Nashville SC easily handled Birmingham Legion in the preseason, but with some regular-season action under their belts, the opponents is likely a little more put-together.
Opponent: Hartford Athletic (4-15-4) • 17th place USL East • 18th place USL East power ratings and 32nd place combined-table Pure Power (16th East)
Time, Location: Wednesday, Aug. 7 7:00 p.m. CDT • First Tennessee Park • Tickets available (as cheap as $5!)
Weather: 86ºF, 15% chance of rain, 51% humidity, 7 MPH Northwesterly winds
Follow: USL Gametracker • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 locally or ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
Tailgate: With The Assembly at the Ozzie Lot. With The Roadies at Neighbors Germantown.
The line: Nashville SC -556, Draw +533, Hartford +1063.
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score Nashville 3.01, Hartford 0.92
Etc.: Coverage from last time out.
When Nashville traveled to The Insurance Capital of the World (thrilling city nickname, that), I was strongly predicting that Hartford Athletic was a team on the rise. They’d played mostly on the road, and their home results were far better than what they’d done away from home. The playoffs were almost certainly out of the question, but a rise out of the extreme depths of the table looked likely:
Hartford has not been a good team this year. HOWEVA, after an 0-8 start, they’ve started to find something, with a 2-1-3 mark in the time since. The loss that came outside the season-opening streak seems to have sparked a larger turning point.
“We’ve said it before, we know what that’s like as a brand-new side just coming together and to compound their problems, they’re away from home for eight games,” [Gary Smith said]. “So it’s never easy, but they’re just starting to show some much better signs.”
That predicted rise has happened in fits and starts (playing Nashville extremely tight, beating Indy in Hartford, smacking Bethlehem Steel on the road), but in aggregate, they’re about the same team they were in the early phases of the season with one change: the home form has come back to earth, they’ve risen out of the depths when traveling. It’s effectively leveled out as a team that’s still pretty bad, but with less home-away differential.
Gary Smith be readin’ FCAC (for what it’s worth, I know that to actually not be the case):
“Hartford are a side that are more than capable,” he said. “They’ve had some certainly erratic moments and results, but I think as an expansion side, we can certainly testify to how difficult that can be. They’ve got players that have just been added to the group, their last game was a big victory. They’ll be coming here and looking like they want to get after us.
“If anyone expects us just to roll this team over, they are greatly mistaken. I expect a tough encounter. I would think the way that [Hartford head coach] Jimmy [Nielson] goes about his work and his teams, they’re physically very capable, they’re very well-organized, they’ll be tough to break down, and with their new additions, they’re going to be a little bit of a threat going forward.”
They’ve actually been pretty solid offensively since the mid-season turning point. The problem is that the defense has gotten worse. Let’s take a look at the team itself:
Jimmy Nielsen loves two categories of player: his players from a 2014-17 stint at OKC, and his fellow Danes. Utility player Phillip Rasmussen, forward José Angulo, winger Hugh Alexander Dixon, keeper Jacob Lissek, winger Jonathan Brown, and forward Wojciech Wojcik were on his final team with the Energy. Keeper Frederik Due, centerback Nikolaj Lyngo, midfielder Mads Jorgensen, and winger Sebastian Dalgaard join Rasmussen as Nielsen’s Danish countrymen. All have been major contributors over the course of the season.
There have been some pretty significant shakeups, though.
The primary mechanism of those shakeups has been the injury turnstile, both for the positive and the negative. Since returning to health, Dixon and central defensive midfielder Ryan Williams have been mainstays in the lineup. On the negative side of things, a number of regular contributors have moved to the bench with injury. Hartford brought only four subs (Lissek and three field players) to Bethlehem last Thursday, thanks to injuries to the likes of Philip Rasmussen, Danny Barrera, and others.
Another thing that’s happened a lot has been mid-season transfer business. They’ve returned midfielder Collin Martin and defender Logan Gdula to their MLS clubs (Minnesota United and FC Cincinnati, respectively), and just gotten both of them them back on re-loans in the past few days. The defense has been terrible without Gdula and slightly less so with him, so I imagine he’s in tonight’s lineup. Martin’s position in the squad is a little less certain Williams’s return from injury.
They’ve been between 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, and 4-2-3-1 schemes over the past several weeks, with key commonalities: they’ve given up the ghost on trying for an odd backline or just a single defensive midfielder. They consistently have four across the back and two CDMs, and the alignment of the front four has been fluid.
Dixon is historically a winger, but is also, uh, one of the few players on this team capable of consistently scoring (his 12.5% mark is probably a little more about the caliber of the team around him – though better offensively than it is on defense – than it is any failing of his own). Putting him next to Angulo up top with a more conservatively-positioned Dalgaard seems the move. Swartz has been banged up, but was on the bench last Thursday and has been dangerous when played in the more advanced role (he also plays RB).
