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: New York Red Bulls II (1-0-0, 6th place USL East)
Time, Location: Sunday, March 24 Noon CDT (1:00 p.m. Local) • Montclair, N.J.
Weather: 50ºF, 1% chance of rain, 36% humidity, 4 MPH NNW wind
Follow: Twitter list • USL Gametracker
Watch • Listen: ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio), 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español)
Etc.: Recap of last week’s coverage. Q&A with NYRBII play-by-play announcer David Gass.
New York Red Bulls II
The Red Bulls have only played one game to date, a situation only four Eastern Conference teams can claim. Given that one of the other three is the squad NYRBII played in week one, Swope Park Rangers, we don’t know a whole lot about either team as it relates to where they’ll stack up in the East. The Baby Bulls came away with a 3-1 win, and maybe they’re very good, but maybe Swope is very bad (and the truth is almost certainly somewhere in between, of course).
Striker Tom Barlow is immediately going to draw the attention of fans because he scored two goals in that opener, but it’s worth noting that Marcus Epps assisted one of those goals and scored an unassisted tally of his own, while Jared Stroud added the other assist. If you’re looking for someone to keep an eye on apart from Barlow, Stroud is probably your man.
“On the attacking side of the ball, it has to be Jared Stroud,” said Red Bulls II PBP announcer David Gass. “Out of the NYRB academy but got drafted by the club, he was one of the league leaders in assists last year while splitting time between MLS and USL. Now this is his team to pull the strings – either side left or coming inside to be the No. 10.”
On the defensive side of the ball, there’s a little bit of a shakeup to watch. Guatemalan-American left back Allen Yanes has been called up for Los Chapines during this international break, and will be unavailable. That may not be the most-impactful absence, though.
“Yanes clearly has a great resume for a young player but he hasn’t actually shined so far in his NYRBII career,” said Gass. “What will be interesting is if new signing Janos Loebe will get a start at fullback. He was a great attacking player in college, but has been told by the coaching staff they project him at FB.”
Evan Louro returns between the pipes, although his results last year could be considered shaky at best: 60.6% saves, only five clean sheets, and only 59.4% passing even though NYRBII is dedicated to playing it out of the back. Of course, some of that is simply the result of playing behind an oft-leaky backline, especially early in the year.
“They are a very young team with a lot of young players,” said Nashville SC captain Michael Reed. “We are different with older, more mature players so it goes on us to be more composed and make the right decisions. Young and eager players, after a few knocks, will deter after a while so I think I think maturity is going to be key.”
That backline is leaky because of the team’s dedication to prepping players for the first team: the Baby Bulls are dedicated to a high press, and particularly early in the year, that’s difficult for them to execute. However, it pays off on the front end, too, and NYRBII has traditionally been a high-scoring team that also gives up a lot of goals, too.
“The NYRBII squad is just as dogmatic about the pressing identity as the MLS team – if not more,” Gass said. “John Wolyniec’s answer to every pregame question is, ‘we’re going to press them and see.’ I think it is more effective in the USL than in MLS.”
“I think after seeing it last year, their system stays the same and doesn’t falter making us play solid defense,” said Nashville midfielder Bolu Akinyode, who came up through the Red Bulls Academy. “They will go forward, and they will throw numbers up and we need to catch them on a counter, catch them when they are vulnerable. When they throw guys up there, can we be smart enough to play through their lines and create 1v1’s as well as overloads for ourselves. They like to attack, and I think we can exploit some things against them.”
As the team settles into its roster over the course of the year – with fewer “will he be with the first team or with the USL side?” situations as the season goes along – they tend to perform a lot better, and have made the Eastern Conference championship game each of their three years in existence, including a USL Cup title in their second year of existence, 2016. Nashville SC may be better off getting them at this early stage.
The Boys in Gold
Nashville, on the other hand, is relatively new to the all-press, all-the-time game (and actually it’d be unfair to say they’re going to be relentlessly dedicated to it, because we only have two games worth of evidence so far, and in one of them they called off the dogs reasonably early with a 2-0 lead). However, there is something to be said for experience, with defenders who are a few years older than the typical NYRBII player, hopefully able to show a bit more poise on the ball than their opponents.
