Nashville SC and Indy Eleven began the year as the two favorites in the Eastern Conference. One will end it at the hands of the other in the conference semifinal playoff match.
Opponent: Indy Eleven (19-9-6 regular season) • 3rd place USL East • 8th USL power ratings (5th East)
Time, Location: Saturday Nov. 2, 7:00 p.m. CDT • First Tennessee Park (tickets still available)
Weather: 47ºF, 2% chance of rain, 57% humidity, 6 MPH NW 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 -164, draw +269, Indy Eleven +333
Computers are for Nerdz: Projected score Nashville 1.41, Indy 0.70
Etc.: Coverage of game one and game two against Indy this season. Q&A with Kevin Johnston of Soc Takes.
As noted at the top, Indy was a co-favorite to win the East with Nashville this season. For a while, the Eleven were on pace, too: they had multiple games in-hand on the other teams near the top in mid-September, and a very easy remaining schedule. They… did not take advantage, with losses at Birmingham, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Ottawa taking away that advantage. They finished on a 3-0-1 tear to lock down the No. 3 seed, but the gulf between the opportunity and what they made of it is troubling nonetheless. That their struggles on the road seemed to play a pretty significant role in that disappointing limp to the finish should probably bode well for Nashville, right?
“The team just doesn’t seem to get up as much for away matches,” Kevin Johnston of Soc Takes told me. “It’s a factor that absolutely could come into play Saturday; the Eleven simply haven’t been very competitive on the road since the spring.”
Of course, it’s worth noting when pointing to Indy as one of the preseason darlings, that one of the signings that gave them that status (forward Thomas Enevoldsen) proved to be a poor fit, and left for Sacramento Republic mid-season. Another of those impressive signings, former Louisville City No. 10 Ilija Ilic, has had trouble fitting into the scheme.
“Rennie has an obsession with central defensive midfielders; you’ll likely see three of them in Indy’s starting XI Saturday,” Johnston said. “It’s also kind of the reason that Ilija Ilic hasn’t really flourished this season and didn’t even see the pitch in Indy’s win over Red Bulls II. Ilic’s skill set kind of puts him in the same boat with Enevoldsen and [former attacker Zach] Steinberger. Unfortunately for those guys, being that type of player is not a good thing on a Martin Rennie roster.
“It’s very stout in the middle of the park with big bodies like Paddy Barrett and Karl Ouimette in the back line, and essentially three CMs sitting in front of the back three shielding them,” Johnston said. “My guess is that Nashville will try to attack from the outside in, which’ll require wingbacks Ayoze and Macauley King to strongly commit to playing both sides of the ball.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that this tends to be a defense-first team: the Eleven have the third-least-efficient offense remaining in the playoffs (only El Paso Locomotive and Sacramento Republic are worse), while they have the second-most-efficient defense still in the hunt (Nashville’s is the only better).
Out of various 3-5-2/3-4-3 philosophies, Rennie has his team defending well, and relying on set pieces (16/48 goals this season, exactly a third – they also benefitted from two own-goals outside of set-piece situations) to generate their offense. There’s certainly no shame in finding the back of the net from a deal ball situation, but when it’s that big a piece of an offense that’s anemic in its own right, there’s not a lot to like there. You can understand why they tend to end up with a lot of low-scoring draws under Rennie.
“We’ve played them twice this year. I think the last game they played the same formation,” said NSC midfielder Lebo Moloto. “I think tactics and formations will play a big part in the game, but at the same time, it’s one of those games where it’s not the same compared to during the season where you can get a tie. We are going to have to do our best to get a win this weekend.”
So, the trick against this Indy team is less about preventing them from getting anything in the run of play, and more about winning on set pieces and finding ways to crack their backline. New York Red Bulls II couldn’t do that last weekend.
“I’m sure they’ll be delighted to have found that all-important goal and got past a very good New York side,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said, “because that group had some bodies in it that were pushed down to the USL group again. So they’ll be pleased with that, and they’ll be confident with their result. It goes without saying it’s going to be a tight and difficult game. We’ve got to be at our best.”
