Nashville SC game preview 2019: at Saint Louis FC

Nashville SC had a disappointing result way back in March against Saint Louis FC. That was one of the top teams in all of USL, though, and STLFC is… no longer that. Can the Boys in Gold get a measure of revenge?

The essentials

STL_crop_iconOpponent: Saint Louis FC (8-9-8), 32 points, 10th place East. 39.63 ProjPts, 11th in USL East power ratings and 21st in combined table Pure Power.
Time, Location: Saturday, Sept. 7 – 7:30 p.m. CDT. Fenton, Mo.
Weather: 80ºF, 15% chance of rain, 60% humidity, 9 MPH Northeasterly winds
Follow: USL Gametracker • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 locally or ESPN+ • The club’s official watch party is at Buffalo’s downtown.
The line: Nashville XXX, draw XXX, Saint Louis XXX (updated when available).
Projection: The computer says Saint Louis 1.18, Nashville 1.55
Etc.: Coverage from the previous game against Saint Louis.

STLFC

This team started the year hot. They were undefeated through the first five games of the year, and didn’t lose for a second time until their 11th outing. They went as far as any USL Championship team in the US Open Cup (earning the $25,000 prize on tiebreakers with New Mexico United after both were eliminated in the quarterfinal), as well.

“I think they were in a very different run of form at the beginning of the season,” said Nashville midfielder Matt LaGrassa. “They’re an organized team, and they’ve got a lot of players with experience as a lot of those independent teams do. We don’t think it’s going to be an easy game by any means. They’re fighting for a playoff spot, and we have plenty to fight for. It’s going to be a challenging game.”

It’s that second part that seemed to sort of turn their season. This didn’t start the year as a particularly deep team, and a combination of injuries and the fatigue of playing more games than anyone else in the East saw their form take a major turn for the worse: since a 5-1-2 start (2.13 points per game), they’re 3-7-6 (0.94 points per game). It’s been real.

“It seemed to me from a distance that maybe the Cup run interfered somewhat with some of the flow and the continuity of the league play,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “It also puts an added stress on, some pressure on bodies. They’re missing a couple of players as well and have been, could be due to the extra games, who knows. Nonetheless, I think they’re getting back to where they were.

All that said, they’ve still only lost once at home, way back in April. Is that because they haven’t hosted Nashville SC, New York Red Bulls II, Louisville City FC, or Pittsburgh Riverhounds? Or is it because they’re really that good at West Community Stadium? There’s no way to definitively know, but a win against Indy Eleven and a draw against Tampa Bay Rowdies (albeit in their first two home games of the year) certainly speak to their favor. They do come in as just the 14th-best home team to the Pure Power ratings.

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Sam Fink and Phanuel Kavita are every-game choices at the centerbacks, but there’s been a bit more rotation out wide. Bradley Kamdem-Fewo was the first choice at LB for a while, but he’s been out of the squad for the past four games. Given that he’s on caution accumulation (next one gets him suspended a game and the team fined), and the next STLFC contest without a Kamdem-Fewo yellow takes him out of that range with a good behavior incentive, it probably doesn’t make sense to include him in this squad – especially if he’s been benched four straight (whether due to injury, performance, or avoiding that fine). That leaves Sean Reynolds and Matt Bahner as the likely wide defenders. Each can play on either side, though Bahner’s a lefty so if he’s on the left, look for crosses, and if they’re flipped, those fullbacks may look to cut in.

In front of that backline, Saint Louis has used both a double-pivot defensive midfield, and various ways of getting a single defensive midfielder out there (whether some adaptation of a 4-diamond-2, a true 4-3-3, or 4-1-4-1 lineups). All else being equal, the top choices at CDM are Lewis Hilton and Collin Fernandez, with Guy Abend and Oscar Umar mixed in there.

Kadeem Dacres is a lock starter at a right wing position lately, with the left wing some combination of Russell Cicerone (if he’s not part of a strike pair up top) or a less offensively-oriented player who also happens to rotate through those CDM spots (Hilton, Fernandez, Masta Kacher – who, yes, has a name that sounds like a bad guy from 101 Dalmatians).

Kyle Greig, Caleb Calvert, and Tyler Blackwood are the most common options up top. Greig leads the team with seven goals, while Sam Fink – who it must be noted, is a centerback – is second with six (to be fair, only one was headed). Dacres and Cicerone each has four. Hilton leads the team in assists with a very meager four.

