It is here. Nashville SC’s first home playoff game is upon us, with the Boys in Gold hosting a team against whom they have a 1-1-1 record this season. None is more important than the rubber match.
Opponent: Charleston Battery (11-10-13 Regular season) • 9th place USL East • 18th USL power ratings (9th East)
Time, Location: Saturday Oct. 26, 7:00 p.m. CDT • First Tennessee Park (tickets still available)
Weather: 69ºF, 23% chance of rain, 81% humidity, 15 MPH SSW winds
Follow: USL Gametracker • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: ESPN+ or MyTV30 locally • 94.9 Game2 (English radio) • 96.7 El Jefe (Radio en Español).
Tailgate: Von Elrod’s, or with The Assembly in the Ozzie Lot or the Roadies at Neighbors
Vegas odds: Nashville SC -200, draw +297, Charleston Battery +429
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score Nashville 1.41, Atlanta 0.48
Etc.: Coverage of game one, US Open Cup, and game two against Charleston this season. Game week pressers from Tuesday and Thursday.
So. Picking a Charleston lineup is a little tough. Some of the factors:
- They’d played exclusively a four-man backline early in the season, then came out with a back three in the first game against Nashville
- That situation repeated in the Open Cup game
- They’ve since played almost exclusively even backlines, including in the second regular-season matchup against Nashville
- They played 120 minutes in a different country Wednesday night
- While the rain is supposed to end before the game kicks off, the field should still be pretty wet, facilitating a slog
Obviously in a win-or-go-home situation, they’re going to play the best lineup they can. But what is that, given all the above – particularly the short rest?
They’ve rolled with four-man backlines and two strikers for the past few games now (sometimes with the second striker playing a bit deeper as a creator or facilitator), with varying midfield philosophies, including a flat 4-4-2 and varying interpretations of a 4-1-3-2 (including a true diamond). I’d expect we see the Battery try to make this one a defensive battle, dropping back into a 3-4-1-2 – which is also a less energy-expending formation after the midweek game.
Tah Anunga is one of the few rested Battery players – he didn’t travel to Canada – but he’s also coming off injury, so it’s unclear whether he’ll be available.
Higashi and Rittmeyer are true winger-types, so if we do see the back-three, it’s possible they’re pulled for more defensively=sound players. It’s pretty clear that Nashville is expecting Charleston to defend first and hope their talent up front is enough to get some scoring production.
“They’re not just competitive [this is secret Gary Smith code for “disciplined and hard-working on defense”], they have a nice dimension to them in [Zeiko] Lewis, [Kotaro] Higashi, you look at guys like [Nicque] Daley coming into the group who’ve not played loads but we fell foul of some of his exploits in the Open Cup, a lot of pace,” Nashville head coach Gary Smith said. “They’ve got some really nice dimensions, and what we know is we’ve had some very very tough games against them, and I expect it’ll be exactly the same at the weekend.”
“I think they’re a club that’s been around for a while,” added NSC midfielder Bolu Akinyode. “Since my rookie year, they’ve played pretty much the same. They’ve had a decent amount of the same core. So I think they’ll come out, they’ll fight, they’ll battle, they’ll work. They’re a blue-collar team, and we’ve just got to be ready for it.”
All that said… there’s a reason this Battery team barely scraped above .500 on the year: they aren’t very good. Nashville saw twice this season that Charleston can get up for any individual game (more so the 3-1 loss: NSC dominated the Open Cup game’s run of play, but couldn’t finish) and come away with an upset. The play-in win over Ottawa in difficult circumstances underscores it.
“You can tell watching those games and how tight they were and the way that both teams battled back to tie the game at some point, that’s just playoff soccer,” said NSC midfielder Matt LaGrassa. “Nothing’s going to come easy, and we’re obviously going to respect Charleston as they come in: they’re here for a reason, so we’ll do everything we need to do.”
The Boys in Gold
The injury report includes only captain Michael Reed, whose ankle injury is season-ending, and striker Cameron Lancaster, out with an ankle injury as well.
Nashville SC was a good team this season. They’ve been at their best late in the season, too, with only one below-average performance (the makeup game against New York Red Bulls II, which comes with a caveat of a shocking referee decision to give NSC a man-disadvantage for more of the contest) since early August – and, with the Bethlehem Steel draw at home, only two since Jimmy Ockford and Forrest Lasso joined the squad in early July.
The urgency added by a title chase gave them a further boost.
“I think we’ve certainly shifted into a new gear,” Smith said. “The last three games at home, we always highlighted as an opportunity, come what may, once we qualified for the playoff to say, ‘look, the only way we can prepare for this, in our way, is to try and create the environment and atmosphere that you’re going to see come postseason.’ The fact that those games were in conjunction with chasing for the Eastern Conference regular-season title just added to it. It was another dimension to the run-in that I think gave the players a little bit more of a shot in the arm, and a bit more passion to the game. That’s lent itself nicely to what we’re now going to see.”
“Luckily for us, I think we started to replicate the environment of playoffs the last couple games of the season, because we were competing for a title obviously,” added LaGrassa. “So I think you saw us kind of flip that mindset a couple games ago. There’s always a different feel, it’s one game, and anything can happen. You’ve got to be good always, and take advantage of the opportunities that you have.”
The question for NSC is simply whether they’ll run out of steam after playing what was essentially playoff-effort soccer for the better part of a month. Certainly there’s not a ton of mystery in the lineup, with the wingers and left back the only positions that have consistently rotate (and Ken Tribbett’s availability new within the past four weeks or so).
There’s also the possibility of going with a back-three, but I think the concepts of keeping Ken Tribbett and Taylor Washington on the bench (with both able to substitute in at multiple roles) is probably preferred. In addition, the 4-2-3-1 is more offensively inclined, and given Nashville’s difficulty scoring in previous contests against Charleston – and the fact that playing for a draw in the playoffs is not the mindset of a favorite playing at home – you want to maximize those opportunities.
Similarly, bringing late-game-goal specialist Ropapa Mensah off the bench for some magic against tired legs is probably the right move. He’s played a lot of soccer lately, and while he’s in better shape than he was earlier in the year, if you assume he can’t go 90, I’d take the later portion of the game to allow him to change it.
Keys to the game
- Find the magic moment. Nashville has managed to score through set pieces as well as the run of play in recent games. Keeping that up will go a long way toward making this game a victory.
- Keep the playoff mindset going. Like Charleston (which was playing for its right to even participate in the postseason), Nashville has had a must-win mentality for some time now. That needs to continue into the playoffs proper, particularly in showing the urgency on the defensive side of things.
- Be patient on offense. Charleston will emphasize being hard to break down. When they do get broken down, their keeper, Joe Kuzminsky, is just OK. Finding good shots may be difficult, but NSC has the talent to find and finish them.
- Feed off the home fans. Nashville has (finally) built a bit of home-field advantage this season after starting on somewhat shaky ground at First Tennessee Park. The Backline should be in full throat, and that raucous atmosphere is going to be important to a playoff run.
I predicted a Daniel Ríos brace with a centerback set-piece goal against Atlanta, so clearly this prediction space is 100% accurate at all times. Therefore, here’s what you will see this evening:
- Daniel Ríos finishes at the goalmouth on a feed from Kharlton Belmar early in the contest.
- Nashville adds a headed goal from a set piece by Jimmy Ockford shortly before halftime.
- NSC rides out its 2-0 lead.
Nashville wins, 2-0.