Nashville SC game preview 2019: At Louisville City FC

Nashville looks to rebound from a loss… but takes on the two-time reigning champs to do it.

The essentials

LOU.pngOpponent: Louisville City FC (7-5-5) • 26 points, 7th place USL East • 8th place USL East power ratings and 18th place combined-table Pure Power (9th East)
Time, Location: Saturday July 6, 7:00 p.m. EDT (6 p.m. Nashville) • Slugger Field, Louisville, Ky. • SUPPORTERS BUS TICKETS STILL AVAILABLE
Weather: 85ºF, 27% chance of rain, 60% humidity, 5 MPH Westerly 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, with the club at ML Rose Capitol View.
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score Louisville City 1.10, Nashville 2.22
Etc.: Coverage of last weekend’s game.

The Boys in Purple

Louisville City is the back-to-back champion of USL, but the 2019 season has not gone to plan yet: they’re holding on in playoff position, not competing for the top of the table. They may be due for a second-half run, but for now, aren’t the most formidable side. They’re still the champs, though.

“I mean, back-to-back champs for Louisville,” said Nashville SC defender Taylor Washington. “It’s always a great matchup. They have something that we want, and they’ve been very successful the last two years. It’s close by. They’re a good team and those points are always crucial at the end of the year.”

“They are the group that we aspire to be: no two ways about it,” Nashville head coach Gary Smith said. “I want to win silverware, and I want to be that group. I think the first challenge is we have to overcome teams like Louisville – and in their own backyard.”

It’s their history, not their current form, that is feared. They are further hindered in the short term by the Concacaf Gold Cup: LCFC has been without Jamaican defender Shaun Francis and midfielder Speedy Williams. Both went 90 for the ReggaeBoyz against the United States Wednesday evening, so it seems unlikely that they’re available Saturday.

Speedy and Frano are both expected to be back,” said Kenny Alward of Scouse’s House. “I can’t speak to how game-ready they will be after being out so long for the Gold Cup. I think Hack has done a nice job adjusting to losing two starters that have become integral parts of our style of play.”

There’s been another major change in the past week, as well: the team traded striker Lucky Mkosana to Tampa Bay Rowdies in exchange for attacking midfielder Antoine Hoppenot. With plenty of talent at forward (George Davis, Luke Spencer, and Niall McCabe had over five goals apiece playing behind now-Nashville striker Cameron Lancaster) but a major issue creating chances (a lot of shots but a poor conversion rate with that talent), that’s probably the win-win that it appears to be.

“Antoine brings a much different dimension to the midfield/front line,” Alward said. “His creativity between the lines is going to be a big asset for us to break down some of the low blocks we have faced.”

Magnus Rasmussen is the other offensive-minded midfielder, and he is actually the team’s leader so far in goals with six – though he has just one assist. If Hackworth is comfortable with a 4-3-3 formation (probably only if Williams is available), Rasmussen and Hoppenot could be an interesting combination in the attacking midfield, but for now I project that the newcomer gets attacking the role to himself: Paolo DelPiccolo and Napo Matsoso have been a central defensive midfield pairing in Williams’s absence.

Paco Craig and Alexis Souahy get most of the (non-Francis, assuming he’s not available) centerback time, with Sean Totsch a heavily-used substitute at the position. Starting right back Taylor Peay has slid inside at times, particularly when the back-3 is used and the wide midfielders are more offensive-minded.

Ben Lundt has been the primary man between the pipes, but he’s recovering from surgery. That has allowed Chris Hubbard to get some time in net… and he’s done very well. Two goals allowed on 19 shots faced is solid, and although Charlotte and Indy aren’t exactly the Harlem Globetrotters, limiting Red Bulls II to one goal on 10 shots on-target is impressive.

IMG_09C3F3AC0723-1

What will Hackworth do formationally? There have been multiple shapes – as there were last year – with the primary choices being a 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1) or, more recently, a 3-4-3. Assuming Hoppenot gets his LCFC debut while the Jamaicans are still unavailable, a 3-4-1-2 seems to make the most sense.

McCabe and left back Oscar Jiminez cross the ball a ton, but other than them, this is a team that likes to build through the middle. The lack of output for the strikers is probably the major failing of this team to date, but it’s totally possible that’s just something they can snap out of instantly – and having pass-centric Hoppenot at the attacking mid could open that up.

The defense has actually been better without Francis and Williams. That’s likely a statistical quirk: Hackworth has been more tactically conservative over the past month to protect the defense (at the expense of offensive performance), and LCFC is more generally rounding into form as a team after a rough start.

The Boys in Gold

The Nashville SC 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 is coming off a disappointing performance at North Carolina FC where they conceded early, made a tactical shift, and then dominated the game… but couldn’t find the equalizer.

