Nashville SC began its MLS history with a loss to Atlanta United. Can the Boys in Gold exact some revenge with today’s trip to The A?
Opponent: Atlanta United (2-3-0) • 6 points, 1.2 PPG (9th East) • 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, Aug. 22, 6:00 p.m. CDT (7 local) • Mercedes-Benz Stadium (no fans)
Weather: 77ºF, 24% chance of rain, 73% humidity
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: MyTV30/ESPN+* • 94.9 Game2
Vegas odds: Atlanta -120, draw +280, Nashville +320
Match officials: Referee: Ted Unkel. Assistants: Corey Rockwell, Walter Heatherly.
Fourth: Marcos de Oliveira. VAR: Chris Penso. Assistant VAR: Jeff Muschik.
Etc.: Coverage from last game against Atlanta. Gary Smith, Dan Lovitz, and Alex Muyl press conference. Q & A with Josh Bouland of MLS Multiplex. Preview touched upon in the Pharma Soccer pod.
* Update: YouTubeTV and AT&T cable streamers will have access to the game inside the local viewing area. Other streaming providers are still in negotiations.
Injury report: Josef Martinez (out – season, ACL)
It was clear basically from the jump that something wasn’t right for Atlanta United in Orlando. They only gave up a goal in each game (despite a man disadvantage for the majority of their contest against Cincinnati, and playing a powerfu Crew offense). But what had been one of the most exciting, at times freewheeling offenses in MLS for the better part of the first three years of its existence… well, it’s almost unquestionably been the worst attack in the entire league.
Maybe we should have seen it after the contest in Nissan Stadium: both goals were on the fluky side and came from moments of individual brilliance, with one aided by an officiating error. Of course, “incredible moment of individual brilliance” has been the calling card of the Five Stripes in their short existence, so forgive our not seeing the cracks. But Miguel Almirón ain’t walkin’ through that door, and Josef Martínez can only crutch through it for the time being.
Going 0-3 in Orlando and looking ugly doing it was bad enough. Given that there already seemed to be a vibe that the players really didn’t care for their head coach, Frank de Boer, it was time to make the move. In steps former ATL UTD 2 coach Stephen Glass to right the ship.
“Above all else, I think the players just needed a refresh, and they got that with de Boer’s firing,” MLS Multiplex‘s Josh Bouland said. “In any locker room where there’s a stale relationship between coach and players, the firing of said coach always leads to a short term boost in morale. I’ll be more interested to see if Glass can keep the players motivated as the season progresses.”
He’s someone that Nashville SC is very familiar with: Glass’s Baby Five Stripes went 0-2 against Nashville SC last year, with a combined scored of zero goals for and five against. Of course, he was working in a very different situation there (a bunch of academy kids against grown men) than he is with the senior team now (one of the most talented teams in MLS – and certainly among its most expensive).
“Stephen’s obviously a talented coach: else he wouldn’t be working at this level,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “I’m sure he’ll be the first to admit: there’s a lot of learning to be done in his world, and I’m sure he’s taken full advantage of being with that team. This isn’t a permanent [coaching appointment] as I read it: I’m sure Stephen would like to make it that way, but the fact is, I’m sure there are plenty of things going on within that group at the moment that are a work-in-progress if you like.”
So: the elephant in the room may be the absence of Josef. What (or who) are the solutions for dealing with said elephant? Atlanta made moves in the transfer market trying to replace the Venezuelan. Former Pachuca and Tigres winger Jürgen Damm should help add pace to the flanks. He’s previously been rated the fastest player in the world, though the FIFA video game – that infallible source of truth – currently has him behind a handful of others at a 93 pace. Damm’s fellow Mexico international Erick “Cubo” Torres was the more direct replacement for Martínez as a striker. He scored 36 goals in 93 MLS appearances for Chivas USA and Houston Dynamo between 2013 and 2017. His scoring has dried up with just four goals in 30 games for Tigres and Xolos over the past three seasons.
“He has a reputation obviously of being a goal scorer, so that’s always good,” midfielder Emerson Hyndman said of Torres. “And I think he brings people into the game really well. He’s good at holding up the ball, he’s really clever with his touch, and for a midfielder like me just trying to run in behind him and get on balls like that, it’s nice to play with him. He’s good at linking up play, and obviously he likes getting into the box as well.”
With star-crossed Argentine Designated Player Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez apt to snap out of his funk at some point and Ezequiel Barco beginning to live up to his potential – those are the two most-expensive transfers in MLS history – there’s plenty of potential if Glass can unleash the talent in the way Tata Martino could as the coach.
While the defense has been good, all indications are that Glass will switch things up a little bit: going with a 4-3-3 that he used almost-exclusively with the USL side. That will probably keep his players a little bit happier with the additional freedom they’re given going forward. A four-man backline is certainly going to be less of a bear for Nashville to deal with if that switch is indeed made, though the tradeoffs in offense will be hard for NSC to deal with, as well.
Along that line, I would guess Franco Escobar moves outside after playing primarily right CB so far, while Miles Robinson and Fernando Meza lock down the middle. US Youth international George Bello is an exciting-yet-inconsistent option I’d like to see on the left.
Injury report: Ken Tribbett (out, calf), Eric Miller (questionable, adductor), Jimmy Medranda (questionable, hip)
You’d be fair – and correct – in assuming that a four-point week on the road against a solid Dallas team has given the Boys in Gold a bit of pep in their step. Going from zero points in franchise history to back-to-back road results is confidence-building. However, the squad also wants to try to make sure the excitement is kept in proper context.
