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: Hartford Athletic (2-9-3) • 16th place USL East • 16th place USL East power ratings and 30th place combined-table Pure Power (14th East)
Time, Location: Sunday, June 16 3:00 p.m. EDT (2:00 in Nashville) • Rentschler Field, Hartford, Conn.
Weather: 71ºF, 67% chance of rain, 75% humidity, 7 MPH Southerly 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 downtown, with The Assembly at Smokin’ Thighs. At the soccer bar of your choice.
The line: Nashville SC -147, Draw +273, Hartford +299.
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score Hartford 1.14-1.76 Nashville
Etc.: Q&A with the Hartford Courant‘s Shawn McFarland.
Hartford has not been a good team this year. HOWEVA, after an 0-8 start, they’ve started to find something, with a 2-1-3 mark in the time since. The loss that came outside the season-opening streak seems to have sparked a larger turning point.
“Head coach Jimmy Nielsen didn’t hold back after a 2-1 loss to Memphis 901 in early May,” the Hartford Courant‘s Shawn McFarland said. “]He cited] that the players didn’t come to play, and even going as far to say that the loss was their fault, and not his. Since then, the team is 2-0-2 and has risen from last place.”
That hasn’t been a simple flip in schedule strength, with the early-season losses including Atlanta United 2 and the aforementioned Memphis. Their last three games have included draws against Ottawa and North Carolina, and a win over Saint Louis: they’ve done some good work against better teams than they were losing to earlier in the year.
There is something to be said for venue: The eight-game losing streak happened entirely away from home, while the 2-1-3 mark has happened with five of six at UConn football stadium Rentschler Field. Given that Nashville’s traveling to Hartford… that home strength could be a factor here! Athletic isn’t even playing in its own stadium yet, with Renstchler temporary as Dillon Stadium’s refurbishment to USL spec is completed. There’s a possibility their home-field advantage is even better when they have a dedicated facility – though of course it could also dry up if there’s some special Rentschler mojo.
“They’re playing on a temporary site,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “It looks as though the field is in very good shape. It’s certainly a lot more conducive to playing, to putting on a professional game. Their last three games have seen them turn their form around. Three very good results after a really tricky start.
“We’ve said it before, we know what that’s like as a brand-new side just coming together and to compound their problems, they’re away from home for eight games. So it’s never easy, but they’re just starting to show some much better signs. The team has been together a little bit longer, they will have learned a lot about each other, they have certainly had to deal with some adversity and now they’ve not lost in three games with a very good win at the weekend. I’m sure they’re in a much better mental place, and there’s no two ways about it.”
Let’s take a look at the team itself.
Jimmy Nielsen loves two categories of player: his players from a 2014-17 stint at OKC, and his fellow Danes. Utility player Phillip Rasmussen, forward José Angulo, winger Hugh Alexander Dixon, keeper Jacob Lissek, winger Jonathan Brown, and forward Wojciech Wojcik were on his final team with the Energy. Keeper Frederik Due, centerback Nikolaj Lyngo, midfielder Mads Jorgensen, and winger Sebastian Dalgaard join Rasmussen as Nielsen’s Danish countrymen. All have been major contributors over the course of the season.
They started the year with a four-man backline and single defensive midfielder (Rasmussen), which went horribly. They tried a 5-3-2 with two defensive midfielders for a four-game stretch, which was even worse (15 goals allowed in those four games). They’ve settled on a four-man backline with two defensive midfielders, which has provided stability. They’ve found even more success by switching from a 4-4-2 to a 4-4-1-1.
Lissek has been the primary choice at keeper (and statistically the best on the team by a wide margin), but Due has been the man in the past three, all at home. He’s far from entrenched, but it’s fair to say he’s being given a chance to emerge as The Guy despite saving 60% of shots faced (presumably because he’s a massive upgrade in distribution).
The backline has a strong FC Cincinnati feel: former Attendance Obsessor Sem de Wit has been a mainstay at centerback, and current Attendance Obsessor Logan Gdula has played next to him in the past three games since joining Hartford on loan from his parent club (he was initially sent to Phoenix, where he couldn’t find minutes). de Wit is on four yellow cards for the year, and the next one will see him suspended a game: trying to put him in positions where he has to choose between being physical or allowing a good look at goal would be wise, since he may be tentative to give a hard foul.
The central defensive midfield has been a pairing all year, with Jorgensen and Minnesota United loanee Collin Martin getting the majority of the time since Martin joined on loan, but Nicky Downs spelling one or the other at times. Jorgensen is the team’s key-pass leader, so enough of their effective offense comes through the center. They also have plenty of ineffective offense, led by…
Left winger Dalgaard has the most attempted crosses on the team, with right winger Brown right behind him… but Brown has been loaned out to OKC (full circle, babaaaay!) with Curinga emerging as the first-choice right back, pushing Harry Swartz forward into that right wing role.
