Basically this, but without the assumption that Poku scores twice. Or ever again in his career. Fernandes is probably good to get it.
After failing to win one top-of-table clash a week and a half ago, Nashville SC is entering must-win territory when it comes to a top four position. Can the Boys in Gold get it done in the land of, uh, deep-sea fishing excursions and seedy strip clubs?
Opponent: Tampa Bay Rowdies (14-4-7), 49 points, second place East. 66.69 ProjPts, 3rd in USL East power ratings and 2nd in combined table Pure Power.
Time, Location: Saturday, Aug. 31 7:30 p.m. EDT (6:30 p.m. in Nashville), Al Lang Stadium, Saint Petersburg, Fla.
Weather: 86ºF, 43% chance of rain, 67% humidity, 14 MPH Easterly winds
Follow: USL Gametracker
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 locally or ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio), 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
The line: Tampa Bay -109, Draw +254, Nashville +243
Projection: The computer says Tampa Bay Rowdies 1.11, Nashville SC 1.13. That’s close!
Etc.: Coverage from the previous game against the Rowdies. Preview from that game is only moderately informative because it was so early in the season.
Tampa Bay has an above-average offense (seventh in USL) and an elite defense (second). They also have a homefield disadvantage compared to how they perform on the road. To anyone familiar with the recent-ish history of the franchise through both the end of its NASL days and the beginning of its time in USL, these are all insane facts when taken together.
Anyway: Tampa has come out a 3-4-1-2 regardless of opponent or location basically all year (since they’ve figured out what works for them – and it does), with reasonably consistent personnel, too.
Across the back, it’s Caleb Richards, Abdoulaye Diakite, and Tarek Morad left-to-right, with Diakite primarily a sweeper and clearance specialist (128 of them this season, more than double Morad’s 61, and after Richards’s 57, that’s more than double the next player on the team, “a different” Dominic Oduro). This group is designed to clean up for what the players in front of them leave – and that’s not much on what is an extremely strong defensive group – with Diakite as the final… uh… janitor? in the process. Really didn’t think this metaphor through.
In the defensive midfield, Dominic Oduro (not the former Chicago Fire striker that NSC faced against Charlotte Independence, but rather a fellow Ghanaian 10 years his junior) and Kwadwo Poku are the primary starters, with Jordan Doherty taking as many minutes as available when either of them can’t go. Poku is reasonably new to the group – just 10 starts – but they’re both more about positioning (they earn a ton of interceptions) than physicality (duels won is not really their thing).
That group has made things very easy for keeper John McCarthy, who has allowed 12 goals in 20 games, with an 80.3% success rate on saves. I don’t mean that to undersell his ability – No. 2 keeper Macklin Robinson has allowed eight goals in just five games on a 73.3% mark, which is decidedly worse than McCarthy’s – but the success here is a combination of his individual talent and the unit in front of him.
(Side note: it is worth noting that both Oduro and Diakite are a yellow card apiece away from their second accumulation suspensions of the season. With Charlotte up next, it may not be that significant for the Rowdies, but there is a nominal individual fine from the league involved. If Oduro doesn’t get carded tonight, he’s gone five straight without a card, and that takes one off his discipline-accumulation tally).
Offensively, Leo Fernandes is a mainstay on the left wing, while the right wing is a little more matchup-based, with Malik Johnson the first choice. Fernandes makes most of his hay crossing the ball (as does Johnson in significantly less time on the pitch), but the right side can also feature a more well-rounded creator in Juan Tejada or Sebastian Guenzatti (both of whom feature more regularly in the forward corps) if needed.
Up front, well, I’ve just discussed two guys who are important: Guenzatti is the first-choice left striker (with cameo appearances on the wing, as discussed, or in the No. 10 role as the creator), while Tejada is a dude who not only joined the team from an open tryout but… scored the winning goal against NSC last time around.
They’re the team’s top two scorers with former Louisville (and before that, Penn FC) striker Lucky Mkosana right behind them. Guenzatti is fourth on the team in assists, as well – which you’d expect, given the distribution of his positions – while Tejada is a finisher and a finisher only: a big fat zero in assists so far this year. Andrew Tinari is the other No. 10 when Guenzatti is up front, and I’d expect that (what Neill Collins sees as his strongest lineup) in a crucial Eastern Conference gamer.
The Boys in Gold
The injury report is cleaner than it’s been in a hot minute…
|Michael Reed – out for season||Ankle|
…given Jones’s inevitable upgrade to questionable after he’s been practicing since at least the week of the Indy Eleven match at Nissan Stadium. That Ríos is still questionable, on the other hand, is less than ideal given the import of this contest.
All told, the question is probably more about Nashville’s tactical approach than anything. Gary Smith has seemed to fall back on conservatism against top teams at times, with the 3-5-2 a familiar fallback. Meanwhile… the 4-2-3-1 is more successful for this team in particular and modern soccer generally (but an unhealthy Ríos throws a wrench into the works, since he’s far and away the best hold-up striker).
I’m hopeful of the best lineup possible, given the return of Forrest Lasso from hilariously-unfair suspension and everyone else’s (aside from Ríos) full health, at least among the personnel we’ve seen recently. So… 4-2-3-1 with scoring punch that keeps Tampa’s top two setup men pinned back, rather than getting forward into the attack? I’m hopeful more than optimistic, to be honest.
Keys to the game
- Keep the wingbacks pinned in their own end. I have only vague confidence that Gary Smith will go with what makes sense versus what his base instinct demands of him, but if Fernandes and Johnson are stuck in their own end defending a Winn/Belmar duo rather than Nashville focusing on defending that pair with… uh… defense, a mediocre Tampa offense becomes a very bad one.
- Assert physical dominance in your own box… and theirs. Nashville has a size advantage basically everywhere in the lineup, and despite the athletic advantage that may give Tampa, NSC should be able to get the intimidation/domination factor in their favor in both boxes.
- Make the most of your chances. Tampa isn’t going to give up a ton. When they give NSC an opportunity, the Boys in Gold have to make the most of it. They didn’t last time around against Tampa.
- Set pieces are good. Make them so. Nashville is one of the best set-piece offense teams in USL, but… iffy on defending them. Do the first part, and improve on the second part.
My brain actually says this matchup suits NSC extremely well (healthy Ríos pending), while my feelings say “don’t set the expectation too high.”
- Once again, Tejada opens the scoring for Tampa.
- This time, Nashville is able to respond with Cameron Lancaster laying it off for a Lebo Moloto finish in the 63rd.
- The contest revolves around whether one team grabs a second on a set piece. Alas, I have to say no.
The game ends in a 1-1 draw.