the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference. No team across the league has added nearly the recognized talent of these two over the offseason. What will it look like on the pitch?
Opponent: Indy Eleven. 13-11-10 USL East (7th place) 2018. Lost to Mississippi Brilla in second round of US Open Cup.
Time, Location: Saturday, March 2, 2:00 p.m. CST • University of Evansville. Evansville, Ind.
Event: Preseason friendly
Weather: 45ºF, 1% chance of rain, 59% humidity, 5 MPH Northerly winds. Mostly cloudy
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Indy was just an OK team last year, finishing level on points with Nashville but ahead on the first tiebreaker (total wins), but having a much lower goal differential – plus-three, compared to plus-11 for NSC. I had them as the 15th-best offense in the entire league (all 33 teams, including those in the West) and 14th-best defense. They were also the only team Nashville didn’t get any points off last year, winning both in Lucas Oil Stadium and First Tennessee Park.
They’ve taken matters into their own hands when it comes to improving in their second year in the USL: signing All-USL midfielder Thomas Enevoldsen (who was probably No. 3 in league MVP voting last year – he certainly was on my ballot) from Orange County SC, forward Ilija Ilic from Louisville City FC, defenders Neveal Hackshaw and Paddy Barrett from Charleston Battery and FC Cincinnati, respectively, and goalkeeper Evan Newton, also from Cincy. Raiding some of the best talent from around the country should let them be a much improved side over last year.
They also return some of their key players from last season – though they did end up with more turnover among meaningful contributors than Nashville did – including left back Ayoze, centerback Karl Ouimette, and midfielders Matt Watson and Tyler Pasher. If you look at some of the key guys they lost (goalkeeper Owain Fôn Williams and midfielder Soony Saad), and see that they have like-for-like replacements that are on a higher skill plane… it’s easy to see where this team is among the best in the Championship.
If you created few chances last year (Indy was 25th in shots taken with 403), you add Thomas Envoldsen (70 chances created with OCSC). Like Nashville addressing its own weakness, Indy has taken care of shoring up the things it didn’t do well last year.
In their second year in USL, with a better understanding of how the travel, schedule, etc. will work out as compared to their previous league, the now-defunct NASL, there should be (like there will with Nashville) some institutional knowledge baked-in that they had to acquire last year. They should be good, folks.
Gary Smith expects a full-strength lineup:
“If you look at how they’ve constructed their group – I know that some of our signings have been quite high profile – I’ve got to say that they, for me, are the team to beat at this point,” he said. “I don’t know what Martin Rennie has in store for his group, whether he’ll play – I would suspect – something close to what he might see the following week.”
If that’s the case, it should be a good one.
The Boys in Gold
I’m ready for Nashville SC to come out with a full first-choice lineup to begin a game, and with game-like substitution patterns, rather than making a wholesale line change. I think we will see the former. I doubt we see the latter, with the team needing to be cognizant of the fact that there’s a regular-season game that will count in the standings just a week later.
“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,” Smith said. “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. In success, it’s got to be chasing down and challenging for silverware. It has to be that.”
That leads me to believe that we see as much of a first-choice group as possible while not wearing them down for next Saturday. So: both teams will likely come out trying to win, but after a very competitive portion of the game in which each wants to send a message about their intentions for the season, there should also be a rest phase for those top players to close out the game.
Nashville has built the chemistry over the course of the preseason that’s going to be so important when the time comes, now it’s just a matter of continuing to develop it while ensuring everyone stays healthy.
Keys to the game
- Don’t let Enevoldsen control the game. He’s a standout player, and is going to impact the game whether you let him or not. But Nashville’s central defensive midfielders and centerbacks need to be able to ensure that impact isn’t game-changing.
- Exploit space in behind the fullbacks. Both of these teams are likely to feature fullbacks that like to get up the field, but Ayoze was the team’s assist and key pass leader last year: he likes to play in the offensive half. NSC has speed on the wings to make Indy pay on the counter – whether in the form of Belmar or Winn – and while the counter-attack isn’t Nashville’s primary gameplan, this is one in which it can play a role.
- Make them pay with the press. Indy has added some defensive talent, but it’s not the type that’s comfortable being forced to play the ball. In addition to Ouimette (just an OK passer), Barrett and Newton were not among Cincinnati’s most accurate passers along the back last year.
- Finish your chances. This one is less about the game itself and more about a harbinger of things to come for the season. Nashville wasn’t a great finishing team last year, and while they should be with improved talent, fan skepticism is understandable and it’d be nice to snuff it out early.
The game ends in a 2-2 draw, setting up for a major showdown May 25. Ríos and Belmar are your goal-scorers.