It is here. Nashville SC will unofficially take the pitch for the first time as an MLS team today. The opponent? IF Elfsborg, out of Sweden’s top league. The occasion? A preseason friendly.
Opponent: IF Elfsborg (11-9-10 last season) • 43 points, 8th place Allsvenskan
Time, Location: Thursday Jan. 30, 2:00 p.m. CST (3:00 local) • IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fla.
Weather: 69ºF, 0% chance of rain, 58% humidity, 9 MPH NE winds
Watch • Listen: No streams 😦
Etc.: The full Nashville SC 2020 preseason schedule.
Let us set the overall scene in terms of team quality:
Elfsborg finished 8th in the 16-team Allsvenskan in 2019 (Sweden follows a calendar-year season structure, like MLS). The league has a wide range of teams’ quality – from “almost as good as LAFC” to “a lot worse than FC Cincinnati or Vancouver Whitecaps” – with a fairly even spread on down the table, rather than the tightly-bunched middle that MLS boasts:
So Elfsborg should be somewhat close to competing with a non-outlier bad MLS team, if FiveThirtyEight’s SPI remains consistent enough season-to-season.
It’s worth noting that there is a fair amount of turnover here: starting winger Jonathan Levi and centerback Stian Rode Gergersen were on loan from Norwegian clubs (Rosenborg and Molde, respectively) last year, and midfielder Pawel Cibicki was 11th on the team in minutes and tied with Levi for third in goals despite being available for only the first half of the season (on loan from Leeds in the English Championship), and he’s not back either. Goalkeeper Kevin Stuhr Ellegaard moved on a free transfer to FC Helsingör in his native Denmark.
However, a lot of the key players return. Right back Frederik Holst (a former teammate of Hany Mukhtar at Brøndby IF) led the team in minutes, and returns. The top two goal-scorers, Jesper Karlsson and Per Frick, both return after being interchangeable at striker and winger spots.
Perhaps most importantly, midfielders Samuel Holmén, Silvert Heltne Nilsen, and Simon Olsson are all back. They typically played in some combination in central midfield whether Elfsborg was in a 4-1-4-1 (often playing like a flat 4-5-1) or a 4-2-3-1. There was heavy rotation toward the end of the year – likely due to minor injury or fatigue, and the team being neither in European contention at the top of the table or relegation threat near the bottom of it – but all three are defensive-minded guys.
Anecdotal evidence is basically all that’s available, but Elfsborg’s every-goal reel from 2019 indicates a couple play-style characteristics: it may not have been the focus of their play, but certainly their most successful stretches of scoring included hitting opponents with speed on the counter. Again, they may have loved to counter-press (and there’s a bit of that in there, too), or play the beautiful game, but Man City this ain’t.
Welp, here we go. It’s finally time to get the full picture of what Nashville SC will do this season – or perhaps a partial picture, with an emphasis on the team’s development – rather than settling a starting lineup – at this stage in preseason. Assuming Gary Smith goes with his best-available lineup, I project the following:
Randall Leal is unavailable on international duty with Costa Rica across the country (you can see him play our beloved Americans Saturday afternoon), or he’d be my lock starter at left wing. There are a few spots up for grabs beyond who starts in his place, most notably central defense and striker. This is a solid squad, but one that’s probably going to take a bit of time to come together, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
This side doesn’t have the quality up top to be a pure bunker-counter unit right now (I’m also not certain they’d want to, with Gary Smith mentioning a 4-2-3-1 pressing system), but generating offense through getting the wings in behind while a striker hangs out to dunk them home is somewhere in between, as well. Having more complexity than that early in the season will largely depend upon how effective Hany Mukhtar can be.
I also imagine we’ll see – like we’ve seen early in the past two USL seasons, including preseason friendlies – an early emphasis on getting the defensive shape and structure squared away before truly juicing up the offense.
Keys to the game
- Get better in preparation for the regular season.
Frankly, I don’t see this being a hyper-interesting one. Both teams are going to want to work on their defensive systems, and it will largely come down to whether one can draw the other forward to hit on the counter, or whether substitution time results in some talent mismatches that break the seal for one team or the other.
It’s worth noting that Elfsborg has already played one training match – so they could be a little farther along the path to regular-season preparation – but they also don’t begin said regular season until April, so can show a bit more patience in said build.
The game ends in a 0-0 draw, though the likelihood of a ton of substitutions (to test and prepare team depth) can change anything and everything.