Nashville SC’s first game against Birmingham Legion was one of the team’s earliest games of the year, was back in May. Both teams are in a very different place by now.
Opponent: Pittsburgh Riverhounds (14-4-9), 51 points, 5th place East. 64.43 ProjPts, 3rd in USL East power ratings and 6th in combined-table Pure Power.
Time, Location: Saturday, Sept. 21 • 7:00 p.m. CDT. • First Tennessee Park
Weather: 79ºF, 0% chance of rain, 47% humidity, 6 MPH Southerly winds
Follow: USL Gametracker • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 locally or ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 in English, 96.7 El Jefe en Español
The line: Nashville -139, draw +239, Pittsburgh +291
Computer Projection: Nashville 1.71, Pittsburgh 1.25
Etc.: Coverage from the previous game against Birmingham. Presser transcript and video with Gary Smith, Forrest Lasso, and Kharlton Belmar. Q&A on the Riverhounds with the Soccer Rabbi.
This is a very good team. It’s also a very different team than you may expect from a Bob Lilley-coached side. While the defense has rounded into form and become one of the best in the Eastern Conference, things started a little rough on that side of the ball, and the Riverhounds were led by offense early, and they’re still the No. 2 team in the East in goals scored per game.
Lilleyball, this ain’t. If Lilleyball is even a thing, that is.
“Hypothetically, it was a defense-first approach, although not necessarily counterattacking or Route-One football (AKA longball AKA dump and chase),” Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s Mark Asher Goodman told me. “Lilley hates conceding goals, and always keeps a midfielder or two deep enough to shield the backline. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that Lilley signed Ryan James, a Left Wing Back, and runs a lot of the offense through him, letting him push high. He also added Robbie Mertz, a dribbly No. 10 who can play wide or in the middle and is confident and creative. And Kevin Kerr, his veteran wide midfielder, is also performing at peak levels.”
As noted at the top, this is still a team focused on not conceding, and when Nashville visited the Steel City back in April, Lilley went with a 5-4-1 formation for the first time all season, and while I’m not projecting that for tomorrow, you can mentally slide VanCaeyezeele on either side of Greenspan, take out one of the attacking midfielders, and sort of get the picture:
Whatever the Hounds do, it’s clear Nashville expects a semi-defensive game.
“No one’s expecting an easy game,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said. “Will it be a free-flowing, open, exciting game? Unlikely, really unlikely. Will we see a lot of the ball? Quite possible. Will we create many changes? Again, I’m not expecting many. So their record tells us they’ve lost four games all year, they’ve had a lot of draws, they’re very, very tough to play against, and I don’t expect anything different.”
I’ve marked up the graphic with a couple fun facts, and you can see those players whom I’ve deemed some of the key guys. Neco Brett is the player to watch offensively, mostly a finisher but capable of playing a little bit of hold-up ball, as well (as you’d hope for a team that’s a little more counter-oriented).
While Steevan Dos Santos is a talented attacking midfielder who can also play striker – second only to Brett in combined goals and assists – a lot of their offense comes from guys in the back lines. That’s primarily Kenardo Forbes, a deep-lying midfielder who has almost as many key passes as the next three guys combined, and while most of those come from corner kicks, he still pushes up into the attack just a bit.
The other guy is a familiar name, with left back Ryan James a former member of Nashville SC and – well hey, you can guess whether I was sad to see him go after reading a story all about how important he was to last year’s team (coincidentally, after a game against the Riverhounds). He’s whipping in a ton of crosses – 83 of them so far this year – and while those are succeeding at typical cross rates – under a quarter reach the target, fewer than that result in a goal – it has been a big part of how the Hounds generate offense. That’s sort of expected for a “defense-first, counter-attack second, let the other team have the ball third” type of side, but even a strategy that’s only occasionally successful can… see Kosuke Kimura put the ball into his own net to earn a draw.
On the other side, right back Jordan Dover crosses very infrequently, actually, while right winger Kevin Kerr has a bit of that responsibility added to his game. In the offensive build, they’re a little asymmetrical. If they build up the left, James is carrying it. Up the right, it’s on Kerr’s foot.
