The season is here. Nashville SC starts against opposition that should be considered… less than intimidating. Will the Boys in Gold come out slinging to show that they’re a serious contender in 2019?
Opponent: Loudoun United (2019 expansion club) • DC United reserve team
Time, Location: Saturday, March 9 7:00 p.m. CST • First Tennessee Park
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: 67ºF, 97% chance of rain, 76% humidity, 20 MPH Southerly winds
Follow: Twitter list • USL Gametracker
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 (local television), ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio), 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español)
Etc.: Nashville SC season preview. Loudoun United Q&A with Black and Red United.
This team… basically didn’t have a team within the past week, though United will travel to Nashville with a full gameday 18. It’s also safe to say that this isn’t going to be their strongest roster of the year, and that the squad hasn’t had a practice with all of its personnel to the extent that most USL teams have. They may, however, have a higher level of talent at the middle and top ends of the roster, given that a few players were sent down from DC United just this week. At the same time, they were making signings yesterday. Ryan Keefer of Black and Red United gave some insight there.
“Their scrimmages have included a mix of USL vets, former Academy kids and trialists from DC’s preseason camp,” Keefer said. “Some have signed deals, some haven’t, though presumably they’ll get done shortly.”
DC United ran with a 4-2-3-1 most of last year once they reached their final form (with Wayne Rooney, very different from without him), and I’ll assume that the B team will be following the same blueprint. In that regard, a false-nine type – like Rooney has played at times since joining DC, a lone forward who drops deep to collect the ball and create – is important, and Loudoun has relied on one such player so far in preseason.
“Shinya Kadono was a DC draft pick who looked OK with them and looked OK in the one scrimmage I saw (of two) that Loudoun had,” he said. “He lined up as forward and dropped back into midfield occasionally and scored a goal, and could be the person that Loudoun looks to initially.”
Given that most of the rest of their roster is composed of guys who have a reasonable expectation of competing to make the DC United roster, this should be their opportunity to impress the organization’s technical staff – particularly at the beginning of the year – in attempt to make the senior roster. As the year goes on, they should fill in gaps with guys signed only to Loudoun, and with academy prospects (some of whom are there now, but I’m considering them the ones most likely to earn senior contracts) but for now, this should be a pretty good lineup with little cohesion. Toward the end of the year – when DC needs to winnow down its roster for the postseason push – you’ll see it strengthened again when the guys outside the gameday 18 for the senior club join Loudoun.
All that is to say I expect much of this lineup to be composed of the players sent down from DC: it’s an extended trial for them. 2019 draft picks Akeem Ward, Donovan Pines, and Antonio Bustamante are on Loudoun loans while remaining part of the DC roster, and that’s because they’re getting minutes with LUFC while they can’t crack in. Ward was a left back at Creighton, Pines a centerback at national champion Maryland, and Bustamante a forward at William and Mary (though he’s likely more a winger or No. 10 at this level, and he had a down year with injury as a senior).
“It’s difficult to judge who is going to be out there, and in terms of what we are going to see from a cohesive team,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “I do expect to see some DC affiliated players, who are going to be learning the ropes trying to work their way to the first team. We just don’t know who they will send out there are Saturday.”
“The focus has been on us considering we don’t know as much as we’d like to about our
opponent,” added NSC midfielder Matt LaGrassa. “There are going to be some young guys there, and they are always full of energy and excitement. They might not have played in front of a crowd like this one before, so they will be a good test for us.”
Given that anything beyond the big names is an unknown to those who follow the day-to-day of Loudoun United, I’m not going to try to give a ton of detail about them beyond the lineup guess below.
The Boys in Gold
I think this is gonna be a really strong Nashville SC lineup for a few reasons. First, given the (as I’ve said, mostly unfair) lukewarm reception of Gary Smith as Nashville SC’s first MLS coach, it may behoove him to send a message while he can. That’s especially true given it seems to be the theme for the 2018 season regardless.
