It is here. Nashville SC will take the pitch as an MLS club tomorrow evening. Learn everything you need to know about the game here.
Opponent: Atlanta United (18-4-12) • 58 points, 2nd place MLS East in 2019 • 6th place xG Power ratings, 3rd G Power Ratings • No. 9 offense, No. 8 defense
Time, Location: Saturday Feb. 29, 7:00 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium (tickets still available)
Weather: 41ºF, 3% chance of rain, 57% humidity, negligible winds
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: Fox. Big Fox, “Homer Simpson Fox” • 94.9 Game2
Tailgate: Lot R, beginning 3:30 p.m.
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +222, draw +254, Atlanta United +114
Etc.: A whole mess of season-preview content, press conference video and transcript from Tuesday (in two parts), Thursday (transcript only), and Friday (in two parts).
I’m going to get right out front an apologize for not being ready to preview games like I’d prefer for this season just yet. Simply wasn’t enough time to devote to something that is a labor of love.
Atlanta United is the model for MLS 4.0 or whatever number we’re on right now. The Five Stripes picked up a South American striker who’d had a European career (though Josef Martinez’s time with Torino was ultimately not memorable), augmented with a few MLS vets and some savvy draft picks, but more importantly, some top South American prospects, one of whom panned out incredibly well (Miguel Almirón), and that success has encouraged higher-profile South Americans – it can’t be overstated that Pity Martinez, for all his struggles to date in Atlanta, was the reigning CONMEBOL player of the year when he signed – to give it a go. They’ve amped up their academy system, with a couple homegrowns coming through on the first team.
You’ve seen LAFC repeat that while expanding the focus to Mexico and Central America rather than a focus on South America (and an academy that’s loaded with talent, but hasn’t yet produced a senior teamer yet… mostly because its U-19 level hasn’t even launched).
The OGs, as mentioned above, have doubled down on that method. Forward Josef Martinez (2018 Golden Boot winner) is still the star of this team. Pity Martinez, the aforementioned 2018 CONMEBOL Player of the Year, and Ezequiel Barco, the successor to Miguel Almirón as young South American prospect hoping to parlay his MLS stop into European riches, flank him as the wingers.
The signs in the Concacaf Champions League have been good. Pity and Josef really clicked on Tuesday night and Pity admitted after the game that his mentality wasn’t where it needed to be last year. We’ll see if that’s the case for him in 2020.
It’s what happens behind that front three (without even getting into how both Barco and Pity really like to sink inside to play as distributing playmakers) that is malleable. Atlanta was primarily a 3-5-2 team under Tata Martino, a counter-attacking bunch whose individual talent – namely in the form of Josef and Almirón – allowed a team with that typically-negative label to be extremely productive and exciting. The arrival of Frank de Boer last season saw some extreme growing pains early with attempts to try various philosophical approaches, but early in 2020 (Atlanta has already won its two-legged Concacaf Champions League first-round matchup with Motagua), it’s been back to three at the back.
“I think it’ll be a variation of 3-4-3 with three CBs, wingbacks flanking center mids and then Pity, Josef, and Barco causing chaos,” Cleveland said. “My thought is that on the road for a more cautious approach we’ll see Jeff Larentowicz next to Hyndman to start the year and then at home Eric Remedi will be in Larentowicz’s role.”
With a midfield mostly charged with controlling the middle and perhaps whipping in crosses, while the nominal wingers fold in to create offense. It’s not purely counter-attack – there’s too much technical ability on the side to rely exclusively on that – but the idea of Pity accepting a pass from the back and first-timing it to a streaking Josef is still there.
The whipping-in of crosses is expected to take a step back with the departure of wingback Julian Gressel to DC United. Atlanta will be adding some additional South American talent this season, but those players won’t be available this weekend. It seems like a good time to take on the Five-Stripes, yeah?
“Yes, they might have one or two players that are either available or not available, but they’ve got a good squad,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith. “They’ve also got some history to draw on as a group.”
At the back, US Youth (soon-to-be senior regular?) International Miles Robinson will be the man with the departure of Argentine standout Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez to Club Tijuana in Mexico. Fortunately for Nashville once more, he hasn’t played yet while recovering from injury. Franco Escobar, Fernando Meza, and Anton Walkes are not bad players. But at least one of them would be benched were Robinson available.
