NSC took care of Memphis last time around. Can they repeat the feat on the road for their first season sweep?
Opponent: Memphis 901 FC (3-8-5) • 14 points, 15th place USL East • 15th place USL East power ratings and 28th place combined-table Pure Power (14th East)
Time, Location: Wednesday July 17, 7:30 p.m. CDT • AutoZone Park, Memphis, Tenn.
Weather: 87ºF, 6% chance of rain, 73% humidity, 9 MPH SW 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 Downtown Sporting Club.
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score Memphis 0.55, Nashville 2.01
Etc.: Q&A with 901 Soccer Pod. Coverage from last time out against 901 FC. A look at some interesting stats.
Memphis 901 FC
Here’s what I wrote about Memphis last time around:
They’ve based out of a fairly typical 4-2-3-1 with the situation up front reasonably fluid: the wingers are free to switch sides, and they’ve rotated players through those positions, the center forward, and even the No. 10 spot at times. However, outside of a couple recent changes, they’ve been mostly set in their lineup
While that stayed true for a while, they’ve had a few personnel changes, and have changed the philosophy up front, as well: the tactics have mostly been designed to keep four players along the backline, but now they are pretty married to a two-striker look up front (a fairly drastic change from last time NSC saw them).
Since he signed with the team at the end of June, Brandon Allen has earned two starts (and also started Saturday’s ultimately canceled game against Charleston Battery) alongside Elliott Collier up top. I’d expect the former Nashville player – least year’s leading scorer in Gold – to get the nod once more. He… hasn’t made much of an impression since coming over from Tampa Bay Rowdies, though.
“I forgot he was on the team, to be honest,” 901 Soccer Pod‘s Scotty Smith told me. “But I always thought Ropapa Mensah should have started over him in Nashville. I know he did some good things in 2016, but that was quite some time ago.”
Collier has been solid lately (he scored a hat trick, including the goal of the week, in a recent romp over Hartford Athletic), but scoring has really been the problem for this team. Before Collier’s hatty against Athletic, he was one of three players tied for the team’s goal lead with just two. Early in the year, 901FC’s offensive players were taking a ton of shots and converting at an extremely low rate. Recently, they’ve dialed back on firing away (down to 11.4 shots per game) but not a ton more successfully (4.1 on target per game).
Pushing Adam Najem into a No. 10 creative attacking role with a shift to more of a diamond midfield could be the answer. Hartford caveats aside, he served in that role against Athletic and Memphis broke the two-goal barrier for the first time in club history en route to a 4-1 win. Cam Lindley, Dan Metzger, and Duane Muckette played as the midfield three behind him in that game. Lindley and Metzger are more central defensive types, while Muckette is a winger/forward convertee.
I look for a more pure CDM in the middle – especially given Metzger’s one yellow card away from an accumulation suspension, he probably can’t be as physical as hoped in the middle – with defensively sound but offense-minded wide players next to him. Atlanta United 2 loanee Lagos Kunga should see the field with the team trying to unlock a bit more offense from the midfield.
Against a team with a bit more firepower than Hartford Athletic (and even Athletic was within 2-1 at halftime and probably should have been level), that tilt toward offense might be a risk. It probably makes more sense to be conservative and play for the counter given Nashville’s talent. Of course, it could be worth it to sell some tickets – this team is almost certainly not making the playoffs no matter what, might as well do that in a more exciting way.
The defense has been fairly solid (which allows for some loosening up to find offense, yeah?), even though there’s been some significant rotation along the backline. That will continue, thanks to a season-ending injury for rotation piece Tristan Hodge in June. There will also be a disciplinary suspension for Memphis captain Marc Burch. Thanks to a cancellation Saturday, he didn’t serve his yellow card accumulation ban against Charleston Battery.
“I know the guys were really ready to play,” Smith said of Saturday’s game. “It is tough to fly halfway across the country and not play. Plus, the fact that we did not play that match means Marc Burch did not get to serve his one-match yellow card ban. We’ll be without our captain against Nashville.”
There will be a bit of a makeshift line here given the absences. head coach Tim Mulqueen has rotated through plenty of personnel back there, though, so at the very least the available players have on-field experience. In some cases, that may not be playing alongside a guy they have great chemistry with, though.
They’ve also without the man who has been their starting goalkeeper: Jeff Caldwell was recalled to NYCFC from his season-long loan to Memphis in June. Since NYCFC start Sean Johnson is back from the Gold Cup, Caldwell has returned to Memphis (he was on the bench for the canceled game Saturday), but it might make sense to roll with Scott Levene for now. Their numbers are comparable so far (60.9% saves for Caldwell, 60.0% for Levene) and Levene is actually on the books with Memphis.
