Nashville SC is back on the winning track. Can the Boys in Gold keep it going at home against one of the Eastern Conference’s top sides?
Opponent: Tampa Bay Rowdies (4-0-5). 3rd place USL East • 3rd place USL East power ratings.
Time, Location: Wednesday, May 8 7:00 p.m. CDT • First Tennessee Park
Weather: 86ºF, 15% chance of rain, 39% humidity, 12 MPH Southerly winds
Follow: Twitter list • USL Gametracker
Watch • Listen: ESPN2(!! USL Game of the Week) • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
Tailgate: With the club at the stadium, with the Assembly at the Ozzie lot, with Eastern Front at Von Elrod’s, with the Roadies at Neighbors Germantown.
Etc.: Recap of last game’s coverage. Coverage from the 2018 games against the Rowdies. Q&A with the Tampa Bay Times.
Tampa Bay has traditionally been an outstanding offensive team (with some reasonably high-priced talent) and mediocre defensively. The Rowdies have also been an outstanding home team and mediocre-to-poor on the road.
The script is flipped in the first full year under Neill Collins, who retired from playing a few games into last season to take the helm of his squad. Things didn’t turn out super-well then (the Rowdies, with one of the highest payrolls in USL, didn’t even really sniff the playoffs), but they’re going much better now.
“They’re a very changed side in the last year since Neill [Collins] has really been at the helm,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “I think this has been the first big opportunity for Neill to really put his fingerprints on the team. Lots of changes to the group, he’s had a good preseason to work with players, he’s changed their style and their system. I think the biggest really credit we can give to the group that Neill’s offered up is that they’re very well organized, they’re very determined, and they are incredibly tough to play against because of that.”
Collins’s team has implemented a defense-first 3-4-1-2 formation, and locked down defensively with what amounts to a five-man backline much of the time. The scoring punch hasn’t really gotten going, with a good-not-great goal output, but the Rowdies have yet to lose a match – though they’ve tied more than half of those they’ve played – and for the first time in recent memory, they’ve been better away from Al Lang Stadium than inside its friendly confines.
“They have actually been better on the road: kinda weird,” said the Tampa Bay Times‘s Rodney Page. “Al Lang Stadium tends to become a home field advantage once we hit June and it is stiflingly hot. I don’t think this young team will be intimidated by Nashville.”
There will be one familiar face with the Rowdies, as forward Brandon Allen found a new home after a year with Nashville SC last season. However, he’s been mostly a bit player in this particular production, with 27-year old Sebastián Guenzatti’s five goals leading the team (no other player has more than two), and a rotating cast of characters splitting time at the other striker position. The attacking midfielder, Andrew Tinari, has a pair of goals and a couple assists as well.
The left side of the four-man midfield line seems to be primarily responsible for a lot of Guenzatti’s service, with left winger/wingback Leo Fernandes contributing four assists. Youngster Juan Tejada has played both on the opposite wing and as Guenzatti’s companion at the striker position. He’s a strong offensive option on that side, though on the road I project him to start at striker with a more conservative, defense-minded option as a wingback.
“He is 22 years old and a former college player at Eckerd College, which is only about three miles from the Rowdies’ home in St. Petersburg,” Page said. “He basically tried out for the team in December and ended up starting the first match. He has since played in all nine matches. He only has one goal, but he is a pesky player the opponents’ fans love to hate but the hometown crowd loves him.”
David Najem (whose brother Adam Nashville has already faced with Memphis 901 FC) is that more defensive wingback, in my eyes. He’s still an offense-first player, with limited defensive involvement – only one tackle on the year, 5/11 tackles won – but he’s positionally sound, and certainly if Tejada’s second position is striker, you expect a midfield/fullback hybrid to be the tighter option in defense.
There’s been some rotation at the central defensive midfield spots, though Jordan Doherty and Dominic Oduro dominate the playing time there so far. Doherty had been in and out of the lineup with Zach Steinberger and Yann Ekra (the latter of whom is questionable with injury) also getting time.
The three-man backline in front of exceptional keeper John McCarthy (a former Philadelphia Union player who’s saving 86.7% of shots faced this year) consists of sweeper Abdoulaye Diakité, who tends to stay very deep, and a centerback on either side of him with a little more forward thinking (though given the team’s respective goals for/against numbers, you can be certain they’re positionally sound).
While Nashville SC will match Tampa’s goals per game mark if they score just once tonight, there are more reasons to question their offense, not least of which that they had more than three quarters of last Wednesday’s game against Indy Eleven with a man advantage and couldn’t break a 0-0 deadlock. That’s against one of the better sides in the East, for sure, but that length of a man advantage should result in a score for a team of this caliber.
There’s also something to be said for more than a quarter of their goals coming in a 4-0 victory against Hartford Athletic, a team against whom competent opposition has essentially been able to name whatever score it wants so far this year.
“I hope they don’t score at all,” Nashville defender Justin Davis said. “I think we’re expecting a low-scoring game. That’s one of the hallmarks of our team is to try and keep their chances to a minimum.”