The Boys in Gold

Injury report is mostly unchanged from last week with one key addition:

PLAYER INJURY
OUT
Michael Reed – out for season Ankle
QUESTIONABLE
Derrick Jones Ankle
Daniel Ríos Groin

Nashville had a major bounceback week after a disappointing loss to New York Red Bulls II, with 2-1 wins on consecutive Saturdays – over Charleston Battery and Tampa Bay Rowdies – to get some momentum back and make a late-season push for the top of the table.

It may still be difficult to catch NYRBII and Indy Eleven, who are two points ahead of Nashville and one point behind, respectively (and the Eleven having played three fewer games than the Boys in Gold). We’re certainly at a stage in the season where every game requires Nashville to take all three points, and that’s particularly true against sides who aren’t projected to be in the playoffs.

Daniel Ríos’s overall health is a major question mark. After being questionable for the past two games, he didn’t make the squad in either. Even if he’s in the lineup tonight, to we get a full-strength Ríos or a guy who’s got to re-tune his shooting and re-find 90-minute fitness? It’s an important question.

Also important: who plays keeper in a game where both primary contributors are making a hometown return? That Matt Pickens was one of the players available to media this week could be telling – especially since he’s so rarely made available anyway – since that typically (not always) indicates a player who is expected to play a role. I’d expect Smith to stick to his statements that Pickens is No. 1 and Sparrow locked at No. 2, despite the Red Bull game (where Sparrow went 90) indicating that we could still see some rotation.

“I played only one other game there and that was with Tampa like two years ago when Tampa joined the USL,” said Pickens. “It’s always great. I actually used to play on that same field as a teenager. I know it well. I still have a lot of family back there so it’s going to be a fun time. Stay focused, get the three points, and enjoy the company.”

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Not playing in midweek for now two weeks running after a crowded early August (and with a 10-day rest coming up), Nashville can play the best-available without worrying about fatigue, and then build to the stretch run.

“We’ve had our time of three games in a week,” said Smith. “We’ve had some very difficult scheduling, as have other teams. I’m pleased that we’re getting plenty of time to recover, to prepare, to refocus. It was a terrific win at the weekend. There can be some fallout, a little bit too much excitement at times in the early part of the week, understandably so. But we’re back on track now and everybody’s looking forward to the weekend.”

Against a Saint Louis team that’s solid defensively but offensively-challenged, I’d like to see the 4-2-3-1, rather than a three-man back line, and it seems Smith May be coming around to that idea for this particular matchup.

“I do think that the 4-2-3-1 is something that we are more comfortable with and the players that we have are more in line with it,” he said. “What we know is we’ve got a good Plan B [with a three-man backline] when we need it. It’s served us well to this point.”

That does mean one of Bolu Akinyode, Ken Tribbett, or Jimmy Ockford likely has to take a seat, though. I’ll cop out and use the 3-5-2 graphic.

Elsewhere

NSC official site game preview. Watch party info. Speedway preview. Highlights from St. Louis’s most recent game. Local newspaper coverage in St. Louis. Must be nice. The league’s weekend guide calls this a game to watch.

Keys to the game

  • Take control early. A version of this key is often included when I think Nashville is taking on an opponent that they should be able to handle comfortably. It’s more important in this type of game, because Saint Louis is a team that has talent – but maybe not confidence. If Nashville can make sure they don’t get a chance to build that confidence, things get much easier.
  • Set pieces. NSC has rounded into form on defending set pieces (particularly corners – one of NYRBII’s goals came on a free kick, though), and has also seen some payoff from the work put into scheming up strategies for offense, too. You may recall that Saint Louis’s goal in the first match between these two came on a set piece. It’s important.
  • Disconnect Saint Louis’s midfield and forward lines. STLFC has had a tough go all year in getting the ball from midfield into scoring areas: they have 23 assists on their 33 goals, with many of their key passes coming from crosses. If Nashville can use its defensive midfielders to prevent forward passing, I’m confident in the centerbacks’ ability to prevent chances from the cross – especially with Forrest Lasso and Jimmy Ockford added to the lineup since the previous STLFC game.
  • Tough it out. With the teams’ respective strengths, Saint Louis will want to make this a slog, while Nashville is probably content to allow that (rather than a wide-open contest) to play out. Should that come to fruition, may the grittier team win. And may Nashville be the grittier team.

Predictions

Saint Louis probably wants to slow the tempo and increase the variance in this one, and alas, I suspect Nashville is content to let that happen on the road.

  • STLFC gets an early goal when a mixup at the back allows a sliver of space for Cicerone, and his lefty curler finds twine.
  • Nashville equalizes early in the second half on a corner kick. Lebo Moloto’s service finds the head of Lasso, and he makes no mistake.

The game ends in a 1-1 draw.

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