I’m not sure if we have to do “Crew SC” anymore after the great Anthony Precourt-ing, but here we are anyway. Nashville SC will play those guys this evening at MAPFRE Stadium in the belly of the beast.
Opponent: Columbus Crew SC (7-1-3) • 24 points, 2.2 PPG (1st East) • 1.6 GF/gm, 0.4 GA/gm
Time, Location: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. EDT (6:30 in Nashville) • Columbus State Fairgrounds, Ohio
Weather: 59ºF, 0% chance of rain, 49% humidity
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 or NashvilleSC.com in-market. ESPN+ out-of-market • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Vegas odds: Columbus Crew -130, draw +260, Nashville SC +425
Match officials: Center official: Silviu Petrescu. Assistant referees: Andrew Bigelow, Matthew Nelson. Fourth official: Calin Radosav. Video Assistant Referee: David Gantar. Assistant VAR: Cory Richardson.
Etc.: Q&A (Crew&A?) with Massive Report. Gary Smith and Dave Romney press conference. Wrapping up coverage from the Atlanta win.
Columbus Crew SC
Injury report: D Vito Wormgoor (six-game injury list – ankle), F Fanendo Adi (out)
It is rare that I lead the way with the injury report in this section, particularly when the information of note is who’s not on it: central midfielder Darlington Nagbe and attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayán both missed last weekend’s game against Chicago Fire through injury, and Zelarayán’s situation, at least, has been a little longer-term: he’s played just 156 minutes over the past five games, having missed three (including the two most-recent) entirely.
“Both injuries were the result of tackles in-play, and they didn’t leave the field because of the tackles,” Massive Report‘s Thomas Costello told me. “The Crew went into Chicago with a five-point lead in the East, and Nagbe had started every regular season match. With all those things in mind, it’s not a stretch of logic to think that he was giving him a day off, especially with MLS teams traveling the day of matches.”
Those guys are probably two of the maybe five most-important players on this team, so any grief Columbus gets for drawing Chicago without them last weekend is a little over-the-top, imo. Gary Smith agrees with me, so you know I’m right.
“Smith I thought Chicago played ever-so-well,” he said of the game. “They created some very nice moments before they got themselves in front and then extended their lead. I was a little bit surprised myself having seen the first half [prior to Nashville’s game] that the Crew got themselves back on level terms. I think it goes to show that there’s a good spirit, there’s a belief in the group. They were without a couple very integral players in that team. To dig in to your squad players and to see a good result away from home – especially as you said, from behind – it all will only enhance the way they feel about the team.”
One of the other key players on the team is US International Gyasi Zardes, for whom I have an irrational love at a similar level to the irrational non-love I have for Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan. (These feelings are entirely rational, and USMNT-based, obviously). Nashville SC has a player – who will be heads-up against Zardes – with a lot of familiarity about his style. Whether that familiarity will lead to improved ability to mark him… we shall see.
“Ive gotten to play with Gyasi for about three years, so I kind of know where he likes to run, how he likes to kind of fade off shoulders and make really good runs,” Nashville SC defender Dave Romney said. “I was roommates with [Ema] Boateng, one of their wingers, for four years. I’ll be familiar with those guys. But [Zardes] is also a good finisher. He’s going to get two or three chances a game, and you know he’s going to put at least one or two of those away. He’s got eight goals this year already, he’s got confidence now, and he’s going to be a tough test.”
Zardes’s receiving G+ score (consider this an analog to xG but not necessarily about the shot itself – it values how strong of positions you get yourself into) is the best of anyone with over 507 regular-season minutes so far this year (Jozy Altidore’s is better with 506 minutes played – and that’s good company to be in) at +0.17 per 96 minutes played, and while his finishing is slightly above-average, being in the best positions and finishing at even an average-ish level makes him a top striker – only Seattle striker Raul Ruidíaz has played a comparable number of minutes with as high an xG/96 mark, and Zardes is tied with Ruidiaz for second (behind LAFC’s Diego Rossi) in the Golden Boot race at this point.
What separates Columbus from, say, Rossi’s LAFC team, is that the defense is not only non-terrible, it’s elite. NYCFC is the only other team to allow under 10 goals so far this season, and Ronny Deila’s team will probably reach the double-digit mark against the Revolution today. The Crew has allowed four so far in 2020.
“Columbus’s defense was strong last year, giving up the fourth fewest goals in the East,” Costello said. “That was with a beaten-up backline, with both fullbacks out for a majority of the year, the defensive focal point Jonathan Mensah, and not seeing the same pairing at center back for more than a match or two at a time. This year, they’ve stayed healthy, and it’s a huge boost for the team. The offense can work knowing that Ghana International and team captain Mensah and MLS veteran Josh Williams understand one another and cover a lot of ground.”
Goalkeeper Eloy Room has been well above-average in shot-stopping (0.75 goals per xG allowed), and more importantly, Columbus has done an extremely good job protecting him: he’ll hit 800 minutes between the pipes early in tonight’s contest, and has faced only 21 shots, whereas everyone else who has played even 600 minutes so far has faced at least 31 – and that’s Toronto’s Quentin Westberg, who has a below-average mark in shot-stopping.
All in all, there really isn’t a weakness in this side when it’s fully healthy. The lone loss of the year for Caleb Porter’s team was a 1-0 affair away to NYCFC, and without Room or Zelarayán (injured), and three of the starting back four (resting). I would, uh, not project it means a whole lot of negative about them. In fact, despite a standout player here or there, you might not note a particularly positive about any individual aspect of the team, either: this is about the sum of very good parts adding up to an elite team overall.
