Nashville SC game preview 2019: Indy Eleven

Nashville SC hasn’t played an Eastern Conference contender for a few weeks now. Can they strike a blow on the standings against a team with whom they’re competing for top spot on the table?

The essentials

INDOpponent: Indy Eleven (11-3-4) • 3rd place USL East • 2nd place USL East power ratings and 4th place combined-table Pure Power (3rd East)
Time, Location: Saturday, July 27 7:00 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium (Tickets available!)
Weather: 85ºF, 1% chance precipitation, 50% humidity, 4 MPH Southerly winds
Follow: USL Gametracker • @ClubCountryUSA
Watch • Listen: ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español). At your soccer bar of choice.
Tailgate: Lot R at Nissan Stadium with supporters’ groups. 1 p.m. at Downtown Sporting Club
Etc.: Coverage from the previous Indy gamePresser with Gary Smith and four players.

The Eleven

Here’s what I wrote in advance of the last game against this team. At the time Indy Eleven was 5-2-2, and while that wasn’t bad, it was not quite up to the level of expectations:

Thanks to offseason signings, Indy – like Nashville – was one of the Eastern Conference’s favorites coming into the year. While they haven’t underachieved massively by any stretch, at 5-2-2 through nine games, they’re tied for third in the conference in PPG (with Ottawa, at 1.89), which is good-not-great, and they’re scoring 1.44 goals per outing, again good but not the Cincy-challenging status we were expecting.

The teams drew that game in Lucas Oil, and since that time, Indy has kept up pace with the best teams in the league, going 6-1-1 since and moving up to among the East’s elite sides.

The book on the team pretty much remains the same. Here’s what BGN Written‘s Brian Cook said in advance of the previous game:

“Generally, the reaction has been that the defense and goalkeeping have surpassed all expectations and the midfield has met those expectations,” said BGN Written‘s Brian Cook. “The attack has been hit or miss but that was always kind of expected when you bring in big names that will demand a lot of attention. As the season has gone on I think the team has started to figure out how to make this tactic work and what has to be done if someone like Kelly is heavily marked or having an off night.”

They’ve moved up to sixth in the conference in scoring average (they were eighth in advance of the previous game), but that’s largely about running through an easier portion of the schedule – Atlanta, Birmingham, Hartford, Loudoun twice, and Memphis account for six of the eight games they’ve played since that first Nashville contest. The advanced stats have them only 19th in USL and 11th in the East offensively.

You don’t have to be a Danish football insider to know that signing first-team all-
USL forward (and No. 3 in League MVP voting) from 2018 Thomas Enevoldsen probably came with higher expectations than that. He’s been more productive recently, up to five goals and two assists on the year, but wide midfielder Tyler Pasher’s eight goals lead the team (he also leads the team in “Olde English tattoos of own last name across shoulder blades”), and central midfielder Kenney Walker’s four assists lead the team.

There is an X-factor offensively: former Louisville City midfielder Ilija Ilic (who was very prolific for the Boys in Purple in 2018) recently returned from an injury that had been lingering nearly all season. He has one substitute appearance and one start in the past two games: if he can be in-form and healthy, he can be a new straw that stirs the drink in an exciting way.

So, you can see that they’re much more defensively oriented, and they have by far the best defense in USL to the advanced stats, and with only 0.67 allowed per game, they’re barely edged out by Tampa Bay for the best in traditional stats, too.

Evan Newton has remained among the league’s best, saving 76.7% of shots faced (that’s an improvement of over 4% since last game: again, that comes down in part to strength of competition faced), and Indy has only let opponents get off 55 shots on-target (for reference, Nashville has let up 65 shots on-target with about a 70% save percentage).

This is a team that’s low-scoring on both ends of the pitch, hoping its talented defense at the very least prevents losses (and it certainly does that), with the talent in the offensive end – former DC United striker Dane Kelly joins the aforementioned offensive standouts up front and actually leads the team in shots, though his conversion rate (8.3%) has been extremely poor to date.

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They’ve been between a 3-4-3 (with a true center forward) and a 3-4-1-2 (with a central player orchestrating and distributing to paired forwards)

Particularly on the road, it’ll be interesting to see what changes tactically. Indy plays their home field very well. Lucas Oil is a horribly slick surface and the field is generously called 70 yards wide. On an expansive and well-manicured grass field in Nissan Stadium, it’s just a totally different equation.

The Boys in Gold

Nashville SC’s injury report includes just one player: midfielder Derrick Jones remains out with his ankle injury (though he did go through light training this week and could be closer to returning).

Nashville returned to its more successful formula with the 4-2-3-1 against Memphis, and while it wasn’t exactly a breakout game (a scoreline against Memphis would have to be pretty huge to be considered one of those), it was reasonably smooth for the first time in a while. So much so, in fact, that Gary Smith joked he’d have liked to hop right back on the field rather than have more long rest periods.

“We’ve now had another period of time,” he said, “and it’s amazing how things pan out: we needed the time before the Memphis game to prepare, and then we could have done with a game straight away, given the confidence in the group. But we deal with the way the schedule has panned out and set up. What it has enabled us to do is prepare in the right way, to stay focused, and to be ready for a very good Indianapolis team.”

He specifically lauded Jimmy Ockford – though it should come as no surprise that a player with his pedigree (on loan from San Jose Earthquakes) had a good performance. It did seem like the other loanee, FC Cincinnati’s Forrest Lasso, doesn’t seem confident that he’ll play a part.

“Obviously played against Nashville a handful of times and I’ve still been watching most of their games this year,” he said. “I’m going to do what I can to fit in, wherever that may be, whatever role I get called upon. I’m just trying to do what I can to help.”

With a late night Wednesday getting into town after having trained with FCC that day, then having to go through his medical and fitness testing, and having only one full day of training with Nashville (Ockford, by contrast, had trained with Nashville for nearly a week when he made his debut)… it seems like he’s looking for at most a bench appearance. Willing to be pleasantly surprised there, of course.

The time off has helped Nashville’s injury situation clear up bigtime. I’d think we’ll see some guys who were unavailable last week.

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That group’s well-equipped to take advantage of the bigger field at Nissan, though I wouldn’t count out Gary Smith’s tendency to want to go a bit more conservative with a back-three against teams near the top of the table.

Keys to the game

  • Be physical in midfield. This Indy team isn’t going to create a ton of chances through the middle (even assuming Ilic is back), and winning a battle of toughness there makes it even harder. Forcing them to rely on long passes up the wings is going to lead to less effective Indy offense.
  • Be patient. Especially against a back three, Nashville has a tendency to want to whip in crosses: it seems like a good idea with your center forward(s) not man-marked, and space on the flanks to get into crossing position. It tends to be a “chuck it up and pray” type of offense generation, though. It’s hard to break Indy down, but it’s worth trying, rather than going for a high volume of low-percentage chances.
  • Win the set piece game. Both teams are going to be stout at the back, neither of them has transcendent chance-creators to break through in the run of play (though Thomas Enevoldsen for Indy or Daniel Ríos for Nashville can make it happen solo). With tight margins, making the set pieces count can be important.

Predictions

Sorry y’all, it’s going to be a(nother) boring one. I do, however, think that a healthy Nashville team with the new backline talent can pitch a shutout. Can the offense find the goal? I’ll say Kharlton Belmar eats up LCB Neveal Hackshaw on just one occasion and pokes home the goal himself.

Nashville wins 1-0.

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