Nashville SC has a chance to execute its second sweep of the season. Can the Boys in Gold take down a struggling Swope Park Rangers side for the second time this year?
Opponent: Swope Park Rangerss (3-10-6) • 15 points, 17th place USL East • 16th place USL East power ratings and 33rd place combined-table Pure Power (16th East)
Time, Location: Saturday, Aug. 3, 7:00 p.m. CDT • Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.
Weather: 78ºF, 3% chance of rain, 59% humidity, 7 MPH Easterly 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 Headquarters Beercade.
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score Swope Park 1.45, Nashville 2.67
Etc.: Coverage from last time out against Swope Park.
Swope Park Rangers
Here’s what I wrote about Swope last time around:
So: a team that wants to possess and press – but has plenty of young talent and is particularly decimated by needing to send talent up to the senior team – should be exploitable.
The leading scorers are tied with a pair of goals each: left winger Jerome Ngom Mbekeli and attacking midfielder (and Murfreesboro native) Felipe Hernandez. They’re both 20 years old. Striker Wilson Harris has just one goal, but again that probably speaks more to the squad rotation than any lack of ability.
The Rangers base out of the same 4-3-3 of the senior SKC team, which is convenient for inserting guys into the MLS lineup. It’s put some guys in very tough positions to succeed thanks to their youth.
They’ve played several goalies already, with Eric Dick getting the most time so far, but Adrian Zendejas (from San Diego, but a Mexico youth international) probably the best talent. Both are on MLS contracts, so whichever isn’t backing up Tim Melia on a given weekend the best option for SPR. If they aren’t available, the other options are just fine.
That was v. early in the year, and the season… hasn’t gotten a ton better for them. They still base out of what they call a 4-1-4-1 but plays out more like a 4-3-3, with the wide midfielders up high as offensive wingers.
Nashville native Felipe Hernandez has emerged as a legit threat – you may recall his golazo at First Tennessee Park – and has eight goals on the year. That’s on just 21 shots, so he’s converting at a very high rate.
Another of the team’s legit threats, Wan Kuzain, has bounced back and forth with the senior team (as is tradition with a lot of the top prospects on USL affiliate squads). SKC is away in Seattle this weekend, so the number of top guys from the USL squad traveling with them might preclude the Rangers from being full-strength.
It’s a bit of a homecoming for NSC winger Kharlton Belmar.
“I’m really excited to get back there,” he said. “Children’s Mercy is a great stadium and a great field and everything. Like you said, I played with those guys last year. It’s good to see some familiar faces and everything. It’ll be a really fun game. They’re a really good team and it’ll be fun.”
This is the fourth-worst defense in USL (the bottom three are a wide margin worse and all relatively close to each other), paired with an offense that’s only slightly below average. The defense has actually been pretty consistent in comparison to the front portions, aside from the keeper position, but they added a little more firepower this week in the form of Timbers 2 (and Europa League!) CB Rennico Clarke over the course of the week. We shall see if he’s ready to compete already this weekend.
Nashville fans got a good glimpse of the promise in the offense (and why it’s not found any consistency) last time out. Shutting down Hernandez, preventing Kuzain from orchestrating, and letting the team self-immolate is generally a viable strategy.
“This team’s better than they were when we met them last,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “If I remember rightly, they were going through a tremendously difficult injury ridden first-team group. The younger group had suffered for that, and we took advantage of it. I don’t expect the same sort of game. Watching them at home, they’ve got far more structure to how they play. They’ve scored goals there. There are certainly guys in that group that have grown in confidence over the course of the season. We should expect a much tougher game. Are we confident that we can go and win? Of course we are. It will certainly take all of the necessary foundations and qualities with any game to win it. We’re not just going to run out of the traps and run away with the game.”
Swope is quite a bit more successful at home than on the road, but the gulf between these two sides should be too wide to be bridged just by a change of venue.
The Boys in Gold
With some centerback signings (loanees Jimmy Ockford and Forrest Lasso from San Jose Earthquakes and FC Cincinnati, respectively), and a bit of a return to health from the central midfield, suddenly Nashville looks like the side we expected at the beginning of the year.
“Really, really pleased that we’ve started to show a little bit of more consistency in keeping a goal intact,” Smith said. “It hasn’t affected the way that we’ve performed in front of goal, which is always the balance that you’re looking for. I think along with some of the positives out of the game, we can also point to the fact that two new additions have just given certain players in the group a little bit of a shot in the arm, a bit more of edge to their game and it shows. We mean business, we’re not here just to see the season out and look towards MLS. This is a very good group. We’ve been fighting consistency all year, and that’s really the main challenge still.”
The offense has generally clicked with a few short slumps, and now the defense is living up to expectations. Expect a keeper switch (the two-on, two-off rotation should continue, plus a game in Connor Sparrow’s home state – well, actually across the border in Kansas, a fact I just realized today – makes it a natural choice to select him anyway.
I think as much consistency as possible in the lineup is probably the move here, pending the health of a few key players (LaGrassa, Lancaster, and a little further down the line, Derrick Jones) to allow the team to be a little more flexible. With consistent weekend play coming up plus a midweek contest in two of the next three weekends, just a bit of rotation against the weaker opponents might be prudent.
That rotation could come in-game as well, though, with the likes of Daniel Ríos unlikely to miss a start… but also due to get a rest if games are going well.
Keys to the game
- Shut down Hernandez and Kuzain. These two are so important to the offense – even though Kuzain has missed about half the season as he bounces back-and-forth to Sporting KC – and without them, there isn’t a ton going on. Right back Alexsander Andrade is first on the team in key passes (which says somethin’ about somethin’ in an offense not designed to generate chances that way), but Hernandez can score or assist, while Kuzain is a key chance-generator.
- Get an early lead. Like we saw at First Tennessee Park, this Swope team can give up goals in bunches. Nashville SC should get an early lead not just to win the game, but to take the pressure off the personnel, and facilitate some substitutions that keep players fresh for the next few weeks.
- Stay healthy. Nashville should be able to win this game. Doing so while keeping everyone available for coming games would be a nice idea.
Swope is not good. The homefield factor comes into play, but NSC should be able to cruise.
- Daniel Ríos scores a first-half brace on service from Alan Winn and Lebo Moloto, and is subbed out shortly after the second half begins.
- Moloto’s corner kick service is nodded home by Lasso to provide NSC’s final goal, and the Boys in Gold are content to ride out the pressure for the final 35 minutes or so of the game.
- Hernandez does it again, with a solid individual effort of athleticism getting him a shot from distance. The Nashville native lashes it home to provide the final margin.
Nashville wins, 3-1.