Nashville SC gets its first rematch in a league game this year (their second game against Charleston Battery was in the Open Cup). Can they repeat the 3-0 result with Ottawa Fury coming to First Tennessee Park?
Opponent: Ottawa Fury (6-2-5) • 7th place USL East • 6th place USL East power ratings and 4th place combined-table Pure Power (14th East)
Time, Location: Saturday, June 22, 7:00 p.m. CDT • First Tennessee Park
Weather: 90ºF, 15% chance of rain, 54% humidity, 8 MPH SSW winds
Follow: USL Gametracker • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 locally or ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
Tailgate: With The Assembly at the Ozzie Lot. With the Roadies at Neighbors Germantown. With Heaters/Eastern Front at Von Elrods. At the soccer bar of your choice.
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score Nashville 0.93, Ottawa 0.96
Etc.: Press conference video and transcript with Gary Smith and two of his players. Coverage from last time against Ottawa. Preview of the previous game.
You may recall that Nashville SC thrashed Ottawa by playing up the flanks last time these two teams met. That was because Ottawa’s 4-diamond-2 formation was particularly susceptible to Nashville SC’s wide play. Ottawa hasn’t changed a ton since that game, but they have shifted to a more traditional 4-3-3, which should help them be a little more sound defensively.
The defense has been strong this year, and according to Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith, that’s been largely about using their offensive proficiency to prevent opponents from having much time on the ball.
“They’re a side that take great pride in keeping the ball,” Smith said. “Nikola’s done a wonderful job in setting a technical standard in this group. And when they’ve got the ball, they’re bloody difficult to get it back off of. So us trying to control portions of the game, I think will be detrimental for them. Some of their weakest areas are when they’ve got to defend for periods of time, so certainly want to take advantage of that.
“If you look at their stats, they maintain the ball longer than any other team in the league. They pass the ball more than any other team in the league, which means they’ve got the ball more – or certainly for longer periods. So the key for us is to take the ball back.”
They’ve also come out of their shell offensively just a bit: Ottawa scored 0.8 goals per game through their first four contests (2-2-1, including the loss to Nashville), and in the eight-game unbeaten streak since, they’ve scored 15 goals, 1.9 per contest.
“They are scoring goals: that’s the main thing that they improved,” said Nashville SSC striker Daniel Ríos. “They are scoring the chances that they have.”
Taken in tandem with Smith’s assertion about the style of play (and how they defend via Guardiola-style possession), you can bet on a team that wants a lot of the ball, picks its spots to shoot (fourth from the bottom of the league in shots taken), and converts at a reasonably high rate (t-14 in USL, t-7th in the East).
The personnel hasn’t changed that much with the tactical shift aside from one difference: Mour Samb (who came on in the 66th minute last time Nashville played Ottawa) has emerged as a true center striker, allowing Kevín Oliveira to play as a winger rather than a central attacking midfielder, and Carl Haworth has moved back, from one of a strike duo to a consistent right back position.
The added width by having two wide attacking players (complementing offensive-minded mids Wal Fall and Chris Mannella and lone defensive mid Charlie Ward) has allowed for a more consistent ability to maintain that possession, rather than falling into some of the weaknesses inherent in the diamond midfield. Those wingers can be part-midfield and part-forward, depending on need, and the ability of Samb to create chances and finish as a single striker has been more efficient than trying to keep two up top.
The Boys in Gold
The injury report includes only Derrick Jones, who is out longer-term after ankle surgery, and Ken Tribbett, who remains questionable with a calf injury.
Nashville has had an offensive breakout lately, and while it’s come with occasional wobbles at the back, the juice is certainly worth the squeeze. Of course, a lot of the improvement offensively is more about chemistry and experience than anything shifting schematically in a major way.
“I’m playing with Ropapa [Mensah] or Daniel [Ríos] up top, so I played with Ropapa last year and know his movement, now with Daniel: I think it’s a combination of both,” said NSC attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto. “Being able to score goals, put them in, I think we can still do better in terms of conceding goals, but we’re heading in the right direction.”
Nashville has goner with a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 in recent weeks, but has the ability to trot out multiple formations, including formations with four at the back. Given the success in the back-three with Darnell King playing one of the centerback positions Sunday, I think there’s a decent chance we see the same against Ottawa, which should also allow Nashville to overwhelm the midfield at times.
In fact, I think we see the exact same lineup that took the field in Hartford, with the opportunity to shift into a more-attacking 4-2-3-1 with a single sub (an offensive winger replacing one of the wingbacks) if the opportunity arises. With the increased offensive involvement of Taylor Washington and Kosuke Kimura as they play more wide midfield roles than true up-and-back wingbacks, Nashville should still be able to exploit the wide gaps in Ottawa’s formation if they recur.
Mensah’s start Sunday saw him have a fantastic game, and now that he’s worked his way into 90-minute shape, he may end up a mainstay in the lineup (particularly against teams who aren’t quick-counter sides to exploit his occasional giveaways) for the time being.
“Players like Ropapa who haven’t been playing starting since the beginning of the season are performing well,” Ríos said. “It’s good for the team that everybody’s engaged in this part of the season. It’s mid-season and we need to achieve all of the most points that we can.”
This should be the second game of a Matt Pickens cycle of the goalkeeper rotation, meaning from top to bottom, I like the lineup to be unchanged. I do think Kharlton Belmar at the least needs a longer run-out than he’s gotten recently, and Alan Winn’s playing time has been similarly affected by the formation shift. The game states should dictate whether those things change tomorrow.
Keys to the game
- Get on the ball. Ottawa wants to control the run of play to generate scoring chances, but also to keep it away from the opponent. One like Nashville, with good options up top, is exactly the type of side this is designed for.
- Don’t concede on a set piece. This is going to be a theme for much of the year, at least until proven it’s not a problem (which probably won’t happen, since it is a problem, and one that doesn’t seem to be going away). Ottawa’s offense is pedestrian-though-improved, a defense like Nashville’s should be able to limit their chances in the run of play. Set pieces can make the difference there.
- Get out to an early lead. This is sort of a “duh” moment, but it’s particularly important against a side like Ottawa: they don’t want to be forced to play up the field quickly, and putting them behind on the scoreboard will do just that.
- Don’t let them play through the midfield. A team that wants to control the tempo and possession of the game can’t do that if you take away their metronome. Even if it opens up other options for Ottawa, preventing Ward (92.5% accuracy on the most passing attempts in the league) from being the general is a major key.
I get the vibe this is either going to be a boring draw or a rather high-scoring game, depending on how much incentive each team gives the other to push.
- Haworth gets up the right side and assists Samb late in the first half to open the scoring.
- Kharlton Belmar, on as an offensive substitution, gets a solo goal around the 70th minute.
The game ends in a 1-1 draw. I went with the former guess.