One of the league’s dynasties has fallen off to become… not that… in recent seasons. Can the Boys in Gold take advantage in Nissan Stadium?
Opponent: DC United (2-5-5) • 11 points, 0.9 PPG (13th East) • 1.0 GF/gm, 1.5 GA/gm
Time, Location: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 64ºF, 30% chance of rain, 73% 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: Nashville SC -145, Draw +275, DC United +425
Match officials: Center official: Tori Penso. Assistant referees: Logan Brown, Jeremy Hanson. Fourth official: Robert Sibiga. Video Assistant Referee: Alan Kelly. Assistant VAR: TBD
Etc.: Q&A with Adam Taylor of Filibuster podcast. Gary Smith pregame presser.
Injury report: out: Mohamed Abu (out) Paul Arriola (out), Steve Birnbaum (questionable), Russell Canouse (questionable), Edison Flores (out), Felipe Martins (out), Elises Segura (out).
DC has been pretty poor this year, ahead of only Chicago Fire on points (and if we’re combining conferences, also ahead of San Jose thanks to the Quakes’ hilariously-bad goal differential).
The defense has been mediocre by Eastern Conference standards – the West is very different thanks to the explosive nature of LAFC’s offense, and the implosive nature of both LAFC’s and San Jose’s defenses – and the offense is also poor, but not to the same degree with Nashville’s being among those a little more meager. The lesser quality of the offense, in all honesty, has become the expectation for Ben Olsen teams, though “literally the second time ever that a team has been held without a shot” is pretty bad. The weaker defense is probably a more worrisome problem.
“I honestly think that Ben Olsen wants to play fun, attacking soccer,” Adam Taylor of the Filibuster podcast said. “He’s said basically those exact words to me. But he also hates losing more than anyone I’ve ever met, and so when the chips are down–when he’s down some attacking players, when the defense isn’t holding its own–he has this tendency to go very pragmatic.”
What has helped turn both ends of the pitch for the worse has been the injury situation: it’s not a great one, and has been that way basically since the beginning of the season. Winger Paul Arriola was expected to be one of the engines of the offense, but tore his ACL during preseason. Federico Higuaín, brought in from Columbus, hasn’t really been hurt, but the 36-year old is obviously limited minutes-wise. Frederic Brillant and Steve Birnaum have hardly been able to play together in central defense as they’ve been knocked up at alternating times.
All told, there’s a lot that hasn’t gone right for DC when it comes to the trainer’s table.
“I think they’ve been rocked by injuries to a couple of important players, Arriola obviously being at the top of that list,” said NAshville SC head coach Gary Smith. “But with a couple of additions – I know [Gelmin] Rivas has played up top the last couple of games and they’ve just brought him in recently – they’ve made a couple of signings that I think have helped them, but they’re obviously in a bit of an up-and-down form. I’m sure they’re coming to our place thinking if they can get a result, then it gets them on their way again, and starts off a bit of an unbeaten run, and puts a bit of a pin in maybe our aspirations as well.”
Midfielder/wingback Julian Gressel was signed after Atlanta essentially couldn’t afford to keep him in the offseason (this was before Atlanta became a used-part emporium), but has had only 0.31 xG+xA per 96 minutes played. Striker Ola Kamara is the only guy who’s played more than 300 minutes who eclipses that per-minute output with 0.43.
Of course, that also says something about what DC has had to do – rotating through tons of depth – in the wake of their injury issues. Playing a bunch of 17-year olds has not been ideal, but it has helped establish a baseline for the future (and with an MLS team that was famously poor in the academy department until recently).
“This may be the silver lining to what has otherwise been a hell of a storm cloud over Audi Field,” Taylor said. “Utility man Kevin Paredes and attacker Griffin Yow. Both of them bring puppy-dog levels of energy to every phase of the game and attack with the kind of purpose that it seems many of United’s other pieces have lost. Yow got his first MLS goal just this past weekend, scoring a weaker-foot volley for a late equalizer against Toronto FC.
“Paredes has lined up everywhere from wing to #10 but has spent the most time at left wingback when United were playing a three-back system. There was some concern about his knee and hamstring before the last game, so he might be a late sub on Wednesday. Yow has had less playing time than Paredes but when he’s been out there he’s more of an attacker. Besides scoring, he also set up what was almost the game winner against Toronto and did some work on the endline to beat two defenders and set up another chance, as well.”