“Crossing and finishing drills, making sure we are clinical in front of goal,” Washington said of bouncing back from that. “We’ve got two of the best scorers in the league last year. Daniel [Ríos] and Cam [Lancaster] have both showed that they can score goals. Now it’s just feeding them and making sure they do their job.”

Despite not finding the equalizer, the pressure seemed to be a continuation of a theme. This does seem to be a more mentally resolute side than last year.

That’s probably largely the confidence of having Ríos and Lancaster on the roster (among other attackers, including Kharlton Belmar), along with their proven track records of goal-scoring. It stinks to lose a game 1-0, but all the historical and statistical indicators are that it was a bad-luck outlier, not some sudden indication that the team stinks.

“Mental toughness can be quantified in many different ways,” said Smith. “Are you mentally tough enough to make a challenge and compete with players? Are you mentally tough enough when you’ve given the ball away three or four times on the spin and then keep wanting to get on the ball and be in possession? Are you mentally tough enough when you’re under pressure to do the right things, make the right choices, or are you going to be that team that collapses, makes bad decisions, commits fouls, offers the other team opportunities. There’s all sorts of different ways of looking at it.”

“Even if we go down, I think that we’ve shown we can battle back now,” Washington added. “So after a loss, it’s how do we bounce back and get a win. So we work this week in training and we implement everything that Coach is teaching us on Saturday.”

Will the consistent goalkeeper rotation (two-on, two-off for Matt Pickens and Connor Sparrow) be broken after a mid-week half-game? Logically either Sparrow getting his second start, or that being considered an appearance could make sense. Smith has also recently hinted that the set-in-stone quality of the rotation is still up for review, particularly as the season grinds on.

The formation is also a point of intrigue: We saw Smith quickly abandon a 5-3-2 that wasn’t working Saturday evening (more in-game tactical flexibility than we’re used to, honestly, though he’s very malleable game-to-game), and the 4-4-2 work well. With Lancaster and Ropapa Mensah healthy and 90-minute fit, and Ríos a mainstay in the lineup, I don’t think a switch back to a single-striker (4-2-3-1) formation is likely, so it’s more about whether the wide play comes from wingbacks or wide midfielders, and whether there’s a creator up in the middle.

In both games at Slugger last year (a 2-0 loss and a 0-0 draw), Nashville went with the 3-5-2, but the team made a major tactical shift to the even backline mid-season, so that may not be informative here. Putting out personnel that allows different formational choices without subbing (or only subbing one player) is my bigger prediction.

IMG_052C652AB7EB-1.jpeg
Replace either winger with Justin Davis (push King to RWB) or Kosuke Kimura (King to RCB) and you’ve changed philosophies without too much shakeup.

NSC has lots mentally to deal with: washing a bad taste out of their mouth, the rivalry factor, taking on the defending champs, not overlooking a team that has been talented-yet-underwhelming… it’s plenty to think about. For Lancaster, there’s another big piece.

“It’s exciting,” he said of taking on his former side. “It’s going to be a new experience for me obviously, but they’re a good team. They had a bit of a rocky start to the start of the season, but they’re looking good now and it should be a good game.”

Let us hope so.

Elsewhere

NSC official site preview. Speedway preview.

Keys to the game

  • Take the smart shots. This may be my overreaction to Saturday’s “lots of shots, no goals” performance, but quality over quantity is probably the name of the game this week, especially given Hubbard’s demonstrated ability to deal with weak efforts.
  • Set pieces. It still feels like that’s where the majority of opposing offensive production is generated (and not enough of NSC’s offense). Taking care of business on both ends is an important factor.
  • Control the ball. Louisville’s recent games have seen them get good results when they win the possession battle, and get bad results when they don’t. If Nashville can take care of the rock like they did in the latter 55 minutes or so against Carolina (and not like the weak effort of the first 35), they can dictate the run of play.
  • Be ready to situationally break out the press. This goes in tandem with the above bullet: Louisville is a mediocre passing team, and worse without Williams. They also don’t want to strike on the counter more often than not, so the risk of pressing them is diminished. Take away the ball in their end and generate scoring chances when the opportunity arises.
  • Pin Jimenez back. He’s been a shockingly large part of their offense for a left back. He leads the team in crosses and key passes. Putting an offensive-minded winger on his side (hello, Belmar) could prevent him from being as involved offensively as LCFC wants.

Predictions

After predicting an offensive explosion last week, that… didn’t happen. I’ll trust the computerz this time:

  • Lancaster notches a brace against his former team. One is assisted by Ríos, and the other tally comes via set piece.
  • In between, Hoppenot gets his first Louisville City FC assist, aiding a Davis goal.

Nashville wins 2-1.

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