Nashville SC hasn’t played an Eastern Conference contender for a few weeks now. Can they strike a blow on the standings against a team with whom they’re competing for top spot on the table?
Opponent: Indy Eleven (5-2-2) • 6th place USL East • 4th place USL East power ratings and 7th place combined-table Pure Power (3rd East)
Time, Location: Saturday, May 25 6:00 p.m. CDT (7:00 local) • Indianapolis
Follow: USL Gametracker
Watch • Listen: ESPNews • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español). Official club watch party at Chago’s Belmont, or find your soccer bar of choice.
Etc.: Presser with Gary Smith and Kosuke Kimura. Q&A with BGN Written’s Brian Cook.
Thanks to offseason signings, Indy – like Nashville – was one of the Eastern Conference’s favorites coming into the year. While they haven’t underachieved massively by any stretch, at 5-2-2 through nine games, they’re tied for third in the conference in PPG (with Ottawa, at 1.89), which is good-not-great, and they’re scoring 1.44 goals per outing, again good but not the Cincy-challenging status we were expecting.
“Generally, the reaction has been that the defense and goalkeeping have surpassed all expectations and the midfield has met those expectations,” said BGN Written‘s Brian Cook. “The attack has been hit or miss but that was always kind of expected when you bring in big names that will demand a lot of attention. As the season has gone on I think the team has started to figure out how to make this tactic work and what has to be done if someone like Kelly is heavily marked or having an off night.”
That Gary Smith has to say “it wasn’t a bad #take when I called them the conference favorite in preseason,” there’s certainly a bit of diminished reputation through the first third of the season or so.
“I stick by my assessment of Indy with their recruitment,” Smith said. “They’re going to be the team to beat. Maybe Tampa are showing some serious credentials in that manner and aspect, but I still think Indy won’t be far away from being in that certainly top two spots.”
Former DC United striker (in the most technical sense – he only appeared once for the MLS club) and the USL’s all-time leading scorer Dan Kelly was a big addition in the offseason. So too was former Orange County SC forward/midfielder Thomas Enevoldsen, who was an easy No. 3 in last year’s league MVP choice (behind Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Ledesma and Louisville-turned Nashville striker Cameron Lancaster).
They’ve scored just four and two goals, respectively, and Enevoldsen is still looking for his first assist(!). Indy’s shift to a 3-4-3 formation has probably shored up their defense, but has been a work in progress when it comes to offensive production. They’re eighth in the conference in goals per game, and the advanced stats have their offense 26th in USL. Perhaps they’re due for a breakout, but they haven’t hit it yet. If they do get that boost, they’re in good position to tear things up over the second half.
“”They’re in a really good spot in the league. I think they’ve shown all of the credentials that you might expect. Very difficult side to play against. A lot of experience. That 3-4-3 shape I think has served them well, and their home field is not the easiest place, and not the best surface to go and play on.”
The Eleven has also had a tough time at Lucas Oil, scoring just twice in four games, including more than 70 scoreless minutes with a man advantage against Tampa Bay.
The upside is that the defense have been borderline elite, with a third-in-conference 0.78 goals allowed per game.
“Whatever the statistics show at the end of the game as been fairly successful defensively as the season has gone on,” Cook said. “When you look at the St. Louis game at the beginning of the season to even the Charleston game you see that the team has fixed those positioning issues that allowed St. Louis to get three points. The 3-4-3’s success very much depends on the transition from each phase and that’s always been the issue offensively.”
Evan Newton is saving 72% of shots faced, and it’s largely because the performance in front of him has been great: Indy signed the best player from last year’s good Charleston defense (Neveal Hackshaw), has gotten better returns in the second year in Indianapolis out of Canada international Karl Ouimette, and added the best player from a decent Cincinnati defense in Paddy Barrett.
The 3-4-3 is inherently defensive unless the fullback/wingback-style players get up the field, and with Ayoze García Perez at left wingback especially, they get the best of both worlds. His 19 key passes have turned into just two assists, so some better conversion could see him break out statistically.
“Definitely they have an experienced group,” said NSC defender Kosuke Kimura. “They have players that they added this year from Cincy who can play – I know them personally. Their coach is experienced, and they’ve been playing a certain formation for a while now this season. I think it suits them better with the players they have, and even with the field they have, a narrow field on turf, and it’s going to be difficult just like we had against Pittsburgh. We know that already going there: it’s a battle, mental, one-v-one battles everywhere. At the same time, I do think we have enough players to compete and match their intensity. When it comes down to it, it’s going to be individual moments, can you make it.”
Against top teams, I’d sort of expect Indy to be a little more conservative, and their extremely low-scoring home performance speaks for itself, too.
The Boys in Gold
Nashville SC’s injury report includes two players: striker Cameron Lancaster is questionable with a leg injury, while Michael Reed is out completely with a knee injury suffered against Birmingham.
I shall keep this brief, because obviously I intended to publish it much earlier this morning: Nashville went with slightly more offensive a personnel grouping than we’ve been seeing, and it didn’t work out on Wednesday. Does Gary Smith double down and try to outscore Indy, or accept that it’s going to be a defensive game in Indianapolis? I’d wager the latter, but Nashville’s two-way personnel are talented enough that they should be able to find some success.
Michael Reed’s unavailability likely means it’s primetime for Derrick Jones, who could make his first start for the club. I noted in The Graphical that Jones seemed to fit right into the lineup and played the role very well Wednesday. More of the same for a 90-minute outing would be great.
The absence of Lancaster is disappointing in that it means there’s no changeup if the fastball of Daniel Ríos isn’t functioning (which is rare, but certainly happened at times against both Tampa Bay and Charlotte), but he’s been upgraded from being completely ruled out of the midweek, so we shall see if he’s available.
It’s a Matt Pickens game between the pipes if the rotation remains what it has been to date this season.
Keys to the game
- Take care on set pieces. This is going to be a low-scoring outing. Don’t fall victim to the Saint Louis/Tampa result where the opponent nicks one against the run of play and holds on for the victory.
- Get in behind. Meanwhile, Nashville’s going to play a bit more of a bunker/counter philosophy against this Indy team, and in this extremely taxing stadium (a 3-5-2 wouldn’t even surprise me, actually). Punishing the opposing wingbacks for getting upfield and having productive interplay with the fullbacks, wingers, and striker is incredibly important in that situation.
- Be strong at the back. Please.
Sorry y’all, it’s going to be a boring one. Other than extreme counters and set piece brilliance, I don’t expect much. A game like last year’s in Indy but without a wondergoal (and Nashville’s refocus on offense to try to come back) is likely.
The game ends in a scoreless draw.