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: Bethlehem Steel (3-6-4) • 11th place USL East • 14th place USL East power ratings and 34th place combined-table Pure Power (17th East)
Time, Location: Sunday, June 9 6:00 p.m. EDT (5:00 in Nashville) • La Salle University, Philadelphia
Weather: 77ºF, 14% chance of rain, 40% humidity, 14 MPH Easterly winds
Follow: USL Gametracker
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 locally or ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
Tailgate/Watch party: With the club at Waldo’s in Germantown, with The Assembly at Smokin’ Thighs. At the soccer bar of your choice.
The line: Nashville SC -110, Draw +250, Bethlehem +238. My computers say Bethlehem 0.40-1.98 Nashville.
Etc.: Q&A with Evan Villella of The USL Show and Views from the Bridge.
There’s a lot going on here. This team has a few players unavailable with international call-ups:
- US U-20: LB Matt Real, CB Mark McKenzie (mostly with the Union this season)
- Jamaica Gold Cup: CB Jamoi Topey
In addition, they’ve had a few players out with injury (midfielder Zach Zandi, forward Shanyder Borgelin, centerback Michael Pellegrino), and their respective statuses are unknown.
HOWEVER, the Philadelphia Union is home today, and the Steel is home – inasmuch as they have a home, wandering the Wilderness of Southeast Pennsylvania and settling on La Salle University for this particular game – tomorrow. In that instance, first-team players who didn’t get game time may make it into the lineup for the Steel, especially since Philly has the following two weekends off during MLS’s Gold Cup hiatus. This is already one of the MLS reserve sides most prone to crazy personnel swings on the whims of the parent club, and there is plenty of reason to expect that to be ample for this weekend.
“Whoever they bring out – because MLS 2 teams, you don’t know who they’re going to check out – if guys perform admirably and to the best of their ability, we should have a good chance,” said Nashville SC midfielder Michael Reed.
With all that out of the way, pending the needs of the Union, most of the lineup is relatively consistent. You know you’ll see James Chambers. You’re almost certain you’ll see Michee Ngalina, Ben Ofeimu, and Chavany Willis. Faris Pemi Moumbagna is one of their most-used players when healthy, and given that Ngalina is the member of the strike duo on an MLS contract (and thus more likely to be brought up to the Union if they have a shortage of strikers), I’m pretty certain on him, too.
“James Chambers is still trying to absolutely carry a team on his back,” said The USL Show‘s Evan Villella. “Ben Ofeimu is a guy that everyone’s been really high on due to his size and speed and Zach Zandi has emerged as a pretty solid playmaker on his day. Union Academy transplant Shanyder Borgelin only spent two years in the Academy but put up 14 goals in 39 appearances, so they think there’s some raw finishing talent there.”
The rest… is a little up for interpretation. Here’s my best guess for the whole lineup:
Head coach Brendan Burke has tried to go with a 4-diamond-2 midfield for much of the year, with Chambers lying deep and trying to play the long diagonal (15% of his passes are longballs, a pretty high number for a central midfielder in any role). The “wide” midfielders have stayed pretty narrow, but an inability to properly execute the diamond midfield has led to Willis dropping deeper to help Chambers out, and both of them working forward at similar rates, so it ends up being a little more like a very narrow
(with virtually no crossing from wingers) flat-4 in the middle.
That said, the change in venue could play a role in the effectiveness of the diamond midfield: playing on turf traditionally makes it quite a bit more feasible, and a narrower pitch (particularly in comparison to the massive Talen Energy playing surface) is perhaps even more significant, because there’s not as much lateral distance for an inherently narrow midfield shape to cover, and the fullbacks don’t have to expose the backline to provide width. (If you want more tactics nerding on the weaknesses of the diamond midfield, see this post from the Ottawa Fury game).
“They have had some mixed results this year, and there have been a lot of changes there in the way that they play,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith. “They’ve got this diamond
shape in the midfield and a front two, which is different than the group last year. They look a younger group as well.”
The scoring has been handled by the two forwards I have listed, with Willis (remember: nominally the 10 in the diamond midfield, but has operated more like the middle of three box-to-box guys ahead of Chambers) joining them at the three-goal mark. Kacper Pryzbyłko has three as well, but has been exclusively with the Union of late. Zandi, who has missed the past four games, is the team’s leader in assists with three, while Matt Real (as noted above, unavailable) is the only other player with more than one. If Zandi can’t go, the assists available in this lineup are… sparse.
That sounds like – and is – a poor offense, but the majority of the struggles for the Steel have come defensively, where they’re not quiiiite a full standard deviation below the average team in productivity. So, it’s a Very Good Thing that two starting centerbacks (OK, Mark McKenzie has only one appearance after moving up to the Union) and the starting left back are on international duty, yeah? When Pellegrino went down last Friday, a 16-year old academy player was thrust into the lineup, and pending Pellegrino’s status (and the needs of the Union, etc. etc.) a literal child could start for the Steel.