“I think we worked a lot on possessing the ball and being more dominant going forward and taking the game to our opponents [in preseason],” said LaGrassa. “I think that something we are going to try and continue to work on throughout the season. We want to play a really attractive style of soccer this year, and I think that’s the goal.”
“I think we are all looking forward to the first game – big kickoff, new season,” Smith said. “Preseason is a long stretch of what you would class as a lot of non-competitive games, and you don’t know how players will react. We are in a good place. There are still some new pieces of our group that will take time to settle in, but I am confident and comfortable with how our team is.”
Secondly, even though Loudoun is unlikely to be the strongest team in USL, the season opener (and home opener) is a chance to have everyone about as healthy as they’re going to get (aside from a couple mentioned below). Third, there aren’t a ton of matches early in the year, so guys will have a chance to rest up a bit during the two months before they have more than a single game in a week.
I also think, however, that given the sparseness of fixtures over the next month, that it might be an opportunity to rotate in a couple guys who might otherwise not play, because, say, a backup keeper needs minutes, and there’s not going to be a better opportunity in the next eight-ish weeks (during which there will only be six games).
There are a couple questions that were left unanswered by Smith: midfielders Alan Winn and Michael Reed both left last week’s friendly against Indy Eleven with injury, and they’re unavailable. That’s a blow in Winn’s case because the only other right winger, Ropapa Mensah, is in his annual build to match fitness and probably won’t be able to go 90 minutes. Perhaps we see Kharlton Belmar flip to the right side while Ramone Howell enters on the left, with Mensah getting about 30 minutes (Smith has also alluded to Cameron Lancaster’s ability to play some wing, and Lebo Moloto can rotate through that role, as well). Reed’s absence could see former trialist Vinnie Vermeer make his first official senior team appearance for Nashville SC, or it could mean Matt LaGrassa plays as one of the members of the double-pivot rather than as a more offensively-oriented player.
Either way, it’s early enough in the year that you hate to see them out, but their absences are more opportunities for other players at this point rather than a major blow – particularly against an opponent like Loudoun.
I’ll admit I had to do some serious guessing for Loudoun (as well as the specifics of how NSC will compensate for the two midfielders who are out):
As implied above, I think there’s a chance we get a second-half glimpse of Connor Sparrow as one of the three subs if the first half goes according to plan.
Keys to the game
- Play like you know you’re the better team. If ever there’s a chance for Nashville SC to prove it’ll be a proactive, attractive side in 2019 and beyond, this is the team that’ll provide the opportunity. NSC should come out firing (knowing that the defense and attacking portions of this Loudon team are vulnerable), and put the game into the comfort zone early.
- That said, don’t take a win for granted. This is not a good Loudoun team, but they’re a bunch of (mostly) pros. Knowing you’re the better team can lead to good soccer… but it can also lead to a bit of a sleepwalk. NSC doesn’t want to fall into the trap of the latter option.
- Stay healthy. Long-term prognoses for Reed and Winn are unknown, but given that midfield is the thinnest area on the roster, it would behoove the Boys in Gold to not have anyone join them on the MASH unit.
After previewing Loudoun, I actually think they’re a little worse (a rookie five-year college player who didn’t start as a junior or senior looks like he’ll have to play, just because they don’t have a ton of bodies, unless they want to run out a couple 16-year olds) than I expected.
- Nashville SC gets goals from Cameron Lancaster, Daniel Ríos (both from Belmar assists), Ken Tribbett (corner kick, Moloto on the service), and Ropapa Mensah (unassisted late in the game, the only second-half scoring).
- Your NSC substitutions are Connor Sparrow for Matt Pickens at the half, Ropapa Mensah for Lebo Moloto at 65 minutes, and Bradley Bourgeois for Ríos at 72, moving NSC into a 5-3-2 with Belmar and Lancaster up top to see out the game.
Nashville SC wins 4-0.