At the back is another US International. Brad Guzan is on the opposite end of the ol’ career from Robinson, though, with the 35-year old phasing out of playing for his country, but still among the better keepers in the league. He’s one of the less long-ball-y keepers in terms of his distribution, which you may expect with Atlanta preferring to use its skillful players to advance it without going Route One.
Welp, here it is. I’ll get more into the feels with the final season preview piece tomorrow, but there’s no denying the emotional impact of not just this game, but the very idea of playing in front of a nearly-full Nissan Stadium.
“I’ve played in crowds bigger than this before, but never in an expansion team type of game, where it’s so important to the city,” said centerback Dave Romney. “All of the butterflies will maybe be closest to my debut or a game like that. I feel confident and good about this one.”
“This is why I think it’s difficult for me tonight to sleep,” added Panamanian midfielder Anibal Godoy. “I’ll try to sleep well tonight, because we’re waiting. I’ve waited for this day, obviously my family waited for this day. This is an important day for me and my family and my teammates. We were training for two months until now: we’re ready for the battle, we’re ready for tomorrow. We’ll give the best effort for this city.”
But we’re more concerned about the on-field product around here, yeah? I’ve spoken plenty about the strengths and weaknesses of Nashville’s team ad nauseam in the past few months. It does sound like things have come together well, at least.
“Preseason has offered us a glimpse of what the team’s capable of and what the squad’s capable of,” Smith said. “We get a view of the challenge against other MLS groups. Nothing really replaces the first whistle, start of the season, points on the line, 50,000-plus people in the stadium. There’s a completely different mentality and emotion attached to that, of course. The pressure’s on – there’s stress to every game, but the pressure’s on when you’re at home and you want to start well.”
There are two aspects that will be particularly intriguing to start the year: who gets the scoring done for the Boys in Gold, and how dedicated will Smith be to the high press that he’s mentioned consistently in preseason (and worked extensively in the preseason friendlies)? Atlanta seems a team particularly suited in two ways to breaking the press: using technical ability to pass between lines, and having Josef as that outlet up top. If either of those methods manages to beat NSC’s scheme, how will the team recover back into a compact defensive scheme, and will that press continue to be broken out?
Keys to the game
- Don’t let Atlanta play through the lines. In case it isn’t evident yet, I’m skeptical that Nashville’s press is going to work perfectly against a skilled Atlanta team. There’s too much talent and flexibility on the Five Stripes to assume that NSC will keep them pinned in the back. Preventing the movement where Pity or Barco steps between the defensive and midfield lines and gets a quick 1-2 to play Josef through is going to be crucial.
- Find scoring through unconventional means. Atlanta isn’t exactly running out the ’85 Bears defensively, but questions about Nashville’s ability to generate and finish offensive chances are fair. Nicking a goal on a corner kick or a set piece – or some sort of fluke play – would be an even bigger boost than usual.
- Stand up to the physical nature of the game. Josef is a little guy, but an extremely tough bastard. He won’t be intimidated by getting pushed around. Atlanta’s other offensive specialists on the other hand… there may be an opportunity for the Walker Zimmermans and Anibal Godoys of the world to set a ton and put them off-rhythm.
- Give the crowd something to cheer for, then feed off that energy. Nashville will play in front of other big crowds this year. Winning them over in game one would be a huge boost both on-field and in the community.
Alas, I think Nashville will look like it belongs on the field (something many out there seem to be doubting), but not nearly up to the level of one of MLS’s best teams.
- Josef Martinez gets exactly the ball I fear early in the game, getting a first-time pass from Pity on the full sprint. He finishes it past Willis.
- Nashville’s defense stiffens up, but Atlanta adds another midway through the first half on a set piece, with Barco bending free kick service to a free runner (wingback Jake Mulraney, let’s say) on the back post to finish.
- Nashville pulls one back in the second half when Hany Mukhtar threads a ball through to Randall Leal. Though his shot is saved by Guzan, a late-running Dax McCarty is there to finish.
- Nashville pushes for, but doesn’t find, an equalizer in the final 10-15 minutes of the contest.
Atlanta United wins, 2-1.