“Do we have the players that can break lines and get in behind their back four? Absolutely,” said Smith. “Do we have enough pace and enough athleticism? Absolutely. I think just as importantly, do we have the type of players that have got the right type of energy and understanding of what it takes to beat a New York side? I believe so.”
The question is less about the giveaways at the back and more about the ability to generate offense, because Nashville SC wasn’t particularly able to do that against a strong Saint Louis defense last week. Generating the looks for their strikers to finish may be a bit easier against this team, but it’s still not going to be a cakewalk.
There may be a boost in terms of personnel: after getting about a half-hour last Saturday, hopefully Michael Reed is able to return for a full game, providing a little more punch in a defensive central midfield unit than is available without him on the pitch. Additionally, Alan Winn has been upgraded from “out” to “questionable” on the NSC injury report, and I discussed why that may be so important for the team’s shape and tactics earlier this week. It does sound like it’s going to be mostly the same unit, though.
“I think we’ve got some very talented players and we’ve got some good depth in that attacking front line,” Smith said. “I think mainly through some circumstances in the preseason, we didn’t see a lot of Daniel [Ríos] and Cameron [Lancaster], especially together, they were very limited. So we have to expect that there is still some development going on there. But ongoing, I have to find a way to make sure that not just those two players, but everyone’s in a more effective position on the field and as a group.”
I also think the absence of Yanes – whether he’s a star for NYRBII or not – is going to be impactful here: Nashville SC has at least one winger who’s very dangerous offensively, and given that Kharlton Belmar can play on either side, I’d expect him on the right to go after Yanes’s backup. Especially given Loebe’s past as an offensive specialist, there may be room to get in behind him to create chances.
Defensively, I do like NSC’s ability to prevent the Red Bulls from finding easy looks (at least not looks as easy as Swope gave them), with the possible exception being that high press, or in transition opportunities. Barlow is probably talented enough to win one-v-ones with Nashville centerbacks, and Saint Louis didn’t have anybody who could do that.
I don’t think this is the first game we see backup keeper Connor Sparrow: playing out of the back against the Red Bulls (which he’s the better keeper for doing, whereas Matt Pickens is a longball specialist) is one of the more dangerous propositions. Even if his quick-reacting style could be a little bit better against a counter-pressing Red Bulls team who can create offense out of nowhere, Pickens’s size and ability to play over the top is probably the safer bet here, even if Sparrow will ultimately get more time than last year’s backups.
Back to the old style for a week as I fine-tune the adjusted version:
As noted above, I think Alan Winn will get time, especially if the “Moloto and Lancaster trade the wing and No. 10 positions” isn’t working out, though it should be much more effective against a defense that tries to be proactive rather than packing the box.
Keys to the game
- Protect the ball away at the back. Red Bulls thrive on forcing the opponents into mistakes deep in their own end. Don’t give that up, and there goes one of their biggest weapons. It’s not the only way they can score, but it’s certainly among the most consistent.
- Don’t give anything up on set pieces. This is more about Nashville than New York: set pieces are officially entering “bugaboo” status, with last year’s goals against overrepresented by set piece goals, and this year’s lone tally coming on a corner kick.
- Exploit inexperienced defenders with the press. The flipside of New York’s press is that they dogmatically play out of the back. That should give a newly potent Nashville press a chance to give the Baby Bulls some of their own medicine. They deal with it in training, but as Gass said, it’s basically unique within USL, so Nashville doing it at game speed could be tough to deal with.
- Get Belmar behind. Nashville’s most dangerous player in each of the first two games has been Kharlton Belmar, and NSC has the chance to run him up against a backup fullback. Give him the opportunities, and he’ll create the chances.
I think Red Bulls II’s success against Swope Park Rangers provided a little bit of fool’s gold, but they’re still a really good team. How is Nashville, though? Fan skepticism after last week’s disappointment notwithstanding, this is still an elite USL team.
- Daniel Ríos scores off an assist from Kharlton Belmar. The winger gets behind, and his short centering pass from the edge of the six-yard box is a tap-in for the striker.
- Red Bulls II respond with a pair of goals: Jean-Christophe Koffi assists Barlow for the first, while Stroud scores unassisted for the second.
- Belmar completes a man of the match performance with a solo score on a quick counter around the 70th minute to complete the scoring.
The game ends in a 2-2 draw.