Let’s take a look at the projected lineup:
The injury situation could (Newton is “questionable” not “out”) be impactful, but Indy has had a couple months to adjust to the lack of Farias, who had previously been the right-sided wide player of choice. You could just as easily see Watson in place of Conner as a third defensive midfielder, or Ilic could slide into that role if it’s a more-offensive 3-4-1-2, as well.
The centerbacks and CDMs are the strength of this team, with mononymic Ayoze the straw that stirs the drink on offense. He’d previously split time at that LWB spot with Pasher (playing RWB at times, as well), but since the latter has moved to the front line to find some – any – offense, he’s locked down the left. He is a bit of a defensive liability, however.
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 has settled into a fairly consistent grouping in terms of lineup, with only a few moving parts in its 4-2-3-1 in recent weeks. Those are:
- Left winger (Taylor Washington, Alan Winn, Kharlton Belmar)
- Right winger (Alan Winn, Kharlton Belmar, Ropapa Mensah)
- Left back (Justin Davis, Taylor Washington)
There’s also some flexibility/potential variation on the basis of Tribbett’s availability: he could step in for either of Matt LaGrassa or Bolu Akinyode at a central defensive midfield spot, or either of centerbacks Forrest Lasso and Jimmy Ockford. More likely, he’s in the starting lineup only if there’s a formation surprise, and comes off the bench to replace any of the above four if needed.
Daniel Ríos is re-finding his scoring streak at the right time, Nashville is getting contributions from several others (and not just on set pieces!), and the offense is coming together. Meanwhile, the defense has of course been elite since Lasso and Ockford joined.
“Even when Ríos was going through a little bit of a drought, we were still managing to get goals,” Moloto said. “I think we have guys like Ropapa [Mensah], guys like Alan [Winn], guys like Taylor [Washington]. Taylor scored a goal against Lousiville even though he doesn’t score as many. I think it shows that offensively, we’ve jelled well this year. It doesn’t matter who we play against, we do our best to get a goal or two.”
I’m sticking with the same formation and personnel we’ve seen recently, and the possibility of shaking things up with impact subs.
There is an interesting factor against an Indy team that would otherwise gladly settle for a draw (and let’s not kid ourselves, Nashville hasn’t always been above that, either): we have to find a winner. I don’t know if either side would be content with taking this bad boy to penalties.
“I do think that this game against Indianapolis will be very different to the league games,” Smith said. “We both know that if there’s not a result in the space of 90 or 120 minutes, then it’s got to be concluded on Saturday. So it gives it a different edge, but it’s been a good venue for us. We’re absolutely delighted with the way that the fans got behind us at the weekend, and hopefully we’ll see something similar.”
That home-field advantage has started to build in the past several weeks. It’s something defender Justin Davis noted.
“A lot of people would question our home form to start the year, but we have proved them wrong and we get good results here,” he said. “We are always in it until the last minute, and the fans are always behind us. There should be even more with it being such a big game and a lot of traveling fans from Indy is what I expect. It will be a good environment.”
The other half of my Q&A with Soc Takes. NSC official site preview and three things to know. USL site’s preview and their key matchup to watch is Darnell King v. Ayoze. Speedway preview. USA Today Sports Network – Tennessee fluff on the NSC defense and three things to look for.
Keys to the game
- Don’t give one up on a set piece. I explained above: if you aren’t putting the ball into your own dang net or allowing set-piece goals, Indy is not particularly potent.
- Maintain shape in defensive transition. It’s more difficult to account for transition goals without re-watching all 34 of Indy’s games this year, but anecdotally it seems like the majority of their run-of-play tallies happened in that regard. NSC shouldn’t need to seriously push numbers forward – or, more accurately, may not gain enough from pushing bodies forward to make it worth the risk – and if they do, it could be trouble.
- Go for the kill. Indy has had a “play for the draw” mindset all year against top sides (with the set-piece and the counter-attack finding them some winners nonetheless), and I don’t know if it’s in their DNA to change that up. They’re far more likely than Nashville to be content with a shootout. Don’t let them get there.
This should be a tight one, but Nashville has been the stronger side throughout the season and in the teams’ head-to-head matchups.
- Ríos knocks on a high ball, where Winn is there to finish inside the box early in the second half.
Nashville wins, 1-0.