For the second straight game, Nashville SC will take on an opponent it’s already faced in the regular season. Can the Boys in Gold improve upon their draw in New Jersey against the Baby Bulls this evening?
Opponent: New York Red Bulls II (9-4-2) • 3rd place USL East • 3rd place USL East power ratings and 13th place combined-table Pure Power (7th East)
Time, Location: Wednesday June 26, 7:00 p.m. CDT • First Tennessee Park
Weather: 85ºF, 15% chance of rain, 57% humidity, 5 MPH westerly 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 and the club’s Pride Party at Von Elrod’s. At the soccer bar of your choice.
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score Nashville 2.07, New York 1.00
Etc.: Press conference video and transcript with Gary Smith and two of his players. Coverage from last time against New York. Preview of the previous game.
The Baby Bulls
MLS 2 sides tend to have more variable form over the course of the year than their independent team counterparts, and that’s particularly true of Red Bulls II right now: with the senior team missing a handful of players to Gold Cup call-ups for their respective national teams (and Tom Barlow having signed with the senior team since these two sides met at Montclair State), they’re a very different roster from last time around.
“John Wolyniec has done an incredible job with this team over its first few years in existence,” said NYRBII play-by-play announcer Davis Gass. “The continuity in performances in light of the fluidity of the roster has been impressive. Add in the playoff success and he’s been one of the best coaches in the league.”
Defenders Rece Buckmaster and Jordan Scarlett, and midfielder/forwards Chris Lema, Cristian Cásseres Jr., and Jared Stroud (the latter two in different positions) were the only guys who started against Nashville SC March 24 who also started against Pittsburgh Saturday evening.
That will not, of course, mean they change what they do.
“If you look at these ‘2 Teams,’ they tend to have a philosophy from the first team down,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said. “I think this team do it better than any other, which is to press, to re-press, and to play with a sort of energy and fearless nature that you don’t often see.”
Starting keeper Evan Louro was not in the squad for their trip to Pittsburgh, so I would not expect to see him this evening, either. Midfielder Jean-Christophe Koffi was red-carded against the Riverhounds, so we know he won’t be available. I would expect mostly the same roster that NYRBII ran out against Pittsburgh, perhaps with a reinforcement or two added in – they had only a six-man bench Saturday, and with Koffi unavailable, it would only be five if they kept the travel squad the same. Look for a 16- or 17-year old academy kid (or two) to fly down and at least make the bench.
With Barlow’s departure (and Brian White’s likelihood to stay in Jersey with the senior team), Stroud has been the focal point offensively. Among those who actually play consistently with RBII at this point – meaning Barlow and Mathias Jørgensen are out – he leads the side with five goals. He’s just 5-10 but has been used as a center forward in addition to time at attacking midfield or winger spots, and has five goals and four assists. He is joined by Lema as the only two players who have appeared in every Red Bulls II game so far. Lema is mostly a deeper-lying midfielder, but has also rotated through other positions and has a pair of assists on the year.
He leads the team in tackles, and is second in duels won (to the unavailable Koffi) and interceptions (to Scarlett). That should come as no surprise, given that he’s playing in one of the roles USMNT standout Tyler Adams played before moving to Europe. Adams was known for that style of play with Red Bulls II and the senior team, and continued it with RB Leipzig. This is a team whose midfielders want to press and disrupt.
“They’re a high-pressing, active team,” added Nashville defender Darnell King. “Young guys that like to go fast and get forward. We’re preparing for that, preparing to stop that and counter them when they do press high. High energetic team, and we’re just going to match them and get the win.”
That does result in a lot of scoring opportunities for themselves… and for the opponent, too. They give up 1.2 goals per game, which is middling in the Eastern Conference – and they’re well below average when you account for opposition played (and the fact that they have had the friendliest home/road split in USL so far). Louro is decent, with a 70.6% save percentage, while backup Rashid Nuhu has just one appearance to judge, and he gave up three goals on just five shots faced against Pittsburgh (the senior team’s backup, Ryan Meara, has faced 11 shots in two appearances with the B side without conceding anything).
Especially if New York doesn’t have Louro available this evening, Nashville should both have opportunities to pepper shots at whoever ends up between the pipes, and more likely than not, a good chance of beating him.
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. However, Gary Smith did indicate that he could be back as soon as Saturday’s game against North Carolina FC.