“We definitely put emphasis on understanding what these two games in this past week, what it represents: we’re not getting carried away with it,” defender Daniel Lovitz explained. “At the end of the day, we are ultimately now in the same sort of rhythm and flow that we had before everything was shut down… I think we’re just looking forward to continuing any sort of positive momentum in the way that we play, and the mentality that we have on the field, most importantly.”
Despite the three players on the injury report (worth noting that Tribbett has not made the bench yet for the MLS team, even when healthy), Gary Smith seems confident in the overall health of his squad. Even if the two iffy players sit, the rest of the group is in a good place.
“We’re near-enough at full strength,” he said. “What that does do, is give me the opportunity to try and evaluate the best possible candidates for each and every game, but it also keeps tremendous competition in the group. If you look at the very best teams, they’ve always got players that are breathing down somebody’s neck who’s already holding down that first-team spot.”
That also sounds like a group in which there’s not just coach-speak-level competition for starting spots. Given that most of the starters have been all-but locks so far this season, you’re looking at striker, right wing (or CAM if Mukhtar plays wide), and right back – particularly if Miller’s not back to 100% this evening – as the positions with some flexibility.
Brayan Beckeles, Alistair Johnston, and Jalil Anibaba played that right back role across the two games in North Texas. I think you could fairly say Anibaba performed the best at it. Placing him in the starting lineup also gives the opportunity to bring Johnston off the bench either there or the right wing position where he excelled Sunday. At striker, you may be in a coin-flip between Daniel Ríos and Dominique Badji, though the ability to play winger Abu Danladi (or possibly even David Accam) up top exists. I think, like with Johnston, Smith prefers to have the speed of either of those guys available off the bench. Giving Ríos a chance against a two-centerback lineup can help determine what he’s capable of at this level.
This team has not a strong defensive player with the athletic tools necessary to play on that right wing. Sliding Mukhtar out there and putting a purely defensive No. 10 (Derrick Jones) on the pitch this week was certainly one way to deal with that. Trading for a player at the position who had been trained in a press-heavy system at the position would have been ideal.
Hey! Nashville SC did exactly that just over a week ago. 24-year old Alex Muyl may not be the most polished offensive winger, but he’s a reasonable athlete in pure speed terms, and a major plus in motor. He also has the defensive mindset that is instilled in every player coming through the Red Bulls Academy.
“The Red Bull system, it was very clear what your role was at all times,” he explained. “It was almost something that, you didn’t have to think much, you always knew what you had to do. I think that the lessons that I had picking up that system and basically getting it into my DNA, I think those are the same ways I can try and apply that to how Nashville wants to play. I think there’s certain qualities that I have that lent myself to Red Bull, but hopefully bringing that here will also be good for the team, and hopefully help to get results.”
If he’s ready to make the lineup, he’s a perfect fit for what Nashville SC needs to allow Mukhtar to be in his natural position, and it frees up the other three members of the attacking quartet juuuust enough to hopefully amp up the offense. With former teammate Dax McCarty (they overlapped at Red Bull in 2016, and in fact Muyl’s first MLS appearance was substituting on for McCarty) showing him the ropes – and in a position very near to him on the pitch – the hope is that Muyl is ready to go.
The rest of the back-six field players are ready to keep a shutout streak going and give their attacking players further opportunities.
“Keeping the ball out of the net’s really important to us, that’s sort of the foundation we want to build this group on,” Lovitz said. “Obviously we’d like to find a way to continue doing this at a high level, so that we can provide the guys in front of us with more opportunities and more sustained periods in the game where they can do what they do and be dangerous and attack, and put the ball in the back of the net on the opposite end.”
I do not believe you’d find any Nashville fans upset with that outcome.
Keys to the game
- Weather the storm. Even if Atlanta’s exciting new signings are not in the starting lineup, the Five Stripes are going to come out eager to prove Orlando was a fluke, and that there’s still some offensive firepower in this team. Absorbing a bit of that early on before the game settles in will be crucial.
- Get the ball into central areas on offense. The opponent and Nashville’s personnel made a difficult go of it in the last week: Dallas played three centerbacks in the first game, and Nashville played Hany Mukhtar wide while Daniel Ríos was a little isolated up top. It’s no surprise that Nashville’s key passes had to come from the wings, or deeper in their formation away from goal. Finding patterns of play to make that not the only resort will be key.
- Test the backline. Tying the above two points together: Atlanta (and Glass) will want to prove the offense is legit, but that may come at the expense of some defensive solidity. Take advantage of it.
- Stay solid at the back. Nashville has been very good in this regard, aside from a hiccup here or there so far in 2020. Keep it up.
Pharmaceutical Soccer had some preview material. Broadway preview. Atlanta players discuss their team’s offensive additions. Dirty South Soccer runs through the Atlanta press conference news items of the week and match preview. Atlanta Journal-Constitution preview. 92.9 The Game in Atlanta discusses Stephen Glass’s appointment. the Tennessean on the differences in these teams since Feb. 29($).
- Atlanta comes out blazing in the first 20-40 minutes, but many of the shots have to come from distance, and Joe Willis saves each and every one.
- The game settles into a rhythm after that, with each team trying to advance through midfield in a way that allows them to penetrate into the opposing final third.
- Nashville SC gets a set-piece goal midway through the second half. Dan Lovitz’s corner-kick service finds the head of Walker Zimmerman. He nods it on for Aníbal Godoy to hammer home at the back post.
- Atlanta spends the final 15 minutes throwing numbers forward again. Eventually, Nashville SC’s line of defense breaks when Pity Martinez is able to run right at the centerbacks with space, dishing to substitute striker Adam Jahn to finish.
Atlanta 1, Nashville 1