Nashville SC encounters Atlanta United for the third time this season – and second in Nissan Stadium – this evening. Can the Boys in Gold come away with their first win in the rivalry?
Opponent: Atlanta United (3-5-2) • 11 points, 1.1 PPG (8th East)
Time, Location: Saturday, Sept. 12, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan 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: Nashville SC +115, draw +250, Atlanta United +245
Match officials: Referee: Armando Villarreal. Assistant referees: Benjamin Hall-Volpenhein, Brooke Mayo. Fourth official: Ted Unkel. Video assistant: Kevin Terry Jr.; Assistant VAR: Nick Uranga
Etc.: Coverage from last game and the first game against Atlanta (and the team’s most recent game, against Miami). Gary Smith press conference.
Injury report: Josef Martinez (out – season, ACL)
Last time these teams met, Atlanta was lookin’ pretty rough. The Five Stripes took victory in Mercedes-Benz Stadium… but that’s the last time (and indeed, the only since early March) that Atlanta United has found itself in the win column. With a coaching change and numerous meaningful personnel changes in the books, this is a club in transition.
With a mid-week game – Atlanta’s first since the departure of Argentine DP Pity Martinez – there’s reason to believe that interim coach Stephen Glass won’t be able to field his healthiest lineup, either.
“I don’t know what Stephen Glass will do with the group after a midweek game, but I think we know we’re in for a tough encounter, come what may,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “They’ve got a good group, they’ve got depth, and I would be veery surprised if Stephen doesn’t rotate to get some fresher legs on the field.”
Given that Martinez near-single-handedly won the game for Atlanta in their home stadium, his departure… is a significant one. $18 million in the bank (for a player whose ATL UTD career saw him have approximately three total good games in a year and a half) is nice to have. You can’t put dollar bills down on the pitch to play, and Atlanta hasn’t spent any of that money to replace him yet, either.
Of course, there are already some talented players in the pipeline. The second-most-expensive transfer fee in MLS history (eclipsed only by that for Pity) was in the pursuit of Ezequiel Barco, and while he’s had a similarly star-crossed career with Atlanta thus far, he’s started to come into his own just a bit – and he’s also just 21, so there’s more upside to unlock, in all likelihood. Atlanta will also rely upon speedy Mexican winger Jürgen Damm to replace that attacking punch out on the edge,.
Pity not being involved – and winning the game ultimately against us in Atlanta – you’d have to think is a positive for us,” said Smith. “He’s an exceptionally talented guy, and it’s one less exceptionally talented individual that they have in their group. But they’ve added Damm out wide, and Barco seems to have stepped into the void that Pity has left.”
The other void is that left by an even more crucial (but less cruciate? Is this a good pun? Sound off in the comments) Martinez, Venezuelan striker Josef, one of the most dangerous attacking players in recent MLS history and the sufferer of an ACL tear in the season opener against Nashville. Quite frankly, Glass – and fired head coach Frank de Boer before him – have not found an adequate way to replace him. Former Columbus Crew and Phoenix Rising standout Adam Jahn has failed to Make Atlanta Great Again, while Cubo Torres has yet to find the back of the net since joining the Five Stripes. Here’s what I said about the latter last time around, before he’d taken the field for ATL:
Erick 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.Aug. 22, 2020
The defense has been solid, even as Atlanta slumped to an 0-2-2 record since that victory over Nashville. The centerbacks have been Anton Walkes and Miles Robinson, while the left back rotation has included USYNT standout George Bello and Edgar Castillo and the right backs have been Brooks Lennon and Franco Escobar. If you’re assuming strictly fatigue-related rotation, it’s probably Castillo and Escobar this evening. There is one more aspect to take into account, though:
“Whatever way you look at it, they’re not an easy side to play against because of their philosophy, and their mantra of possession and creativity,” Smith opined. “They do take, normally, a lot of chances going forward. They commit bodies to attack, which makes them so exciting of course, but it also makes them vulnerable.”
Bello is probably more the attack-minded of the LBs, and Escobar of the RBs, so there’s some potential wrinklage in terms of potential gameplan when you look at the personnel after the lineup is published. Behind that group, Brad Guzan remains the same guy you are very frustrated with when he plays for the US Men’s National Team: a very good shot-stopper who’s nonetheless due for at least one horrific mistake per game, and an OK-to-good left-footed passer with the ball at his feet. His strongest aspect is commanding the players in front of him.