Nashville’s offensive renaissance has come with a softening on the defensive side of the ball. Against a team like the Red Bulls – they get stretched out in midfield thanks to their press, which has been the issue recently for NSC – the attention to detail and snapping back into a defensive posture if and when your team turns the ball over has to be a priority.
“I’ve no doubt that this group have got all of the qualities to have the right balance,” Smith said. “However, the pendulum did go too far one way: we did leave ourselves exposed. There have been some clips that we’ve looked at, and just the distances between the groups are too big. We’re all about what’s happening now, regaining, keeping the pressure on, which is wonderful. But there’s a time and a place, and I think we’ve just got to get the balance right again.”
It’s been far less so about having the right personnel. Smith is confident in his group, even though a lingering injury for Ken Tribbett and the shift to the three-man backline has left the Boys in Gold short on bodies. Justin Davis and Darnell King are playing (albeit very well) slightly out of position, with both having far more experience as outside backs than in the center. Bradley Bourgeois had his first ever appearance in the middle of that three-back formation Saturday in a substitute appearance for Liam Doyle, who will probably be the only CB sub available – unless he forces his way back into the starting lineup.
“I don’t think it’s a case of having bad defenders, whoever they are,” Smith said. “I think it’s a case of really being more demanding as part of that defensive unit. I think they’ve allowed other players – be it the wingbacks, who have put a lot of effort into the game going forward – get away with not recovering well enough and quick enough.”
The press of New York likely also means that Nashville’s defenders’ ability to play out of the back with their feet will be tested. That’s a strength of both Davis and King, and something that Bourgeois and Doyle continue to work on. Both of those guys are a little more comfortable booting it long under pressure at times.
“They make it difficult to play out, for sure, because they commit so many numbers,” Hourgeois said of NYRBII. “But I think they’re beatable – as you saw last weekend. It’s just kind of another step towards where we want to go.”
Either way, I wouldn’t expect a ton of the high press from Nashville so much as a bit more of a counter-attacking gameplan, getting between the lines with service to Daniel Ríos when the Baby Bulls are stretched out. There is a time and place for the high press for sure, but a Nashville team that is trying to get back to keeping its midfield and defensive lines a little more compact and disciplined in defending postures… probably isn’t seeing tonight as one of those times.
It’s a Connor Sparrow game if the keeper rotation holds (and Smith seemed to imply that it will), and I’d also think Cameron Lancaster gets a start for the first time in ages now that he’s worked back to full fitness: Ropapa Mensah will be available off the bench, and three starting appearances in the course of a week would be a lot to ask for either of those two guys. Indeed, it’ll be interesting to see where else there is squad rotation this evening: a lot of it probably means that Smith is confident in beating New York without a first-choice squad, whereas less probably means you’d see that shifted squad against North Carolina.
Keys to the game
- Take care of the rock. New York thrives on creating turnovers and getting transition opportunities out of that. Don’t turn it over, and they have a tough time generating offense.
- Shooters shoot. In addition to “this is a congested week and he’s finally healthy,” this game calls for Cameron Lancaster because he’s got the audacity to shoot from anywhere, and New York’s goalkeeping situation is mediocre at best if Louro’s not here (and only slightly better if he is). A Lancaster/Ríos pairing peppers the net, and probably ends up with, at worst, some juicy rebound opportunities for the other.
- Set pieces. To me, too many of those have turned into goals for the opposition. Have to lock down a bit more.
- Get the spacing right. Nashville has thrown numbers forward with great success offensively, but it’s come with a defensive cost. They only have a couple guys on the roster with the athleticism to get forward and back to service both of those team needs (and with the stamina to do it all game against a young side). Choosing spots to get forward so as not to harm spacing would be the move.
The Baby Bulls are poor away from home generally, will be in game two of a short turnaround on the road, and are missing personnel to the senior team. They are generally quite good: there’s still something of a perfect storm for that not to be the case tonight.
- Cameron Lancaster cleans up in the box after an early Ríos shot is saved.
- Ríos – underrated in his hold-up play – lays one off to Lebo Moloto, whose strike from the top of the box doubles the lead shortly before halftime.
- New York gets one back on a transition play after Nashville’s turnover doesn’t see them recover quickly enough. Stroud bangs home service from Lema.
- Bourgeois re-extends the lead and provides the final margin on a set piece around the 75th minute.
Nashville wins 3-1.