“I certainly think that with this rivalry with Memphis, they’ll want to come out of the blocks,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said. “They had no game at weekend after it being cancelled, and they’ll certainly want to put the record straight after getting beat at our place. So we are under no illusions, this is going to be a tough task.”
I do think that there’s a weird one-sided rivalry factor going on, though obviously Smith will downplay it.
“I predict at least two fights and three red cards,” 901 Soccer Pod‘s Scotty Smith said to me. “One of the coaches will be ejected. It will be the biggest war on Tennessee soil since the 1998 Tennessee-Florida game.”
Not to minimize that it’s a rivalry game – because it is – but does anyone on the Nashville side expect even 1% of that level of emotion in the game? I certainly don’t. The Boys in Gold view it as just another game, albeit a spirited one, not some blood-feud.
The Boys in Gold
Nashville SC has had an extended break of its own in recent days, with a recent mid-week canceled, and a scheduled 11 day break leading into this one. Given that the team tends to be better with a little longer rest between games, that’s probably a positive for NSC more than it is for Memphis – which still had to travel to Charleston only to not play over the weekend.
“We have had one or two difficulties, some injures that are now in a much, much better place,” Gary Smith said. “I think mentally, it gave us an opportunity to look back on one or two of the difficulties and maybe try and work our hardest here to keep those difficulties at bay.”
Nashville also has some recent additions: midfielder Vinnie Vermeer is back after a blink-and-you-miss-it loan to Las Vegas Lights, while San Jose Earthquakes centerback Jimmy Ockford has joined on loan. Given the injury situation (two central midfielders out and one questionable, one centerback questionable), it wouldn’t surprise to see both.
The question is back-three or back-four, and I still maintain that NSC has – through 1.5 years of USL play – been a much better team with even numbers at the back (the anecdotal evidence from the North Carolina FC game certainly rises to the top in that regard). Given Tribbett still isn’t 100%, the depth of centerbacks doesn’t necessarily justify three at the back – though the versatility of Darnell King and Justin Davis helps there.
The big thing is generating scoring chances, which Nashville SC hasn’t done enough of lately: the road games against North Carolina FC and Louisville City FC (admittedly a very different level of competition than Memphis), the Boys in Gold scored only one total goal.
“I think we just need to find the balance,” midfielder Lebo Moloto said. “You are going to concede goals, but try to keep them as minimal as possible. If it means we have to win 2-1, 1-0, that’s fine. Also, the mentality of the guys, everybody’s looking sharp this past week of training sessions. We’ll have a good game on Wednesday.”
It’s a Pickens game in the keeper rotation (assuming it sticks to the early-season two-on, two-off scheme), while depth at CB and CDM sort of forces Nashville into a couple specific personnel choices. Another reason I prefer the four-man backline? It lets Smith get two offensive wingers on the field, and at least one of them (Belmar) is too talented to be relegated to a sub role as has been the case lately.
One of Memphis’s fans is fighting a battle against cancer. If you want to help out, contribute to the GoFundMe here. NSC site preview. Penny Hardaway will be the participant in the cheesy-ass guitar smash. Memphis Commercial Appeal preview story. Speedway preview.
Keys to the game
- Put balls on the net. Whichever keeper plays, the stats are pretty pedestrian. Memphis’s defensive success has been more about limiting opponents’ shots on net. Nashville has the individual talent to be a different type of opponent, and simply needs to do it.
- Stay tight at the back. Given that I’m projecting a brand new player in the starting lineup, there may be some chemistry still to develop. Avoiding the big mistake should be enough against a team like Memphis. Certainly Nashville isn’t letting Collier slalom through eight guys without being perturbed like Hartford did last week.
- Play between the lines. Especially if Memphis tries to keep Najem in that more attacking position while sticking with two forwards, there should be some major gaps for Nashville to exploit. Do it up.
It’s pretty clear that Memphis is a lot more emotionally invested in this game than Nashville. I think that plays a role, but not enough to lead to the upset.
- Najem feeds Collier for a goal in the game’s opening minutes as Nashville remains unsettled.
- Belmar provides the service that Moloto finishes shortly thereafter.
- Nashville adds a second on a set piece. Lebo Moloto’s corner kick finds the head of Bradley Bourgeois shortly after halftime.
- Nashville adds the insurance goal with Ropapa Mensah’s solo run late in the contest.
Nashville wins, 3-1.