Nashville SC game preview 2019: At Atlanta United 2

Nashville SC’s most disappointing result of the young season comes begging for a bounceback. Can the Boys in Gold get it against a Pittsburgh Riverhounds team that is historically tough to break down?

The essentials

ATL-UTD-200x200_crop_iconOpponent: Atlanta United 2 (3-4-1). 11th place USL East • 13th place USL East power ratings.
Time, Location: Saturday, May 4 6:30 p.m. CDT (7:30 p.m. Local)  • Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Kennesaw, Ga.
Weather: 77ºF, 50% chance of rain, 64% humidity, 7 MPH SSW winds
Follow: Twitter list • USL Gametracker
Watch • Listen: ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
Party: At a Nashville soccer bar: Smokin’ Thighs with The Assembly, Party Fowl Murfreesboro with the Roadies.
Etc.: Recap of last week’s coverage. Coverage from each of last year’s games.

The Baby Five Stripes

A quick note about MLS2 sides, for those who weren’t around last year or have forgotten the deal: they can loan players back and forth between the USL side and the Major League Soccer side. With Atlanta United on the road (they play at Sporting Kansas City Sunday), you’re less likely to see USL guys who get time – or are backups – with the senior team, since they’ve probably traveled to Kansas City.

On that note, I’m considering the following players questionably available:

  • Andrew Carleton (made the senior 18 in three of the past five games, subbing on in two of them. However, he hasn’t made the field in any of the past three, so he may still be available)
  • Franco Escobar (a squad regular – and occasional starter – for the senior team, only has one USL appearance)
  • Alex Kann (is the backup goalie for the senior team, though Brad Guzan has played every MLS minute to date)
  • Dion Pereira (made the past four senior squads, subbing on two weeks ago)
  • Florentin Pogba (made the senior squad the past three weeks)
  • Romario Williams (made the senior squad in four of the past five games)

Brandon Vazquez (only two USL appearances, last made senior squad five weeks ago) and Jon Gallagher (signed to a USL contract, but was in the most recent 18 for the senior squad) are iffy, but I’d expect to see them.

“I do think that they’re getting in a bit of a trend where away from home they’re maybe not sending so many senior players,” Gary Smith explained

“At home it looks like the team is much more experienced and maybe better populated with those type of players.”

With that out of the way, Atlanta United 2 has a decent offense and a pretty poor defense – slight improvement on either side of the ball over last year’s inaugural squad – depending on who’s available. Unlike the senior team, which has made a fairly well-publicized (and also fairly unsuccessful) switch to a 3-4-3 formation under new manager Frank de Boer, Stephen Glass’s side is basing primarily out of variations on 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 (again with the available personnel affecting what they’re able to put on in a game).

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Dylan Castanheira and Brendan Moore rotate at keeper when Kann isn’t available, and if that holds, it’s Moore’s turn to get on the pitch. He has conceded just one goal on 13 shots faced (.923 save%) – though to be fair that’s been against some dregs of the schedule. Castanheira does seem to be the more mobile of the two keepers, but Moore’s stats to date – albeit against weak competition – speak for themselves.

The backline has been pretty fluid in the last five games, but given the choice of everyone available, it seems Guillermo Benitez and Gallagher at the fullbacks (Jack Metcalf can be on the right, if Gallagher is not available), with Wesly Decas and George Campbell in the middle is the preferred lineup. Benitez really likes to get up the left side, while the rest of them are a bit more stay-at-home in style. Decas can also play LB for a more conservative option. He and Campbell are both aerial duel-winning, ball-clearing classic centerbacks, and they’re fairly good at playing with their feet (over 83% pass completion). Metcalf is an elite passer of the ball whichever position he’s playing.

Will Vint is the primary defensive midfield options (along with Metcalf while Gallagher plays RB, if available – that seems like the better lineup to me, as well). Vint actually doesn’t impress me all that much statistically: the 6-1, 172-pound 17-year old wins fewer than half his tackles and half his duels, and is one of the weaker passers (82%), especially considering he doesn’t try to spark much offense – riskier passes with more payoff – given he has only two key passes on the year. Also: literal child. He’ll get better, let’s just hope/assume it’s not by tomorrow night.

The offense is mostly a front four at this point, and assuming Carleton, a winger/No. 10/striker and Williams, a pure striker, are unavailable, Jackson Conway is the primary striker, a 6-2 target guy (69.2% of aerial duels won) who’s converting at a low rate – only two of his six shots have been on-target, and only one of them was a goal.

Laurent Kissiedu and Luiz Fernando the creative midfielder/winger types, with some combination of Alessandro Castro and Gordon Wild likely to fill that final spot (Wild is also a possibility for the senior team – he hasn’t appeared for them yet this year, but is on an MLS contract. He could head to KC with someone like Carleton or Pogba staying to play with the Baby Five Stripes). Fernando is No. 2 on the team in key passes behind Gallagher, with 10 total, two of them crosses (six of Gallagher’s 11 are crosses). Brandon Vazquez only has two appearances this year, but he’s tied for No. 2 on the team with a single goal, and first with 12 shots. If he’s in the squad, he’s going to go bombs away.