Injury report: Ken Tribbett (out, calf), Jimmy Medranda (out, hip), Randall Leal (questionable – unknown)
While Randall Leal is listed as questionable on Nashville SC’s injury report (something I missed earlier in the week, actually), I would anticipate he’s in the 20 tonight, even if he doesn’t make the starting XI. The other injuries are unimpactful – in Medranda’s case, because Gary Smith is so used to not having him available, rather than a lack of any expected ability to impact games.
The issue for Nashville remains what it has been for… the entire season, basically.
“My hope is, and there’s certainly no guarantees in professional sport, but my hope is that we turn out a performance that we have done in the last couple at home,” Smith said. “We’re able to create the opportunities that we have done in most of our games, and somebody in the group is able to do something that they haven’t just yet, and that’s get us on track with multiple goals. It would be even nicer if one of the forwards was to score multiple goals. That would be quite something for us, and I think that would be enough.”
Nashville hasn’t bagged a team brace yet, much less an individual player putting two goals together in a single contest. New DP signing Jhonder Cádiz won’t be available for this one (or for a while yet). A step forward from a player who has had the opportunities and not done it yet will be necessary if Smith’s dream is to come true.
With a few extra days’ rest, and the rivalry factors providing some extra motivation, perhaps, Nashville should be primed and ready. With a full week between games (looking both backward and forward), there’s little reason to hold back, and Smith intends to throw everything he can at Atlanta.
“We’ll be in the right place,” he said. “We’ve got some work to be done [Friday], and to finalize some of our plans and preparations, but to your point, we’ll be throwing everything at the weekend, and I’m not sure there’s a game we’ve had yet where we haven’t. If there’s points on the board to play for, Tim, then I’ve always felt that it’s a game that you have to throw everything into.”
How that plays out in terms of result is another question entirely. But certainly Nashville is in its best overall run of form this season, while Atlanta remains in its worst.
Keys to the game
- Get on the front foot. Atlanta still has some talented pieces on the roster, but this is a team down its best two talents from season’s beginning, and one that cannot possibly be feeling confident. If Nashville doesn’t provide Atlanta the chance to re-build that confidence early, the Five Stripes probably won’t find it this evening.
- Set pieces. A team that struggles to score can get cheap goals from dead-ball situations. 40% of NSC’s, uh, five total goals this season have come from centerbacks and set-piece situations (and a third came from the second phase of a set piece with midfielder Aníbal Godoy the beneficiary). Until this team builds even more confidence in its run-of-play connections, earning those cheaper goals will be important.
- Big players play big. As noted in the lineup graphic, I think Leal comes off the bench, even if his “questionable” distinction is more an indication of fatigue than any actual likelihood he doesn’t play. Having him enter a game and serve as a game-changing offensive substitute may be confidence-building for him (as it was for Hany Mukhtar in the home game against Inter Miami), and provide just the right spark to win 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. Alas, four of these hiccups have come against Atlanta United. Walker Zimmerman took personal responsibility after the game in MBS, and while he does need to play better in this one, I do also worry that he has the personality where trying to get revenge/redemption sees him put in too much effort and play a little wild. No, thank u.
Tennessean preview column. Broadway preview. Major League Soccer news and notes from Cincinnati Soccer Talk. Preview from Dirty South Soccer. Miles Robinson is, uh, confident in his team. To be fair, he probably ain’t wrong in some ways (but then “we have better players but a worse team” probably reflects poorly on him, too, so). Gwinnett Prep Sports preview material.
I headed the section with “Revenge time” last game out against Atlanta United. This time, I think I mean it.
- Nashville SC does indeed get a set-piece goal to open the scoring, and it comes early: Dan Lovitz‘s corner service is headed down by Zimmerman in the 13th minute, and Daniel Ríos cleans up the loose ball past Guzan.
- The Boys in Gold double their lead in the 50th minute. Randall Leal enters as a substitute, and one of his patented long bombs finally comes good (he’s lost a bit of confidence in his shot, which had meant fewer attempts – for both good and bad in my eyes) after a big switch from David Accam.
- Atlanta pulls one back in the 70th, with Torres hitting one from just outside the penalty area. Damm gets the assist.
Nashville holds on and earns a 2-1 victory.