Nashville SC took home a win in week one… but so did the opponent for this weekend. Can the Boys in Gold hold off a Saint Louis FC side coming off an impressive upset of Indy Eleven?
Opponent: St. Louis FC
Time, Location: Saturday, March 16 7:00 p.m. CST • First Tennessee Park
Tailgate: With The Assembly at the Ozzie Lot, The Roadies at Neighbors Germantown, Eastern Front SG at Von Elrod’s (details on those bars here)
Weather: 50ºF, 1% chance of rain, 36% humidity, 4 MPH NNW wind
Follow: Twitter list • USL Gametracker
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 (local television), ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio), 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español)
Etc.: STLFC Q&A with STL Soccer Report. Wrap of last week’s coverage.
Saint Louis FC
This team was solid last year, but only that: they finished eighth in the weaker West, and my power ratings had them 14th overall in USL, with the No. 23 offense in the land but the No. 4 defense (just a couple spots behind Nashville). Like NSC, a bit of bad luck saw them finish lower in the table than the actual quality of the team would indicate.
Saint Louis has returned the core of last year’s squad minus midfielders Joey Calistri and Wal Fall, who ended up with Phoenix Rising and Ottawa Fury, respectively. They’ve also added some impressive talent, with former Fresno FC defender Bradley Femdem Kewo and FC Cincinnati forward Russell Cicerone (who had an understandably tough time seeing the field for a loaded FCC last year) both going 90 Saturday.
It was Cicerone who impressed me most through the first game, and when I spoke with Phill Grooms of STL Soccer Report and The USL Show, he confirmed my feelings on the matter.
“When Russell signed I asked my friends at Cincy Soccer Talk about him,” Grooms said. “Their first response was how much they loved his work ethic. Surely this is what Pulis saw in him too. You’ll see that St. Louis thrives on pressuring the ball and Cicerone provides exactly that on the wing—and he can maintain it for 90 minutes. Obviously we’ve also now seen that he can finish a ball that falls to him, so he also can’t be ignored in the final third.”
Joaquin Rivas only played about 27 minutes Saturday, but the former Tulsa Roughnecks winger (he was the leading scorer for a v. bad Roughnecks team last year) probably will work his way into an even bigger impact role as the season wears along.
“I credit some of Cicerone’s goal against Indy to him because they gave him some space with the ball at his dominant left foot and he picked out a dangerous pass,” Grooms said. “Yes, it bounced around a bit, but still, the play ended with the ball in the back of the net. Even more than his ability to pick out a pass is his ability to score seemingly anywhere inside 40 yards from goal. ”
The defense remains impressive, and while the stats don’t really bear it out (Indy Eleven had 10 shots last weekend, three on the frame of the goal), I thought they completely shut down what should be an outstanding offense. Two of the three shots on-target came on basically one play – a penalty kick that was saved, and the goal was from a header on the ensuing corner – and everything that Indy Eleven was able to get seemed to come from the counter-attack.
“What was very noticeable was how well organized and physically adaptable Saint Louis were,” said Nashville head coach Gary Smith. “We’ve played against Indianapolis, and they’re a good side. Whilst Indy controlled large portions of possession, I thought Saint Louis did a fabulous job of restricting them to few opportunities.”
Saint Louis nominally came out in a 4-3-3 last weekend, but in practical terms, it looked more like a traditional 4-4-2. With creators on the wings and no true No. 10 to produce through the middle (at least not that’s shown yet), that makes sense.
The Boys in Gold
What we ended up seeing last weekend is essentially what settled in as Nashville SC’s preferred lineup over the course of preseason, with a couple exceptions: injuries to Michael Reed and Alan Winn meant that both were out of the lineup. Reed will return this week, Winn will not.
Bolu Akinyode and Matt LaGrassa paired up in the defensive midfield position in Reed’s absence (I would anticipate that LaGrassa is the one who plays if only one of those two has a role). Without Winn, NSC did a similar setup to what we saw in the friendly against Indy: a slightly unbalanced formation with no true right winger, and Lebo Moloto and Cameron Lancaster sort of rotating through that position together, with Daniel Ríos as a lone striker who cycles back into that nebulous formation a bit, too. I’d expect more of the same without him this week.