The Boys in Gold
It seems likely (particularly from a perspective of playing a weaker opponent, and with two games this week) that Lancaster and LaGrassa are held out precautionarily – or at least relegated to substitute duty – even if they’re pretty close to playing fitness. With LaGrassa (probably) out, there aren’t options other than Lebo Moloto as an orchestrating midfielder, not like you’d want to get him out of the lineup on his current form:
“His goal was instrumental to kick us off at the weekend after we had three or four
fabulous opportunities,” Smith said. “When Lebo himself is at his best, he’s just almost so automatic and free-flowing with his play. There’s so much disguise and deception, there’s energy and enthusiasm. He’s got all of the qualities that the top creators have.”
I wouldn’t expect Smith to mess around with what’s been working. The lineup over the past two games has been productive, effective, etc. etc. on both sides of the pitch. I could see rotating in a Ken Tribbett, Bradley Bourgeois, or Ropapa Mensah to make sure nobody’s getting fatigued in this busy stretch, but the avenues of creation and principles of defense are gaining consistency.
While it’s more obvious for a scrambling Hartford team, it is worth noting, of course, that NSC has some personnel changes and MLS additions of its own in recent weeks. San Jose Earthquakes’ Jimmy Ockford and FC Cincinnati’s Forresst Lasso have fit into the squad in no time.
“Good thing is that we’ve got this kind of games rolling in so we’ve gotten to know each other pretty quickly in training and the games,” midfielder Bolu Akinyode said of the new duo playing behind him. “You just figure it out; players figure it out. We have the
similar goal to keep shutouts and win games, so that’s all it is.”
“Every chance we get in training or on the road or at meals or in the locker room, every chance we get to just get to know each other, get to know each other’s personalities, it just helps iron things out on the pitch,” Lasso said of the chemistry. “Obviously, it’s been two 90-minute segments each, but I think we built off of our first performance together against Indy and at Swope over the weekend, we didn’t concede any shots on goal.”
The keeper rotation should be interesting to watch. The two-on, two-off rhythm was broken when Matt Pickens played his third straight game over the weekend (according to Smith, it was to keep something settled behind that new duo). I’d think it begins anew with this one.
Hartford’s wide midfielders tend to pinch toward the middle defensively, which could mean that a similar gameplan to the past two weeks – get the wingers down the sideline in one-on-one matchups – is going to be on. Taking on fullbacks, rather than centerbacks, in that space makes for a bit less profit offensively, but given the overall weakness of the Hartford defense, some strikes from a little deeper in midfield may be effective, as well.
The 4-2-3-1 is most likely, but my personal preference would be a couple tweaks (without the formation shift, look for Reed next to Bolu Akinyode, Darnell King at RB, and Tribbett coming off the bench):
The form has been good.
“I’m sure you can imagine they’re very bright, they’re very buoyant, I think they’re looking forward to being at home,” Smith said. “We’ve got a large percentage of our final games at home. We’ve had a lot of time on the road, and the guys have done a fantastic job in bagging what I think is a league-high points tally away from home at the moment. But we have played more than plenty of other teams, and we’re looking forward to this.”
Keys to the game
- End this one ASAP. Hartford has had reasons to believe that they’re better than the numbers show (even if said numbers are actually worse than they were going into the previous game against Nashville). End that belief, and the game probably becomes a breeze. It also gives the opportunity to rest some key legs going into another game with just two days’ pause in between.
- Work the Moloto-Ríos connection. Ríos is in a battle for Golden Boot with Phoenix Rising’s Solomon Asante. Moloto is in a battle for Assist-guy-colored Boot with… the notes here say, “Phoenix’s Solomon Asante???” Getting both of those guys more stats would be p. cool, and aid them in their respective battles against the inevitable USL Player of the Year.
- Test the keeper. I didn’t give Due enough credit last time I previewed this team, but even with a better-looking eyeball test than statistical profile, you have to take into account just how bad his numbers are. Pepper him a bit – you’ll have chances with this backline – and profit.
- Don’t take them lightly. This may seem incompatible with the above “lol how much can two men score?!!!!” bullet, but it remains true. Hartford is a very bad team on a game-to-game basis. They’re also a team capable of major upsets (one of five teams to score multiple goals against Indy Eleven, as well).
Hartford has flashes. Nashville is operating at a different level right now, though. The offense is finally joined by the caliber of defense we all expected at the beginning of the season.
- Daniel Ríos opens the scoring on a pass through the center by Lebo Moloto (similar to their hookup against Swope Park Rangers).
- Moloto assists Ropapa Mensah for the game’s second goal midway through the first half.
- Hartford responds to draw the game closer shortly before the first half expires.
- Moloto gets a goal of his own, fed by Winn near the top of the box.
- Lasso gets his first goal in Gold, nodding home a Michael Reed free kick around the 65th minute, at which point the game effectively ends and NSC goes for its “choke out the rest of the clock” routine.
Nashville wins 4-1.