A midweek washout probably gives Nashville a bit of rest, but does it mean a win on the road?
Opponent: North Carolina FC (7-2-6) • 5th place USL East • 3rd place USL East power ratings and 7th place combined-table Pure Power (5th East)
Time, Location: Saturday June 26, 7:00 p.m. EDT (6 p.m. Nashville) • WakeMed SoccerPlex, Cary, N.C.
Weather: 89ºF, 0% chance of rain, 58% humidity, 4 MPH WSW winds
Follow: USL Gametracker • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
Watch party: At the soccer bar of your choice.
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score North Carolina 1.35, Nashville 1.22
Etc.: Coverage of last weekend’s game.
NCFC started the season extremely hot, was mediocre for a while, and is back on the bright side of things, with wins over NYRBII and Tampa Bay within their past five contests… though they also drew Hartford Athletic in that stretch.
“I actually think they’re one of the surprises and standouts of the early part of season,” Nashville SC coach Gary Smith said. “They lost two or three very decent players, of course one of them being Daniel Ríos to us. And yet, they’ve been able to find some excellent form. I’d have to say, some of their best results have come against the top teams.”
They have a solid-though-unspectacular offense and a very good defense. Though undefeated at home, their performances on the road are a little better compared to league average. It’s worth noting that they have played by far the easiest schedule to date of anyone in the East, and that’s particularly true at home.
Marios Lomis leads NCFC with six goals despite missing the past four contests (he’s rehabbing in his native Netherlands after surgery for a season-ending ankle injury), which is a testament to his productivity prior to that. The team hasn’t really missed a beat without him, so his potential absence is helpful though not the most impactful factor. Ullrich Ewolo and Robert Kristo have been the lone forward in his absence, but they have just two goals apiece on the year.
Winger Steven Miller has been one of the primary driving forces offensively, with a five goals to place second on the team, and a squad-leading four assists. They aren’t a huge, high-scoring outfit, but haven’t missed a ton with former standout (and now Nashville’s leading scorer) Daniel Ríos gone.
“I will be excited this Saturday going back there,” Ríos said. “The people treated me so well, they showed me a lot of love last year. It was a good season for me scoring a lot of goals, having good moments. It will be special for me.
“Half of the team stayed for this year, and I still have a few friends over there that I will be happy to see and play against them. It will be a good challenge.”
Ben Speas, Yamikani Chester, and Andre Fortune have been the other offensive midfielders (Celtic loanee Manny Perez is back in Scotland for preseason after playing both RB and right winger), with former FC Cincinnati star (and current loanee – his contract is still with FCC) Nazmi Albadawi either appearing there or, when the team goes with two defensive midfielders, playing as part of a double-pivot with a number of options next to him (Fortune, Viktor Igbeyoki, Graham Smith, and Tommy McCabe – who is back with FCC in a swap for Albadawi – have been there at times).
Nashville SC midfielder Bolu Akinyode was with NCFC (then called the Carolina Railhawks) a couple years back, and like Ríos, he’s excited to return.
“I think you treat every game the same essentially,” he explained. “I think when you go back to places where you spent a whole year there and you train every single day there, there’s a little bit of familiarity and brings back some memories and things that were achieved there as well. It’s really exciting to go back.”
The backline has been reasonably consistent: DJ Taylor at right back, Alex Comsia next to him, and Aarón Guillén are mainstays in the lineup. Guillén had been mostly a left back, but has been in the center recently as LB Caleb Duvernay has worked into the lineup (and bumped starting CB Sam Brotherton out of it). Duvernay has just three appearances all year, but two of them have been in the past two contests.
Alex Tambakis has been the man between the pipes, and he’s among the USL’s elite goalkeepers, stopping 78.8% of shots faced (and he doesn’t see as many shots as the average keeper to begin with).
NCFC is not a possession-oriented team, and plenty of their production comes from the longball or crosses: this is a defend-first side that lets the opponent’s mistakes be the primary source of their offense with a quick-strike capability.
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 tonight.
Nashville has gone almost exclusively with the 3-5-2 in recent weeks, which has somehow meant more consistent offense and less consistent defense – the opposite of what you’d expect after moving away from a 4-2-3-1.
The emergence of strikers Cameron Lancaster (return from injury) and Ropapa Mensah (in the midst of his annual mid-season arrival at match fitness) has been a big part of both the change – Gary Smith wants to get two strikers on the field, with one of that duo joining mainstay Daniel Ríos – and the goal-scoring. Lancaster is potting 1.38 goals per 90 minutes played, while Mensah is at 0.59 goals and 0.39 assists per 90.
“I think they’ve got such a great competition going on now,” Smith said of the trio. “They all know that they’ve got to be at the top of their game, they all know that if they’re not scoring goals, the other one will. I do honestly think they all want to be the top goal scorer in the group. Cameron will do his very utmost to chase Daniel down, I have no doubt Daniel will want to be the leading goal scorer for the team now that he’s in such a decent spot, and Ropapa looks inspired at the moment and I think that’s due to the competition. So whoever plays up front at the moment, I think we can be assured that those two guys are absolutely doing their utmost to hold on to the shirt.”
The defense… has been iffy. While Smith maintains that he’s happy with his personnel on the backline, there’s no denying that the absence of Ken Tribbett has been a problem. In the three games he’s missed this year, Nashville has allowed 2.67 goals per outing. In the other 13? 0.62 goals per game. You’d prefer one player not be so crucial to the team’s success, but he is.
Nashville also has to balance having a midweek game… but also not having a midweek game. After Wednesday’s match against NYRBII was abandoned at halftime, the lone practice session Thursday had to be adjusted to fit the needs of the squad.
“It was a light session, nowhere near as comprehensive as it would have been had there been no game, but slightly more vigorous than had we played 90 minutes,” Smith explained. “Not an awful lot of structural work, just a matter of keeping guys ticking over. For the lads that actually played the 45 minutes, it was a slightly different format to the guys that didn’t. All in all, the main focus was just keeping everyone ready and physically active towards the weekend’s game.”
Nashville should be reasonably rested and hungry to be on the field, but also sharper than not getting that 45 on Wednesday.
Keys to the game
- Don’t fall victim to the counter. Nashville hasn’t been bitten too much by crosses this year (except on set pieces), so North Carolina’s other primary source of chance-generation needs to be accounted for. A more-conservative philosophy with the backline and defensive midfield is sensible here.
- Make the second run. North Carolina has limited opposing strikers pretty well this year, which has allowed them to be among the top defenses in the USL. Nashville’s going to need hold-up play from Ríos to counteract that… which means the other striker (or midfielders) will have to make dangerous runs for his distribution to pay off.
- Dominate midfield. NCFC is not a possession-heavy team whereas Nashville is. The Boys in Gold likely have to dominate the center of the pitch to win this game. They have the pieces to do it (though Albadawi’s insertion into the lineup with a team-leading pass percentage could throw a wrench into the works).
North Carolina is a solid squad home or road, but Smith’s assertion that they’ve been better against top teams is accurate… though it applies to their road form far more than at home.
- Ríos nets a brace and assists one against his former team.
- Lebo Moloto gets the third tally (assisted by Ríos) for NSC. He and Kosuke Kimura each assist Ríos once.
- NCFC gets goals from Miller and Kristo.
Nashville wins 3-2.