mls Nashville SC

First look: Nashville SC preview for #MLSisBack

The results are in, and Nashville SC’s fate for the group stage of the MLS is Back tournament is now known (though we continue waiting on the schedule). Drawn into six-team Group A, the Boys in Gold will take on Orlando City SC, Philadelphia Union, and Chicago Fire, while missing Inter Miami CF and New York City FC (both of whom will play the same set of teams as NSC).

With the top two teams in the group advancing to the knockout stage (and another likely to advance as the best third-place finisher thanks to the uneven group setup), Nashville will be looking for its first regular-season result of the year – and then some, in order to extend the stay in Orlando.

Philadelphia Union

Nashville is rumored to be facing the Union in its opener in the 8 a.m. CDT slot on July 9, the second day of the tournament.

Last year, the Union finished third in the Eastern Conference, with 55 points on a 16-11-7 record. My power ratings (expected goals adjusted for opposition and location) had them as the sixth-best offense in MLS and the 12th-best defense in the league.

The player responsible for the highest share of expected goals (and still outperformed his xG by over three goals) was striker Kacper Przybyłko, while CAM Marco Fabian – playing at the top of a diamond, for the most part – was second and the other regularly-used striker, Fafa Picault wasn’t far behind him in third.

Przybyłko is the only member of that trio back, with Fabian off to Qatar after the Union declined a contract option, and Picault is now with FC Dallas.

The Union’s philosophy – a Red Bulls-esque top-to-bottom academy-driven organization – will see Brenden Aaronson take over the No. 10 spot full-time (he filtered through there and other midfield roles in the past), while the diamond midfield shuffles just a bit to accommodate that. The natural move for Aaronson and the depth in midfield probably explains away why the Union was comfortable seeing Fabian go.

USMNT prospects Mark McKenzie and Matt Real are key to the backline, while TAM signing Jacob Glesnes has looked iffy as McKenzie’s centerback pairing so far. Andre Blake is Jamaica’s No. 1 keeper, and he’s been solid in MLS play, though the statheads don’t care for him much.

So far in 2020, Philadelphia has lost to FC Dallas in a relatively level game that saw FCD pull away late for a 2-0 victory, and tied LAFC in what has been the game of the year (also: last game of the year) to-date, a wild 3-3 battle.

Orlando City SC

Orlando City had the league’s No. 18 offense last year, but a very solid defense at No. 6 in the power ratings. The Lions finished with a 9-15-10 record – 37 points – second-last in the East, ahead of only FC Cincinnati.

Portuguese DP Nani was brought in to be the engine for the offense, and while the left winger bagged 12 goals, he was only second on the team in xG (with 8.3) behind former USMNT striker Dom Dwyer (seven goals on 9.6 xG). Nani also led the team in expected assists, with 6.0, contributing five assists. If Dwyer had finished at a rate close to his historical trend – close to or slightly above average – there’s a decent chance the Lions would have been… non-horrible. Not good, non-horrible.

Nani was suspended for the first two games of this season – a 0-0 draw against Real Salt Lake and a 2-1 loss to Colorado Rapids – but assuming he starts in the tournament’s kick-off game against Inter Miami CF, should be back integrated with the lineup thanks to having a game under his belt. Dwyer missed both games with injury, and presumably a few months to get fit will play to his advantage, too.

OCSC went with a typical 4-2-3-1 in the opener, but shifted to a 3-5-2 with wingbacks high up the pitch in the loss to Colorado. Hypothetically that allows them to take advantage of the mobility of their wingbacks, but you’d have a hard time saying it went super-well. Chris Mueller scored the team’s lone goal.

Chicago Fire

The Fire was one of last year’s weird teams. Chicago finished with a +8 goal differential – tied for third in the East – but only managed an eighth-place standing in the table. Even with that weirdness, the Fire significantly underperformed xG, and probably should have even had a better goal differential! They combined a lack of timeliness with a lack of conversion, and that’s how you end up feeling like you must turn over basically a whole team despite outstanding underlying stats.

Former Germany international (uh, turned centerback?) Bastian Schweinsteiger retired, central midfielder Dax McCarty was traded to a team you may or may not be familiar with, Aleksandar Katai had his club option declined and ended up signing with LA Galaxy (before getting cut after his wife was p. racist), and center forward Nemanja Nikolić is now plying his trade in Hungary.

This whole team has been blown up, and it’s hard to know exactly what to expect of the Fire.

They opened the season with a 2-1 loss at Seattle, and followed that up with a 1-1 draw at New England. CJ Sapong, the leading returning player when it comes to offensive production, missed both with injury. There’s still a ton we don’t know about the Fire under new headman Raphael Wicky.

Non-opponents

NSC won’t be squaring off against Inter Miami CF or New York City FC on the pitch, but they each play the same three teams as do the Boys in Gold, and competing in the group for one of those top three spots.

NYCFC was last year’s Eastern Conference regular-season champion, but flopped in the MLS Cup Playoffs against eventual runner-up Toronto FC. Domé Torrent’s team was possession-oriented and led by mighty midgets Alexandru Mitrită (a 5-6 striker) and Maxi Moralez (a 5-2(!) Argentine playmaking midfielder). The ratings had them 10th in MLS offensively, and third on defense (while they slightly overachieved their xG on both fronts). The thought is that replacement Rony Deila will stick was Torrent’s philosophy.

The City Football Group (Manchester City, Girona, several clubs in less-notable countries) squad lost a pair of 1-0 games – at Columbus Crew and at Toronto FC – to start the season.

Inter Miami is Nashville’s fellow expansion side, and like the Boys in Gold, the Herons are still looking for their first result in franchise history (and like every team in Group A, still seeking the first win of the year).

Former Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles – one of my all-time favorite MLS players, and a member of the all-underrated squad for sure – fringe USMNT midfielders Lee Nguyen and Wil Trapp, former Seattle Sounders centerback Román Torres, and first overall draft pick Robbie Robinson, a striker, are among the most notable names.

Overview

Given the realities of being in the six-team group (assuming the league doesn’t shift to something sane in the format), each team has to be aiming for the top half of the group. The third-place team is almost guaranteed to make the knockout stages of the tournament, while fourth through sixth don’t even have that opportunity (the best four third-place teams will make the bracket, even though it’s likely that Group A’s fourth-place team will have one of the better point totals among teams that don’t automatically qualify – and possible that they finish better than the champion of some other groups).

So, what is Nashville’s shot? A three-point finish is the minimum, while anything better than that has a reasonable shot at making the next round. Among the downsides of the six-team group is that NSC can’t directly play against two of the teams it’s competing with. Theoretically, three wins is not enough to guarantee a top-two finish in the group (though certainly it would guarantee being the best third-place team in the competition.

Expectations for Nashville… are not high. ExtraTime’s Andrew Wiebe picks NSC last and literally doesn’t mention the team in his prose paragraphs, for example.

Based on what we’ve seen from the teams so far this year (see my charts about halfway down), NSC has been unlucky and poor on offense, and extremely good (best in the league by a wide margin) with about average luck on defense. Playing for a draw against Philadelphia and then rolling the dice in the next two games seems like the move to me.

If the offense can start to click a little bit more – for example if Daniel Ríos and Jimmy Medranda are 90-minute fit for the first time this season – the upside may just be available.

Check back for individual game previews and more in-depth looks at the opposition when the full schedule is released.

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