Nashville couldn’t hold a lead in Derby City. Can the Boys in Gold earn a better result on the return trip?
Opponent: Louisville City FC (15-7-9) • 51 points, 6th place USL East • 6th place USL East power ratings and 10th place combined-table Pure Power (7th East)
Time, Location: Tuesday Oct. 8, 7:00 p.m. CDT • First Tennessee Park
Weather: 70ºF, 3% chance of rain, 58% humidity, 8 MPH NNE winds
Follow: USL Gametracker • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: ESPN+ and locally on MyTV30 • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
Odds: Nashville -111, draw +227, Louisville +259
Computer projection: Nashville 1.03, Louisville 0.69
Etc.: Coverage of last time around.
The Boys in Purple
A lot has changed personnel-wise since the last time these teams saw each other, starting with formation. Louisville had been primarily 4-4-1-1 early in the year, with occasional changeups into a 3-4-1-2, but they’ve been almost exclusively a 4-3-3 with a single defensive midfielder for the better part of two months now.
With that change in formation has come an extremely slight uptick in offensive output, but Louisville has really improved defensively. The raw numbers don’t tell the whole story, but the advanced stats paint a picture: they’re still right around average in putting the ball into the back of the net, but have gone from right about average on D to the No. 8 unit in all USL (fifth in the East) since last time these teams met up.
“I think their run suggests to us that John [Hackworth] has found the right balance in their group,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “A 5-3 victory over New York two games ago, 2-0 up against Tampa with 10 minutes to go – they’ll be desperately disappointed they didn’t hold on to that, but what it tells us is that, along with what I think is a six or seven-game unbeaten run [it’s 10!], they’re in a good vein of form. They’re confident, they’ve still got some very experienced guys sitting on the fringes who give them great options, and I’m sure when fully fit will just add to the quality of that group.”
Let’s change up the typical order here and give the projected lineup graphic:
Hubbard earned his shot between the pipes due to an injury to opening-day starter Ben Lundt, and has run with that opportunity. He’s saving 77.3% of shots faced, which is at an elite level in this league. A lot of that is due to the defense in front of him.
The group has settled in with the back four, with Oscar Jimenez a threat up the left flank on offense as much as he’s a sound defender, while Paco Craig and Season Totsch form a solid centerback pairing. Right back had been settled with Pat McMahon earning the First-XI nod, but he left the Tampa Bay game last week in the 14th minute, and didn’t appear against Saint Louis over the weekend. I haven’t been able to unearth official word, but I’d guess he doesn’t play. Of course, that just means former starter Taylor Peay (also a CB option) gets back into the starting lineup.
Speedy Williams – who didn’t play in the previous game against Nashville, having returned just a couple days earlier from international duty – has settled in as the lone defensive midfielder. Despite the nickname, he’s not a rangy guy, staying fairly central and in his own defensive third. He’s a reasonably successful long passer and has 25 key passes on the year (seventh on the squad), but is a defense-first guy.
Striker Luke Spencer has come off the bench (or not even done that) in recent weeks, but my guess is that Louisville has been pacing the big German’s minutes for the stretch run, given he has an injury history. He’s second on the team in goals with seven, despite being a part-time player, and if ever there’s a game to get whatever you can out of him, it’s this one. Brian Ownby is a very capable center forward off the bench or in Spencer’s stead in the starting lineup, too, but a different style of forward, more a lay-off striker.
Attacking midfielder Magnus Rasmussen is the team’s goal leader with 11, and is tied for second with three assists. Obviously, his preference is that assist maven Ownby rather than scoring striker Spencer gets time.
This team is always strong defensively (as long as your definition of “always” doesn’t include the beginning of the year), and with just enough scoring punch to consistently find a winner. They’re not a super-deep team, but everybody on the bench seems to be a starting-caliber player at the USL level, too. The quality, more so than the quantity, of depth is impressive. That’s a big part of their consistent ability to come on late in the Summer.
The Boys in Gold
The injury report: OUT – season – Michael Reed (ankle). QUESTIONABLE – Ken Tribbett (leg).
The stakes for this game are pretty high. A win, and NSC maintains control of its own destiny for the No. 2 spot in the playoffs (and locks up a top-5 position at worst). Draw, and Nashville is still in solid position to host a second-round playoff game… but the margin for error is gone, and things get really tight in that second tier. A loss would, to me, be bad.
“Everything little play in these games matters now,” said keeper Matt Pickens. “Not that it didn’t matter in the beginning part of the season, but when you want to start seeing things shift in the table, a lot of moments in games matter. Everyone’s in the right mentality as a group. No one is doing anything individually. Everyone’s just playing as one.”
Fortunately, this team has tended to be pretty good with a bit more time to rest (although with the offense just finding a stride, I’d have loved for them to have the chance to stay sharp and build chemistry). A unit that has a fully healthy Daniel Ríos, Cameron Lancaster, et al should be able to manufacture some offense, particularly at home.
“We’ve had a good window of time here to get ready, and we’ll continue to get ready for Louisville,” said Smith. “What we know now is that if we can do our job, and we finish the season off well, it would take something pretty strange for us not to finish in at least
second. We still hold out a real hope that if we can take all three games, then those nine points will be enough to claw Pittsburgh back into the equation.”
So, will Gary Smith – as we often see against top competition, especially those willing to play for a draw – go with a 3-5-2 against Louisville? He did last time around, and given a potential injury absence from Ken Tribbett, who can facilitate flipping back-and-forth between philosophies, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the conservative approach again, with the hope that pure scoring talent can win out.
Just minor changes from last game (against Loudoun over a week ago), primarily with the flip-flop in injury status between Forrest Lasso and Tribbett.
The team has an opportunity ahead of it, and this is the first game to begin to seize that chance for a high seed in the Eastern Conference. Three games at home (albeit one of them mid-week and another in the less-intimate confines of Nissan Stadium) provide the window to make it happen.
“It’s huge,” said midfielder Bolu Akinyode. “We know our pitch. One of the games being at Nissan I think gives us a huge advantage. Obviously the crowd behind us, they’re always our 12th man. We are really looking forward to it.
“You can see whenever we’re playing at home and the late winners and scoring goals in the last second, that’s not a mistake. That happens because of them and we feed off of the energy that they give us.”
It may not be the most energetic on a school night, but certainly there should be a desire to please the home crowd nonetheless.
Keys to the game
- Score goals. That’s some Alexi Lalas-level analysis, I know, but in a game like this – against a stingy D whose offense isn’t going to give it a ton of support – those special moments are even more at a premium than usual.
- Set pieces. It still feels like that’s where the majority of opposing offensive production is generated. Taking care of business on both ends is an important factor.
- Work for the smart shot. Louisville keepers have good numbers not necessarily because they’re elite keepers, but because the defense in front of them doesn’t give up many shots from dangerous positions. Exhibiting patience rather than playing right into their hands with a bombs-away plan is probably wise.
- Pin Jimenez back. He remains a huge part of their offense, especially given the position he plays. Nashville needs to get up his sideline, whether with Darnell King as a wingback or with an offensive-minded winger if that’s the type of formation Smith goes with.
- Ropapa Mensah feeds Ríos for an early goal, playing the role of setup man like last week.
- Louisville responds shortly thereafter, with plenty of time remaining in the first half. It’s a Craig header from a corner kick.
- Nashville takes hold of the game at home (whereas they’d let it slip away on the road) and manages to find a late opportunity. Whether Lancaster converts it from a LaGrassa key pass will be the difference between a win and a draw.
Nashville wins 2-1.