That three-man backline is tough to penetrate though, and for a Nashville team that’s had some scoring struggles in recent weeks (dating back to the Memphis game, NSC has three corner kick goals, a penalty shot, and an own goal, with only two goals from the run of play in that stretch), that’s something to worry about. Given NSC’s troubles generating offense other than hopeful crosses against that odd backline at times, it’s certainly something to worry about.
I will, however, contend that Tampa’s schedule to date has been very easy: they’ve played five of the bottom six teams in the USL East Power Ratings (Hartford, Memphis, Charlotte, Loudoun, Atlanta United 2 – missing only Swope to date), middling Pittsburgh and Louisville teams (both in Tampa), and solid opposition in Saint Louis and Indy, both draws on the road. It balances out over the course of the year, but for now, we don’t really know how they’ll perform in a road game against a good team. The early indications are “hold on for a draw, even against a short-handed team” is a possibility.
The Boys in Gold
Nashville SC’s injury report is clean for the second straight week, with no players out or questionable.
I’d thought and/or hoped that we’d see a return to a four-man backline (for the simple sake of producing consistent, replicable offense not depending on crosses) in the Atlanta United 2 game. It’s unclear whether the choice to stick with the 3-5-2 was dictated by a simple desire to roll with that going forward, or if the rainy conditions played a factor in going with a formation that’s more defensively sound (especially once NSC staked out to an early lead).
So what will we see tonight? I fear a 3-5-2 is going to result in a super-defensive game, given the way the Rowdies have been playing. That would rely on a bit of luck from crosses, or a bit of individual brilliance to break a scoreless deadlock. Nashville has both a commitment to crossing the ball and the individual pieces of talent to see either of those come to fruition. They’re not inherent to the structure, though.
“It’s nice when you get a little bit continuity and consistency in what we’re trying to do as a group,” said midfielder Matt LaGrassa. “I think one of the things that we’ve emphasized as a team is adaptability, so obviously we’re in [the 3-5-2] now, but I don’t that we won’t change again at some point this year. I think we’re comfortable in different shapes, we have the personnel for different shapes as well. As of now, it’s been working for us, so we’re sticking with it. But we’ll see.”
To me, that indicates a possibility of a complete formation switch, even if each hint is prefaced with a “this is what we’re doing right now” type of affirmation that it sticks around.
Nashville will have to go with heavy rotation in the next few weeks, though tonight (national television, top opponent) is the game you’d presume they’re tapering toward. A full first-team lineup is the expectation.
“For the next three weeks we’ve got a really tough schedule,” said Smith. “The group is strong, we’re healthy, we’re in a good place as far as players being mentally and physically in a good spot. I’ve been at clubs before where players have not seen the field at this point, and when you’ve got to call on those players eight games in, they can be off of the pace of match play. But I’m hoping that one or two bits of our rotation here with players means that everyone feels as though they’re in a good place to perform.”
Of course, unlike Tampa – which has lived primarily at home, with one-off road games, rather than extended swings – Nashville should have some home-field advantage here. Familiarity of the field (and how to exploit any idiosyncrasies in size, dimension, infield turf, etc.) plays a role, but so too does the crowd.
Capturing the hearts and minds of the population around Nashville is still a work in progress, but on a national stage this evening, the team isn’t blind to the opportunity.
“You see it more and more,” Davis said. “I think in my apartment I saw a guy with a hat on, so you start seeing the logo and the gear around town a little bit more. It starts spreading around with word of mouth and people come check out a game and they get hooked. That’s kind of what we want to have happen here, just come out, check of the game, and you’ll fall in love with it, fall in love with the supporter culture and then you’re hooked moving forward on to MLS next year.”
As much as I think the average fan’s opinion of supporters’ culture (and particular, feeling like said culture is forced on them, or they’re accused of not being legitimate fans), tonight’s game should be a showcase for the positives of it.
Keys to the game
- Stay compact at the back. Tampa’s formation doesn’t really lend itself to a ton of penetration up the middle, and going against a solid Nashville defensive midfield, that should remain the case. With NSC’s central defense and fullbacks able to cut out some of the crosses that will be whipped in, that can limit the impact Fernandes, and to a lesser extent Tinari, are able to have.
- Find the moments of brilliance. I remain skeptical of the offensive punch that can be provided by by the 3-5-2 if that is indeed what we’ll be seeing this evening. It will be down to individuals, with Daniel Ríos, Kharlton Belmar, and hopefully a full fit Cameron Lancaster ready to provide that extra piece Nashville lacked at times last season, and has seen escape it in recent weeks.
- Play to the crowd. This should be the best-attended game of the season, even though it’s a midweek evening. While fans (naturally) want to feel like their actions impact the game – that’s the entire psychology of fandom, at times – this is one in which that can actually be the case.
- Score more goals than the opponent. Always important, IMO.
For me, this one comes down to how much Nashville gets back to full comfort by playing at home.
- Tucker Hume earns the start, and knocks a cross down to Ríos, who opens the game’s scoring.
- Ken Tribbett provides a second goal shortly after halftime on a headed corner kick, with service by Michael Reed.
- Tampa Bay pulls one back with Tinari serving Guenzatti through in the 80th minute, but the Rowdies can’t find the second.
The game ends in a 2-1 Nashville victory.