“The No. 1 standout has been Harry Swartz, a midfielder that was brought in on a trial, earned a starting role, and has scored 3 goals between USL regular season games and U.S. Open Cup games,” McFarland said. “He’s an absolute ball of energy up front, plays super aggressive, and is a favorite of Nielsen. He’s a New England guy, too.”
Lee is actually in close competition near the top of the crossing attempt chart, so assuming Brown sits to allow Swartz’s blossoming to continue, this is a team that is heavily left-sided in crossing service.
The shift from two strikers to a single striker and a withdrawn forward behind him has seen Angulo play stacked ahead of Wojcik. Angulo is the team’s leader in both goals (3) and assists (2), meager amounts, but as Hartford gets settled in its system, the chemistry between he and Wojcik should be helpful.
Rasmussen and Dixon both have significant starting experience this year, though both have been used more in super-sub roles in recent weeks with the striker switch noted above. Rasmussen came off the bench to score the game-winner against Saint Louis last week.
The rest of the depth comprises mostly those guys listed above: cross-happy Brown, CDM sub Downs, and centerback Lyngo, relegated mostly to the bench as the five-man backline has disappeared from the rotation and Gdula has integrated with the team (he’s used in place of one CB or the other at times still).
The Boys in Gold
Nashville SC will be without centerback Bradley Bourgeois, who will sit one game with yellow card accumulation.
The injury report includes only Derrick Jones, who is out longer-term after ankle surgery, and Ken Tribbett, who is questionable with a calf injury.
Nashville SC’s offensive breakout last week came mostly in the form of “take advantage of a bad team,” but there are definitely aspects of it that can carry over. Ropapa Mensah and Cameron Lancaster finding their form and fitness takes the firepower to another level, and means NSC isn’t entirely reliant on Daniel Ríos to be the finisher (or often creator) for this team.
“He’s starting to show some signs of the old Ropapa coming off the bench on a couple of
occasions,” Smith said of Mensah. “Very pleased with his form, but we’re looking at a very small portion size at the moment. That needs to be a little bit more consistent.”
“Get in the team, score more goals and help the team as much as I can,” Lancaster said. “That’s the main goal for me, I think.”
The fullbacks getting involved in the offense is a possibility, especially on Hartford’s left side, where both wide players like to get upfield. That latter aspect will provide an interesting decision for Gary Smith: do you attack that by getting in behind and punishing the opponent for being upfield (as he did against Ottawa), or sit back a little bit more to absorb a bit of that pressure, making sure you don’t let them behind your right side?
Rentschler Field has a big pitch, and Gary Smith has made his intentions clear to play with width in the offensive end when that opportunity arises (the 3-5-2 has come out on narrow fields at Pittsburgh and Indy, and against a counter-attack-minded Tampa Bay rowdies team), and Nashville should have the confidence in its pieces to handle Hartford – even with its above-average offense at home – without committing numbers to the back. With Alan Winn and Kharlton Belmar on long rest (Belmar got a few minutes against Bethlehem and Indy, but other than that, both have only the Open Cup game since May 22), I’d imagine they’re ready to get a full 90 if needed.
In the keeper rotation, it’s a Matt Pickens game. In front of him, the absence of Bradley Bourgeois makes the centerback choice obvious: Liam Doyle and Ken Tribbett, pending the latter’s health. If Tribbett can’t go, Justin Davis in his place with thany question about left back settled on Taylor Washington. If Tribbett can go, there are still options with the fullbacks, but I think the more defensively-sound duo makes sense on the road, especially if Kimura is going to get involved offensively.
Keys to the game
- Get an early lead. Always important for a Nashville team that doesn’t have the sheer force of talent to overwhelm a team that’s bunkering. More so against a Hartford team that will be very content to bunker – whether with a lead or at a level score.
- Get Ríos going. Alternatively: give Ríos rest. He’s played the third-most minutes on the team out of necessity, and some of that fatigue is showing in technique (thankfully, the motor never gives up). A goal can provide a serious lift in that regard, or a fit Lancaster/Mensah option could let Ríos get some additional recovery. I would imagine that the former is the hope, with his sub-out last weekend intended to keep him a little rested for Hartford.
- Test the keeper. Due is bad – saving just 60% of shots. Even Lissek, who is performing much better, has a 68% mark against mostly weak competition (albeit most of it on the road). Good shots will be able to beat these guys.
- Solid at the back. The centerback depth will be tested with Bradley Bourgeois unavailable. Davis could slide inside while Washington plays LB, but that’s basically the only changeup available.
Hartford is bad overall, but actually above-average at home.
- Hartford actually earns the first goal, with a through-ball putting Angulo in on goal before he slides it across the face for Wojciek to finish.
- Cameron Lancaster equalizes for Nashville shortly after halftime.
- Alas, Hartford proves to be content with the draw, executing a bunker that NSC can’t solve for another.
The game ends in a 1-1 draw.