“The defense has been a bit leaky,” Villella told me. “Topey [not available for this game] has taken a bit of time to gel and mesh and without Matt Mahoney [now with the Sacramento Republic] there to clean up Ben Ofeimu hasn’t quite hit his potential yet.”
It’s worth noting that Ofeimu does still lead in the majority of defensive categories: the ceiling there is still higher than he’s shown – and more translatable to team success in the long-term.
In net, there’s been a pretty healthy rotation, but Tomás Romero has been the go-to in recent games. He’s actually been the least successful of the regularly-used keepers, though that’s not really his fault, and he replaced Matt Freese at the half last week after Freese had given up two first-half goals against the Baby Bulls. Freese and Carlos Miguel Coronel will split duties with the Union (starter Andre Blake is with Jamaica through the Gold Cup), and the one who doesn’t start today could also get the nod for the Steel tomorrow.
The Boys in Gold
Nashville SC’s injury report includes only one player: midfielder Derrick Jones, out with an ankle injury.
The team certainly won’t blame fixture congestion for their tired legs in the final couple weeks of the long run in May, but there’s no denying that it played a factor, most obvious in the US Open Cup loss to Charleston Battery, where chance after chance was squandered thanks to guys being in the right position, but a step slow, or a hair inaccurate as they swung through the shot.
“When there’s a little bit more time in between, I do always feel it’s a good opportunity to
reinforce some of the main characteristics of the group,” said Smith. We’ve been looking at what we’re like as a group without the ball, probably more importantly, how are we going to break teams down when that moment comes around again, and what are we like in possession and creating.”
Striker Daniel Ríos and Kharlton Belmar never showed fatigue in terms of motor, but certainly their precision seemed to be affected by heavy legs. A few days off should recalibrate them (and help some of their other teammates get back to pace), and offensively, Nashville SC should be closer to the early-season form than the recent run of zero or one goals against USL competition (they haven’t scored multiple goals against pros since May 11). It’s also possible that the return of Cameron Lancaster from injury finally takes place, though working him in as a sub makes more sense than having him go 90 after a soft-tissue injury.
Defensively, things are relatively set from first-choice lineup down to how the depth will see the field (with questions pending about both backup fullbacks’ attempts to push their way into the starting lineup), and the bigger question becomes how Gary Smith wants to line up: he’s gone with a 3-5-2 against tougher opposition at times, and certainly there will be a temptation to overwhelm the midfield with those numbers on a narrower surface. However, weaker competition has seen NSC go with a more offense-friendly 4-2-3-1 scheme, and given the relatively toothless Bethlehem attack and their weaker defense, going with the base “we are not playing for a draw” formation is more likely.
On long rest, give me what has been the established first-choice lineup, with perhaps minor tweaks to build toward the stretch run of the season. Given the keeper rotation to date, it should be a Connor Sparrow game, but with the long layoff, it’s possible that the two-on, two-off rhythm gets disrupted just a bit.
OK, I undersold my tweaks just a bit: with Derrick Jones unavailable (he had surgery on the ankle he injured against Charleston), Nashville is left without a very good midfield enforcer. Because of that, I put both Michael Reed and Bolu Akinyode at those central defensive spots, and the more defensively-oriented Matt LaGrassa as the No. 10. He’s played there regularly, of course, but does provide more in the defensive phase than the other option, Lebo Moloto (who could also use a bit more rest after a pretty poor performance against the Battery). To augment the offense just a bit, Darnell King is my right back to underlap Kharlton Belmar and get up next to LaGrassa a bit near the top of the box.
All of this helps NSC own the midfield a little bit more against a Bethlehem Steel team that should get a boost to its ability to handle that area of the pitch on account of venue change.
Keys to the game
- Own the midfield. This was a regular theme of the above, yeah? If Steel doesn’t adjust its tactics to cover for a depleted backline, this should be no sweat for NSC. I would expect at least a bit of help though.
- Be sharp. While the offense has dried up lately, it hasn’t been for lack of chances. If Nashville converts at its early-season rate, rather than the more recent tired-legs struggles, they should be just fine.
- Don’t give up a soft one. NSC doesn’t really concede to poor teams except on weird, fluky plays (Charlotte, Swope Park). Don’t give one of those – or a set piece – up.
- Get an early lead. If Nashville gets on top, they should be able to use the narrower field to their advantage to choke the life out of the game by overwhelming with numbers in the middle.
It’s so hard to know what we’ll see from the Steel (though we’ll have a better idea after the Union game tonight). Assuming a relatively steady lineup to expectations…
- Daniel Ríos opens the scoring midway through the first half.
- Ken Tribbett gets one on a set piece shortly after the start of the second half.
- Bethlehem gets one around the 70th minute to make things interesting.
- Nashville possibly gets one late from sub Cameron Lancaster to cap the game.
Nashville wins, 3-1, though 2-1 is also firmly within the scope of that prediction.