In a season of firsts, “first road game” still feels pretty significant. How will the Boys in Gold handle it?
Opponent: Portland Timbers (14-13-7) • 49 points, 6th place MLS West in 2019 • 16th place xG Power ratings, 9th G Power Ratings • No. 5 offense, No. 20 defense
Time, Location: Saturday March 8, 4:00 p.m. PDT (6:00 in Nashville) • Portland, Ore.
Weather: 49ºF, 1% chance of rain, 47% humidity, 7 MPH NNW winds
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: ESPN • 94.9 Game2
Vegas odds: Portland -192, draw +330, Nashville +50
Etc.: Q&A with Kip Kesgard.
Still haven’t had the time to put together a robust pregame package. I promise the next preview will be much more aesthetically pleasing.
Despite losing 3-1 to Minnesota United at home last week, Portland was about level in goal differential. While their finishing (or giving Minnesota more easily-finishable chances than the xG models are aware of) is certainly something to be aware of, at the same time you look at a two-goal loss and think they made their own bed with it.
This is a team that’s been run by two gentlemen named Diego… basically since anyone outside of the metro Portland area can remember. Both are still important, but with Mssrs. Chara and Valeri both tossing 33 candles on their most recent birthday cakes, the Timbers are trying to slowly figure out a succession plan for their top midfield destroyer and attacking midfielder, respectively.
“The Timbers want Christian Paredes to become the heir apparent in the central midfield for Chara, and so far, he’s started to do that – but Portland isn’t the same team without Chara,” Timbers blogger Kip Kesgard said. “Valeri was a huge catalyst for the attack, but the team is hopeful that Felipe Mora, Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Jeremy Ebobisse can shoulder more of the scoring burden and offensive creativity.”
Valeri was the shootin’-est CAM in MLS last year, but it’ll be interesting to see if that continues with more pure scoring talent around him in the form of more maturity out of Jeremy Ebobisse (I’ve long believed he’s just not gotten a fair shake in Portland, for what it’s worth), and Pumas loanee Felipe Mora, who started last week’s game up top. Mora also only managed one shot in the loss to Minnesota while Portland’s lone goal came from the penalty spot, so, uh… maybe some developing to do in the offensive output.
On the defensive end of the pitch, I won’t damn keeper Steve Clark for giving up three goals in a game in which much of Minnesota’s production came on counters-to-the-counter, particularly when his defenders are still figuring each other out.
“Right now, Larrys Mabiala is working with another new center back, Dario Zuparic, and it was apparent they were still trying to figure out their chemistry,” Kesgard said. “With the backs pushing up quite often, it will be up to Mabiala, Zuparic and Diego Chara to effectively clog the middle to slow down the opposition counter until they can get reinforcements. We’ll see if it works.”
With a Nashville team that wants to build down the wings – and won’t be the slightest bit embarrassed if the production devolves into lumping crosses into the box – I don’t know if Chara will be able to make a massive impact defensively. Turning defense into offense with the quick upfield pass on the counter? Sure. But mucking up the middle is going to be a minor difficulty only for a Nashville team that probably won’t live in Zone 14 (for better or for worse) anyway.
I would anticipate a lot of the same thing we saw last week out of Nashville: Gary Smith has seemed more settled on his starting XI this season than he ever did in two USL seasons.
There are a couple wrenches in that particular work, though: ineffectiveness up top (though after review, I was much less down on Dom Badji’s performance than I was expecting to be) and health along the right side – David Accam was clearly less than 100% at right wing against Atlanta United, while I’d expect a fully-healthy Brayan Beckeles beats out Eric Miller for the right back spot – could see some minor shuffling.
That said, I think Badji gets another shot on account of that “better than we remembered” outing, while Accam is still the best RW option and Beckeles has seemed a couple weeks away from ready to start. I’m gonna roll with the same starting lineup we saw against Atlanta, while admitting that there are a couple pretty obvious ways it could be wrong.
So: does Nashville get better performances out of a couple key positions than the squad did last week? Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal weren’t quite on the same page – at least not to “these are the highest-paid guys on the squad” levels – while Dax McCarty seemed a little uncomfortable on the ball and his midfield compatriot Anibal Godoy was uncomfortable with his defensive spacing, while being outstanding once he actually had the ball at his feet. Every one of those failings had more a feel of the 60,000-fan-expansion-franchise-premiere factor than anything that will persist this season. If any of those four (much less all of them) gets up to expectations quickly, NSC will be cookin’ with gas.
Playing with a relatively inexperienced team in one of the cathedrals of the sport in North America could see any nervous issues persist. I’d say it’ll be more likely that the relief of pressure by not playing at home allows the team to be a little more loose, and a Portland team whose issues seem a little more… “need to be worked through” rather than “got that out of the way” could be ripe for the taking.
Keys to the game
- Protect against the counter, and be ready to counter right back. Giovanni Savarese’s teams are going to live and die by the counter a lot of the time. That’s just the way he structures things. Not letting Portland get easy offense by coming back at you is important. Putting it back on their face when the Timbers try to flood numbers forward on their own counter-attacks is a good way to score. At least that’s what Kevin Molino told me. Folks.
- Get the first save of the year? To me, it stinks to play one of the best teams in the league in the season-opener (during the brief window pre-Josef injury when they were almost certainly a top-4 team in the league) and only give up two shots on target, and see both of them hit the back of the net in a one-goal loss. Maybe just me tho.
- Feed off the emotion in a very different way from last week. It should come as no surprise that I’m not a big “take life off the field onto it” sort of guy. But Nashville took advantage of the crowd last week, and I’ll be damned if the tornado stuff and the patch, etc. etc. don’t give NSC a little something extra to play for.
- Figure out a way to score. This, to me, is the most important part of the game. Just a hot take for the day.
Does Nashville SC get its first MLS result?
- Portland gets on the board first when a foul just outside the penalty area gives Diego Valeri a set-piece opportunity. He bends it home, as he’s done about twice a year through his MLS career.
- Nashville SC responds with Randall Leal slotting a pass in to Dom Badji late in the first half. Where he just missed the frame last weekend, Badji sweetly finds the back of the net.
The game ends in a 1-1 draw.