“Every game poses a different problem and perspective,” NSC coach Gary Smith said. “This group, there’s a lot of attacking players. They’re at their best when they’re on the front foot and trying to make sure things happen. But that does leave them vulnerable, and you’ve got a much younger core to that group, so they’re still learning their trade.”

The Boys in Gold

Note: for the first time this season, Nashville SC has a clean injury report. Vinnie Vermeer is no longer listed as out with his ankle injury.

We were greatly saddened by the way Saturday’s game ended up, but for 87 minutes, it went very well. Despite that, I think we’re going to see Nashville shift back to a four-man backline. The 3-5-2 is good to bunker a bit on the road against a good team. The formation they’ve been running for a much greater portion of the year is probably safe against a talented-but-leaky Atlanta squad.

“The question of course was posed after Saturday’s game: what was the difference in the final three minutes of the game that was really out of our control?” Smith said. “Pittsburgh took control of the game for three or four minutes and got themselves on the sheet twice. That is, of course, not only disappointing but a little bit of a concern. But, I’m choosing to really look at the positives out of the game. I just felt at that moment it might be the right time to roll that [formation] out keeping quite a core of players that had seen it last year. So we recapped a lot of things last week and I have to say, the guys took it on board magnificently. I really honestly don’t think we could have done much more than to have seen the game out, and that’s really not down to tactics.”

That’s not necessarily a guy who’s looking to make major changes. It’s also worth noting that the 3-5-2 was a major change from what they’d done all season to date. I’d guess the original plan is what they’re most comfortable with.

The specifics beyond there are a little more up in the air to me, with single-high and twin-striker formations having been used in the past, and even a possible flip to a single defensive midfielder on the table after NSC went with that Saturday (albeit with an extra defender behind the ball).

There’s a second factor to keep in mind here: Wednesday-Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday over the next two weeks (with another Wednesday-Saturday week after that if Nashville wins its first US Open Cup game) is a lot of fixture congestion. They’ll want to rotate to keep guys fresh. One must assume the top lineup will be saved for the nationally televised game against Tampa Wednesday – a lineup that’s just good enough to win this one is all you ask. Gary Smith has preferred to not use his stars against their former clubs (Bolu Akinyode against NYRBII until Vinnie Vermeer’s injury, Lebo Moloto against Pittsburgh), so playing Pickens Saturday and holding him out Wednesday is probably the move here.

With Atlanta possibly putting out a left back who loves to get up the field, I’m thinking Gary Smith fights fire with fire (as he did in the Ottawa Fury game), putting the offensive option at right back in Darnell King. That will either hold Benitez deep, or punish him for extending up the pitch. He’s a shooting, underlapping fullback, so a crossing winger makes sense over there. I’d love to see Alan Winn on the left if he’s ready, but he didn’t even make the squad against Pittsburgh, so he’s likely still working back from his concussion, even though he’s not on the injury report.

Playing time for Winn and Cameron Lancaster will depend upon health. It’s perhaps worth noting at striker that Daniel Ríos had a goal and an assist (should have had a second goal, but an Atlanta defender beat him to the ball and put it into his own net first) in one appearance against Atlanta last year. Cameron Lancaster scored twice in three appearances against the Baby Five Stripes (which, it must be noted if only for comedy purposes, is the same number of goals for Louisville that Atlanta United 2 centerback AJ Cochran scored in the game where Lancaster was shut out).

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I’m thinking 4-3-3 with a press, as Atlanta’s a team you can beat with an aggressive offensive formation, and their young players are apt to make mistakes under that pressure.

“It should be a good game,” said defender Ken Tribbett. “As long as we take care of what we need to do, it should be okay.”

To me, this is fair.

Keys to the game

  • Get on the front foot early. Momentum doesn’t really carry over from one game to the next, at least when it comes to a small portion of the previous game. Still, NSC will want to erase any lingering bad feelings, and prevent the late run by Pittsburgh from spiraling into lost confidence.
  • Force their youngsters into mistakes. Nashville SC worked on its press a lot in preseason, and started the year using it, too. It’s gone away in the past few games, but an opponent that’s likely to start several teenagers is the type to break it back out against.  They should be prone to errors, and Nashville can take advantage.
  • Test Moore. He’s on an MLS contract, and his stats so far this season are extremely shiny. However, that’s largely because he hasn’t seen much significant competition yet (Hartford accounts for half his minutes played, with the other half coming against North Carolina FC). Make him prove it.
  • Get the scorers going again. Goals from centerbacks count too, and there’s no shame in Ken Tribbett and Bradley Bourgeois finding net last weekend. Still, you’d like to see Daniel Ríos re-find his form (no goals from the run of play since Ottawa) and Cameron Lancaster get his first chance to do it.

Elsewhere

Nashville SC site game history against ATLUTD2, column-style preview, and game previewSpeedway preview.

Predictions

Nashville should be able to dominate this game to a large extent. Atlanta has talent, but it’s not polished enough as to be consistent.

  • Ríos scores within the first 15 minutes on a ball over the top from Bourgeois.
  • Belmar gets his first scoring action of the year, taking a through ball from King and cutting back to score.
  • Atlanta gets on board with Conway putting one in the back of the net on a corner kick shortly before the half comes to a close.
  • Lancaster comes on as a sub, scoring his second goal of the yearmidway through the second half.

The game ends in a 3-1 Nashville victory.

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