The platonic ideal of a Bob Lilley heatmap is one that actually shows up extremely regularly:
The game played a ton in midfield, maybe even slightly more tilted to Pittsburgh’s half. Lilley trusts his defense to make the plays that the other guy’s defense can’t… and if neither offense can overcome that, you get a low-scoring draw, as God intended.
The Boys in Gold
The only change to the injury report is the deletion of Lebo Moloto, which is no surprise after Smith didn’t mince words about it this morning.
|Michael Reed – out for season||Ankle|
I’d like to see a 4-2-3-1 – which has been Nashville’s best formation – but fear we’ll see – like we did in Pittsburgh – a back-three. The teams that have had the most success against the Riverhounds (particularly recently) have been those that can punish them for being unable to progress the ball up the field without using those fullbacks. Nashville has the winger talent to get it done… but I always sort of fear that Smith is going to lean on what’s a little safer, rather than going for offense and trusting his talented defenders to get the stops.
That ethos sort of came out when I asked Forrest Lasso about it this morning.
“If they go ahead early, it’s always that you’re kind of fighting uphill,” Lasso said. “With a team that’s so defensive, where you have to kind of break them down, you’ve gotta understand that you’re not going to score right away. The defensive sides like Pittsburgh are going to do that and they’re going to test us a lot. So we know that – it doesn’t matter who you play – we don’t want to concede first. We know that against Pittsburgh, that if they do go a goal up, they’re going to make us pay for it.”
Given that we saw a solid 20 minutes out of Daniel Ríos, I’d expect we’ll see him in the starting lineup. Given that Kharlton Belmar was available to media today, we’ll execute one of my classic rules of thumb and assume that he’s going to be in the lineup (said rule doesn’t always hold true, but it’s definitely an OK indicator of surprise lineup choices).
Belmar – presumably with Lebo Moloto back from a concussion suffered in training, given that the South African was not on today’s injury report – provides a bit of a spark to complement Ríos’s style, allowing Ríos to either look for his own shot or be a hold-up striker laying the ball off to talented teammates.
Here’s my projection:
That’s a pair of wingbacks who can get up the flanks to make trouble for Pittsburgh, obviously a very strong defensive unit – with the option of subbing an outstanding defender in Ken Tribbett in at multiple spots (ironically, the primary reason I don’t have him in the lineup is because he’s capable of doing so much) – and a group up top that could make things happen, again with talent available off the bench.
This is also a grouping that’s pretty easy to shift formationally without too much change: both Washington and King have experience as wingers, Bourgeois at defensive midfield, LaGrassa at various positions, etc.
NSC official site preview, three things to know, and drink specials (it’s more than just drink specials, but hey, I know what you’re most interested in). Riverhounds official site preview and Lilley talkin’ about Nashville. Speedway preview. Pittsburgh Soccer Now preview notebook.
Keys to the game
- Don’t give up the counter. I have a lot of faith in Nashville to make this happen, particularly in a game where it’s the focus, and particularly since I expect Bradley Bourgeois (the team’s most-athletic centerback, a goal-scorer in the previous game against Pittsburgh, and possessor of extremely impressive quadriceps) to be in the starting lineup.
- Set pieces. Nashville scored twice on them in Highmark Stadium, and conceded twice from the run of play. Verily, it was a bizarre game involving the Riverhounds. Don’t let it happen again, I think seems wise!
- Make the most of your opportunities. There won’t be many of them.
- Test the keeper. If ever there was a game that could use Michael Reed and Liam Doyle, this is it. Pittsburgh’s defense is great not because they get great goalkeeping performances, but because they don’t ask a ton of Kyle Morton. His save percentage of 68.4% is decidedly “meh,” and considering the fact an outstanding defense makes him face a lot fewer shots that are difficult to save vis-a-vis other top keepers? Put the ball on frame and see what happens.
I think I’m going to be a bummer again.
- Belmar collects a layoff from Ríos shortly after halftime, and bangs it top-shelf.
- Alas, the 3-5-2 that Nashville doesn’t seem to be better defensively in, even though it’s an inherently defensive formation (don’t @ me if I’m wrong, Gary) bites NSC around the 80th, when Robbie Mertz finds a channel to run, and lays off to substitute Christian Volesky for the equalizer.
- I badly – badly – want to say NSC finds a winner through a late set piece, but it doesn’t quite happen.
The game ends in a 1-1 draw.