Nashville SC had a disappointing road result against North Carolina FC earlier this Summer. Can an NSC team hitting its stride take down an NCFC team that’s lost ground in the time since?
Opponent: North Carolina FC (15-9-8) • 7th place USL East • 7th place USL East power ratings and 6th place combined-table Pure Power (5th East)
Time, Location: Saturday Oct. 12, 7:00 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium (tickets still available)
Weather: 57ºF, 1% chance of rain, 43% humidity, 4 MPH Northerly winds
Follow: USL Gametracker • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
Tailgate: Massive. Lot R.
Vegas odds: Nashville SC -179, draw +267, North Carolina FC +393
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score Nashville 1.26, NCFC 0.63
Etc.: Coverage of last time around. Presser transcript and video with Gary Smith and Daniel Ríos.
North Carolina FC
NCFC has sort of faded over the course of the Summer after some decent runs of form in the early going, but they are on a two-game win streak against some decent teams (playoff-bound New York Red Bulls II and Ottawa Fury). Of course, the other three teams in their five most recent were two losses and a draw against three pretty weak sides.
Tomorrow, they’ll also be without some of their key players: midfielder Nazmi Albadawi (Palestine), reserve winger Yamikani Chester (Malawi), attacking midfielder Dre Fortune (Trinidad and Tobago), and fullback Manny Perez (United States U-23) are unavailable on international duty. Additionally, striker Ulrich Ewolo left last weekend’s game against NYRBII with injury, and may not be ready to play – or ready to play at less than 100%, at least.
With all that in mind, here’s a projected lineup that doesn’t look all that different from the group that started in Cary back in June, but is very different from their current first-choice XI:
Men’s National Team fans will recognize the Sarachan-standard 4-1-4-1 (he ran with that formation in almost every game in charge of the Nats), though I’m interested to see how the longtime Bruce Arena assistant adjusts with so much of his team unavailable – or in Ewolo’s case, potentially unavailable. There really just aren’t the numbers, particularly in central midfield, to run out guys who have more than 700 or so minutes this year.
Miller leads the team in goals (9) and assists (6), while Kristo is right behind him in scoring but hasn’t contributed a single assist this year – you’d think he’d have collected one on accident by now. His scoring production has come on less than a third of the time that others on the leaderboard have, though, so he’s very dangerous with the right foot and the head (as you’d hope a 6-5 guy to be an aerial threat, though only one of his goals so far was from a header).
New England Revolution loanee Justin Rennicks is a center forward by trade, but has drawn into duty as an attacking midfielder, and may be needed in that capacity tomorrow.
The defense has been pretty good this season, though it’s unclear if a decent goals-against average is more about the individual talent of Alex Tambakis (75.2% saves; backup keeper Darrin MacLeod has just 55.3%) or a solid unit in front of him. He’s faced a ton of shots – he has the fourth-most saves in the league – and it seems like their success is reliant upon his excellence, with a little bit of “don’t give up good shots, even if you give up a ton of shots” as the gameplan for Sarachan’s packed-in scheme (you may recall it from such frustrations as the previous game between these teams) playing a role.
“They’re certainly not that type of side that you can overrun physically,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “We’re expecting a similar type of team who will have a good gameplan. They have a very experienced coach, Dave Sarachan, who will certainly be coming to our place with an idea of what he wants to try and achieve.”
“I think the first half, we didn’t play as we want to,” added striker Daniel Ríos. “It wasn’t what we were expecting to do. We conceded a goal in the first half, and the second half, we played as we’re used to playing, but it wasn’t enough because they stood back, they were defending the whole second half, so it was hard for us to score.”
The Nissan Stadium factor is an interesting one: North Carolina FC is more used to playing on a big field than is Nashville, but being able to spread the formation offensively across the width of that surface could also draw them out.
“It’s a great venue, the facilities are wonderful, the surface will be great,” said Smith. “So therefore yeah, of course, if you’re a good footballing side, then you’re looking forward to getting on a field like that. I think the difference is when you’re at home, you’re hoping that the crowd are going to give you that lift.”
The lack of depth in central midfield can also play a role in all of this.
The Boys in Gold
The injury report includes only captain Michael Reed, whose ankle injury is season-ending, and Ken Tribbett, who remains questionable with a leg injury.
For a guy who likes to keep things pretty close to the vest tactically and in personnel plans, Gary Smith’s answer about what went wrong in Cary was pretty enlightening as to what we may expect in Nashville.
“Well they played very very well in the first half,” he said. “We played a slightly different shape in a 3-5-2 than them, and it caused us a lot of problems.”
Kosuke Kimura took a minor injury, Smith replaced him with Alan Winn and switched to a 4-2-3-1, and things looked a lot better for the Boys in Gold. As noted above by both Smith and Ríos, though, against a defensively stout team like NCFC, that was too much to overcome in the final stages.
This, to me, is a best-choice XI right now (give or take Kharlton Belmar playing over Mensah, with the Ghanaian then coming off the bench), and given the stakes of the game and the forthcoming nature of Smith’s comments, we’re lookin’ at it. Getting on board early is a key.
“Yeah, I mean, we will go to try to score in the first 10 minutes,” Ríos said. “That’s our mentality. If we can do it – like against Louisville – we can control the rest of the game. We won’t rest if we score, we will try to score more goals.”
“We’re certainly getting to that point where you’re seeing a bit of continuity in the group: a goalkeeper who’s played more often, a backline to a large degree that’s been a little more consistent; The injuries in midfield have made things a tad easier and clearer to put out on the field,” Smith said. “I think we’re now in a position where you’re seeing a core of the team that are taking the field more regularly, and then around that, some guys who are looking confident, are looking bright, are looking inspired, and they’re the ones I’ve got to make some decision on on matchday most weekends.”
The stakes of the game are obvious to all.
“So, after Tuesday’s result, everyone’s in great mental place, as you might imagine,” Smith said. “I’ve got a pretty much full fit squad to choose from. I mean listen, we’re in a good place. I don’t think anyone’s really got too over-excited about Tuesday’s game. Now we’ve moved on, because, as you’ve said, it could mean very little if we don’t win on Saturday evening.”
Keys to the game
- Score early, or at least don’t concede. We have already seen against this team how important it is to not let them get on the board first. They have a very well-drill compact bunker in that situation. Nashville can weather the storm and do well. Scoring would be even better (as Ríos explained), but given where NCFC is on the table, they’re in need of all three points, so letting the game play out and then punishing them as they have to push later works, too.
- Make the second run. North Carolina has limited opposing strikers pretty well this year, which has allowed them to be among the top defenses in the USL. Nashville’s going to need hold-up play from Ríos to counteract that… which means the midfielders will have to make dangerous runs for his distribution to pay off.
- Dominate midfield. NCFC is not a possession-heavy team whereas Nashville is. The Boys in Gold likely have to dominate the center of the pitch to win this game. They have the pieces to do it. That’s even more true than it was in the first game against NCFC, with Sarachan forced into giving minutes to guys who don’t regularly play.
- Give Ríos the chances. Thanks to a period of time resting a minor injury and then a slight cold streak, Ríos has fallen way behind in the Golden Boot race. He should be hungry to rectify that.
Games at Nissan Stadium have been low-scoring affairs. I don’t expect much different against a strong defensive side.
- Ríos scores on a cross from Mensah shortly before halftime.
- Nashville rides out the rest of the game, switching to a 3-5-2 late. That may lead to some counter-attack opportunities in the second half.
Nashville SC wins, 1-0.