Nashville SC easily handled Birmingham Legion in the preseason, but with some regular-season action under their belts, the opponents is likely a little more put-together.
Opponent: Birmingham Legion (3-4-3) • 12th place USL East • 11th place USL East power ratings and 27th place combined-table Pure Power (13th East)
Time, Location: Wednesday, May 22 7:00 p.m. CDT • Birmingham, Ala.
Weather: 86ºF, 0% chance of rain, 35% humidity, 3 MPH Southerly winds
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Watch • Listen: ESPNews • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español). Official club watch party at Von Elrod’s, or find your soccer bar of choice.
Etc.: Presser with Gary Smith and Kosuke Kimura.
Birmingham has been a mediocre team so far this season, but they’ve been a team of extremes: they’ve beaten St. Louis FC and Louisville City, but also lost to Bethlehem Steel, drawn Memphis 901, and taken a 3-0 shellacking from Louisville on the playback game (the first regular-season series to be completed in the USL Championship, for what it’s worth).
“They’ve had time to find a little bit of understanding; they’ve been around each other a little while now,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “It does look like there’s been some rotation of bodies. Maybe Tommy [Soehn]’s looking to find the right group and the right connections.”
He’s not joking about some of the rotation, and that applies to formations, as well: Soehn has had a hard time finding what works best for his team. By my count, there have been about six different formations (plus a couple additional game-to-game tweaks), with a few characteristics that seem to be what he’s going for:
- A four-man backline (all but one game)
- A single defensive midfielder (all but three games)
- Two strikers (all but three games)
That’s been a 4-diamond-2, a flat midfield three in front of the defensive midfielder, variations on a 4-3-3 with an imbalanced front (one winger and two strikers), and… well, we’ll say varying degrees of success.
“They are a brand new team, just like we were last year,” said Nashville SC defender Kosuke Kimura. “They’ve got some decent players from MLS – that used to play there – and they have experienced coaches on the staff and at GM and all that. I’m pretty sure they worked hard to get some decent players. They can pass the ball, they can move the ball, but at the same time, I think we can unlock them being more positive going forward, one-v-ones, I think we have more athleticism and we can break that down.”
Defensive midfielder Zachary Herivaux was red-carded over the weekend, so he’ll be unavailable, and his versatility – he’s also played centerback, fullback, winger, and the No. 10 position – will be missed. He’s No. 4 on the team in minutes played, and his absence all-but guarantees that Mikey Lopez (like NSC’s Darnell King, a bright spot for a disappointing San Antonio FC team last year) will occupy that deep-lying midfield spot. He leads the team in passes per 90, and is third among non-keepers in long passes.
We’ll work backward, since a four-man backline seems most likely. Keeper has been a split between Trevor Spangenberg and Mat Van Oekel, with the former getting the last three games in the wake of a Van Oekel injury (he’s questionable for this evening’s game). He’s been terrible, saving just 53.3% of shots faced, so as soon as Van Oekel is healthy – perhaps as soon as tonight – the Legion would much rather roll with his 66.7% rate.
Six different players have been at centerback in the past five games. However, Herivaux is unavailable and centerback Kyle Fisher is doubtful with injury, and Kyle Culbertson is the starting left-back when they go to a four-man line. That leaves Mathieu Laurent, Tyler Turner, and Femi Hollinger-Janzen available, with Laurent and Hollinger-Janzen (who started the most recent game, a shutout of North Carolina FC) my picks to start there. The right back has consistently rotated between Gael Mabiala and Eric Avila, and it’s Mabiala’s turn in that rotation – though a shutout in the team’s last outing may be reason enough to roll with Avila two in a row.
Culbertson and Avila record four and three crosses per game, respectively, and the fullbacks tend to get high and wide while the midfielders all tuck in (the organization on offense tends to look like a mess in fact, about which more in a moment). They’re in a three-way tie with midfielder Daigo Kobayashi for assists with two – so those crosses are being finished on the rare occasion they’re actually completed (10% of the time each).
I’m expecting a three-man midfield offensively, with Kobayashi perhaps nominally lining up as a defensive midfielder next to Lopez, but he plays very much an offense-first style, and will be up centrally while a combination of Daniel Johnson, Prosper Kasim (who can also play as a second striker), and Edward Opoku occupy the other two slots. Kasim is second on the team in key passes with 14, and Johnson at 13 is right on his heels. Nobody else is in double-digits, so they’re the engines of this one.
With Columbus Crew loanee J.J. Williams available, I expect him to start at striker alongside USL veteran (and Birmingham native) Chandler Hoffman, who scored 21 goals with Real Monarchs last year. They have two goals a pop in 2019 – with Williams scoring all his in just three appearances since joining from the Crew – tying them with Kasim for the team lead.