“In this case, we’ve run into a very confident and in-form Columbus team,” Smith said. “Their stats – have only one defeat – speak for themselves. I’m sure that they’ll be looking at this opportunity against us as one they should be adding to the points board and points tally.
“Their record is very, very good at this point. Having looked at them – and on numerous occasions – they’re actually a side that do a lot of things well, and you might think that that’s pretty straightforward for a team that’s in good form. But in terms of any one thing that they do exceptionally well, I’d have to scratch my head a little bit on that one. They of course are a good side, but they do a lot of things very well.”
Sounds like a nightmare facing them in one of the most renowned homefield-advantage venues in the country!
Injury report: F David Accam (out), F Abu Danladi (out), F Randal Leal (out), M Jimmy Medranda (out), D Ken Tribbett (out)
Might as well start this section talkin’ ouchies as well: the injured ward for Nashville SC is a sizable one. In addition to the two guys who have been out long-term (Jimmy Medranda and Ken Tribbett), winger Randall Leal will miss his second-straight game, while position-mates David Accam and Abu Danladi will join him. Not a ton of depth available at the position!
You’d have to think a more defensive-minded approach than the past few games will therefore be in the offing. A bunker-counter :ducks from the wrath of Gary Smith: makes some sense here. That does change a little bit of the philosophy, too. A more defensive-minded midfield (out of necessity) and either a 4-4-2 or more of a pure 4-4-1-1 – with two blocks of four offensively as well as on defense – can help protect the backline, make up numbers when Columbus tries to go forward, and… pray for a longball on the counter.
For his part, Smith is happy about the strides his team is making on offense – obviously a lot to be happy about after a four-goal outburst last weekend – and a more balanced approach would be available when the team is closer to full health.
“We look more accomplished in our opponents’ half of the field, and don’t forget at all: there’s never, ever a lack of energy and endeavor in our group on both sides of the ball,” he said. “When we win it, there’s guys in the group who are desperately keep to get forward and get beyond and be a nuisance to defenders, which I can tell you doesn’t happen in all groups. As soon as we lose it, there’s a great attitude to try and draw themselves together as a group in making life difficult. Again, that doesn’t happen in all teams.”
Nashville SC’s philosophy will always start and end with being organized at the back, though, and they’re in good shape (uh, no pun intended) there.
“We have a great coach and great system here that does suit defenders well, and we have a lot of honest workers in front of us,” Romney said. “This is by no means just a backline thing. We have midfielders who are working their ass off the entire game, forwards who press well: it’s definitely a full-team defensive thing, not just the backline or myself or Joe [Willis] in goal.
“I think defensively, everyone’s been playing really well. We’ve been organized, and I think the way that our team kind of shapes up is very suitable for road games. We’re going to defend well, we’re going to make it tough on the home team, and we can steal a point or three on the counterattack.”
That last line there “steal [points] on the counterattack” may not always be the ideal on the road. By matter of circumstance, I’d anticipate it in this one.
I’ve got Derrick Jones as a destroying “No. 10,” a role he played also by necessity against FC Dallas – worth noting, the closest to a bunker-counter Nashville SC has played so far this year (and it worked!).
Keys to the game
- Body up Zardes. He’s not as… broad… but Gyasi Zardes has similar height to Orlando’s Daryl Dike, and is nearly as strong. He replaces being simply massive with great speed for the striker position. That’s a tough package to handle. You have to hope that being physical with him and Romney’s insider knowledge about his tendencies can combine to reduce the number of golden chances he’ll end up with.
- Make the most of limited opportunities. Columbus has been a team that excels in preventing scoring opportunities for the opponent (0.97 xG against/game), while Nashville has been… uh… unproven? in finishing an average number of opportunities. Gotta make the most of ’em tonight.
- Set pieces. Listen, even when I don’t make it a key to the game, it’s gonna be crucial for this Nashville SC team unless and until (and even after) run-of-play scoring becomes more consistent. On the other end of the pitch, opponents are largely finding difficulty without help from dead-ball situations.
- Limit Nagbe’s effectiveness. If he plays, Darlington Nagbe is going to complete a ton of passes, and be impossible to get the ball off of. The trick is to make sure that he doesn’t get the windows to be more dangerous with those passes, and that his ball-stickiness happens outside of spots where Columbus turns it into chances. Yes, this is much easier said than done. But it’s crucial if he’s on the pitch.
NSC official site preview. Preview from Drake Hills. Fox Sports overview. Speedway preview. Massive Report scouting… report. Preview story from the Columbus Dispatch. Canton Rep preview. I opined on this game on both the Nashville Soccer Show and Pharmaceutical Soccer (with much more than that in both).
If Nashville weren’t so shorthanded (or if the Crew still was), I’d probably predict something different. Alas:
- Nagbe threads a ball through to Mokhtar at the edge of the penalty area midway through the first half. The Moroccan plays a dangerous ball toward the back post, and Zardes is there to bang it home.
- Second-half sub Zelarayán bangs a free kick early in the second half.
- Nashville has difficulty getting a large amount of possession late in the game as Columbus possesses to kill the clock. Darlington Nagbe is, to me, “good at this.”
Columbus wins 2-0