“The thing that, for me, is a positive when everyone’s fit and we’ve got players that are getting themselves fit again,” Smith said. “Michael Reed should be in contention, Vinnie [Vermeer] will be back in full contention after being away for the week, although he was in the 18. Ropapa [Mensah] should be in contention. So, there’s options.”
The defense should be solid, and against a team without a ton of truly scary options (STLFC has good players, but there’s not a true difference-maker – at least not that we’ve seen yet), there’s a chance to return to last week’s pressure-heavy scheme. Of course, Saint Louis does have some speed to counter over the top, so picking the right times for that will be important.
There’s weakness at the back that NSC could exploit with that press.
“Surprisingly, our captain Sam Fink had a bit of trouble playing out of the back last year, but improved,” Grooms said. “I could see [Sean Reynolds] starting this game, even over our captain, because he is our best passer at the position. Risky at times, but the best. But if Sam starts, and Gary Smith has done his homework, look for your boys to target him.”
Assuming Nashville is fully healthy aside form those who appear on the injury report, this looks like a matchup that should be winnable – though obviously nothing is guaranteed. Additionally, until we see NSC put up some serious goal output against a real defense, skepticism about the ability to score at a greater clip than last year will remain justified.
As should be the case for a team looking to be atop its conference, Nashville SC is more focused about doing its thing, rather than getting overly concerned about a new side in Saint Louis FC, who they didn’t face last season while the teams were in separate conferences.
“You want to know what your opponent is about, but ultimately it’s about you,” said NSC defender BRadley Bourgeois. “Through preseason, the things that you’ve done, the things that you’ve worked on, the group as a whole, it’s about what we can do. You can look at them and look at what they’re about, but you’re right, we haven’t seen them before. It’s about what we can go and impose ourselves on them.”
That’s a winner’s attitude, and hopefully the offensive personnel in particular can turn that attitude into a bit more assertive a finishing ruthlessness. Kharlton Belmar is embracing that.
“I think being aggressive is important,” he said. “Gary wants me to go 1-v-1 a little more against guys and push the game more that way making me a little more dangerous on the ball. This is something I am working on as well as trying to get services into the box and get a better end product next time.”
The USL’s official website breaks down the key moments of Saint Louis’s win against Indy. The League’s weekly preview. USA Today Network – Tennessee with actual NSC content(!). New website: The Talk Sports Media with a game preview. Pharmaceutical Soccer briefly touches on the game in their latest ep. Speedway preview with Phill Grooms.
Keys to the game
- Pick the spots to aggressively press. Saint Louis has a strong settled defense, so getting opportunities through other means (in transition and by forcing turnovers for quick-change offense) will be important. STLFC is good-not-great at the back when they have the ball, and exploiting that will be important.
- Don’t get hit on the counter. Saint Louis’s offense was pretty similar to Nashville’s last season (three hundredths of a standard deviation better), but their new additions seem to be focused on getting the ball over the top into space and using speed into space to create opportunities. Preventing the ball from getting in to Cicerone and Rivas should be big.
- Take advantage of home turf. Will Saint Louis be as impressive away from home as they were last week inside Toyota Stadium last weekend? It’d be something of a surprise, even if we don’t know yet how the 2019 edition will split home/road strength (they were a very good team in Saint Louis last year, an average one on the road). On a beautiful night that should see the biggest crowd yet in the young season, Nashville needs to use the energy of the crowd.
Saint Louis is good. Like Nashville, it’s unclear how good at this point – but a matchup of two teams near the top of the table so far is one way to find out.
- Daniel Ríos opens the scoring on a through-ball from Kharlton Belmar.
- Saint Louis evens the score shortly after the half. A counter-attack leads to a set piece, and the second chance after the rebound is put home by Cicerone.
- Nashville finds a winner on a set piece, with the captain assisting Ken Tribbett from a free kick. Michael Reed’s return to health and the lineup is a notable one.
Nashville SC wins 2-1.