Thanks to Herivaux’s suspension and some injury issues, this is not a deep team, and one who I don’t think has figured out how specifically they want to play aside from a few of the key characteristics mentioned above. Look for there to be space in behind the fullbacks, with their general offensive philosophy to try to build through a No. 10 or through crosses.
Given that (and Nashville’s recent struggles against the 3-5-2), they may go full-bunker from the beginning, with an odd backline and a plan to play for the draw with occasional counter opportunities to nick a win. This is a team with a below-average offense and defense, and one that’s been much better on the road than at home so far. A conservative gameplan wouldn’t surprise.
The Boys in Gold
Nashville SC’s injury report includes only one player: striker Cameron Lancaster, who remains out of training with a leg injury.
Nashville SC has had a frustrating time dealing with good defenses – or in the case of Saturday’s game, a bad defense that is improving and played well on the day (while bunkering for a draw in the second half, to be fair). Because of that, I think unleashing a bit more offensive firepower is in the works.
Darnell King is the more offensively-oriented right back, and with Kosuke Kimura logging a ton of minutes during this heavy stretch, getting King a longer run-out serves the dual purposes of improving in the final third and getting a bit of rest for a guy who turned 35 last week. Despite his age, Kimura is one of the more energetic guys on the team… eight games in 26 days (and his having played every minute in three of the five already in the books) is a lot to ask.
“I think we’ve fatigued a bit playing all the games, and we haven’t been training in the heat,” Kimura admitted. “In the mornings when we train, there’s still a breeze and all that, it’s still heating up, so I think we are not accustomed to the heat and humidity. I think I can say that, but we’re going to get used to it.
“We have to keep practicing, but at the same time, we have so many games this month, and we don’t have as much time to train. Obviously we’ve got to keep working on it. It’s just an ongoing process the entire season. We’ve got to keep building, and building, and building.”
Similarly, I think Derrick Jones can be a bit of an upgrade as a deep-lying six, particularly if Nashville recognizes that Birmingham doesn’t have much in the way of offense and pushes the other “defensive” midfielder into a more aggressive role.
If Gary Smith sticks with the two-on, two-off keeper rotation, it’ll be Matt Pickens’s turn between the pipes – I guess depending on if the Open Cup game was part of that rotation – and that should be the direction he goes with that.
It is worth noting that NSC’s other short road trip so far this season (Atlanta United 2) was one of their more comfortable victories of the year, even in adverse weather conditions. That’s perhaps not a coincidence.
“The one big difference is that we can train [Tuesday] morning here at our own facility, and we get an extra morning to work after a weekend,” he said. “If it was a flight, it might be a bit tougher to do some of the stuff we have this morning.”
A bus trip comes with its own challenges, no doubt, but there are also certain advantages to not having to hop on an airplane.
Keys to the game
- Punish the fullbacks. Maaaaan would a Khalrton Belmar not on tired legs be nice for this one. Birmingham’s fullbacks like to get upfield, and Belmar running in behind (or sending fullbacks on an overlap, which doesn’t require a talent like Belmar, to be fair) would be nice in this one.
- Stop the crosses. Nashville SC might as well encourage Birmingham to cross the ball: it’s what the Legion wants to do anyway, and it’s generally an ineffective method of generating offense. Let ’em send those in, but Liam Doyle and Ken Tribbett need to be on-point clearing them, too.
- Get forward. This isn’t necessarily specific to Birmingham, except inasmuch as they’re a team that has had a hard time punishing opponents by scoring. Nashville can push one of the members of its double-pivot farther upfield to generate offense, given that Birmingham doesn’t have the pieces to may them pay in the center of the pitch.
- Take an early lead. If Nashville hadn’t gotten scored upon first in the Charlotte game, it probably would have had a very different outcome. This is a Birmingham team that wants to execute a similar gameplan: nick one on the counter, then bunker with occasional counter-attacks the rest of the game. Not letting them do that would be wise.
On Saturday, I saw a Charlotte team that was bad but was working toward something (with the hope it wouldn’t arrive against Nashville… oops). This Birmingham team doesn’t seem to have quite the same belief in a specific plan, and without some of its key players, is unlikely to have the switch-flipping moment it seemed Charlotte may have had.
- Daniel Ríos opens the scoring in the first half.
- Nashville puts the game away early in the second, with Lebo Moloto’s corner kick headed home by Ken Tribbett.
- NSC flips to a three-man backline shortly thereafter and grinds out the rest of the game.
Nashville wins, 2-0.