16-year old central midfielder Moses Nyeman has figured in the same way, so this is a pretty young team right now, thanks to the injury situation.
Of course, that isn’t necessarily going to keep goalkeeper Bill Hamid happy. He’s been an above-average shot-stopper this year, but has faced plenty of shots, and also missed time earlier this season for personal reasons. Teams should be able to get a number of shots on him, though, and it seems a high-volume approach makes the most sense with a guy who’s going to save at least his fair share.
Injury report: F David Accam (out), F Abu Danladi (out), M Jimmy Medranda (out), D Ken Tribbett (out)
Discipline report: D Dan Lovitz (yellow card accumulation)
There are two primary questions here: who is going to be the non-Muyl winger, and who is going to be the non-Lovitz defender?
The first assumes that winger Alex Muyl will be in the lineup, and while rookie Alan Winn (a holdover from Nashville SC’s USL days) started opposite him Saturday evening, it seems likely that Designate Player Randall Leal, no longer on the injury report, gets his spot back.
The second question is disrupting the use of “non-” mid-sentence, since I mean it differently there: Dan Lovitz is unavailable after his fifth yellow card of the season, and a guy who’s played every meaningful minute so far looks behind himself on the depth chart and sees question marks. Jalil Anibaba has played left back in the past (though he’s been exclusively on the right this year), Taylor Washington joined this team as a fullback (though he’s played almost-exclusively winger this year), Dave Romney could even slide outside like he has in the past (though he’s played centerback next to Walker Zimmerman this year)… you’re looking at a number of options that are mostly shift a guy from a spot where he’s been playing in 2020, or play a guy who hasn’t yet seen the field (or both).
I would bet on Washington, just because he’s seen enough of the field to be comfortable this season, and what he lacks – strong passing ability – will actually be minimized from fullback as compared to on the wing. His athleticism can make up for whatever else he gives up in Lovitz’s leadership.
“I just think his personality and his experience pre- and during the game,” Smith said of what Nashville will lose in his absence. “He’s played at a very, very good level – he’s played for his country – and as you might expect, when things are not going so well, he’s one of those guys that I think a lot of people rely upon, When things are going well, he’s also got the energy and quality to try and for the issue, and press a few of those positive and attacking buttons.”
With Leal – the most attack-friendly winger available – hopefully back in the lineup, Nashville can balance things out a little bit more, letting Washington chase and play sound defensively, rather than worry about getting involved in the attack.
At this point, it does seem like Dominique Badji’s name is close to inked-in for the starting striker spot (at least until Jhonder Cádiz arrives, and no, there’s not an update on that situation yet). While I’d like to see Daniel Ríos get a chance, particularly against a DC team that may start a big, physical Donovan Pines (6-5, 200) in the middle, it also seems like Badji’s ability to get in behind and to stretch the backline horizontally as well as vertically could be helpful here, anyway.
Keys to the game
- Don’t give up anything dumb. DC is simply not going to create much offensively without the assistance of the opponent. Sure, they have some talented players who can get individual things done. But it hasn’t manifested itself very much from a team perspective.
- Fire away. Facing a bad goalkeeper behind a decent defense has the same gameplan as facing a good goalkeeper (Hamid) behind a poor one: take a bunch of shots. The reasoning is different (you’re expecting good looks tonight and need the confidence to pull the trigger, rather than risking mediocre attempts because you think they can beat a poor keeper), but exploiting that weak link will be important.
- Set pieces. Like Nashville would love to get a cheap goal against a solid defense, they’d love to avoid giving one up against a poor offense.
- Get the individual moments of brilliance. Nashville SC has the talent, but hasn’t quite had the polish to get it done consistently this season. When the breakout happens – which can be at basically any point – it will be good, IMO.
I say this as someone who came up as a DC United supporter: this team stinks. Alas, they also have the pieces to click at some point with good luck.
- Penalty goal! Nashville prioritizes getting in behind a less-mobile backline and forcing tough decisions out of those big CBs. That earns a penalty kick when Dom Badji is taken down, and Walker Zimmerman is the man who converts midway through the first half.
- With a DC CB playing on the resultant yellow card, Nashville continues to take advantage of a bit more risk-averse philosophy out of United, and gets a nice-looking goal from multiple passes inside the box, with Leal there on the back post for an easy finish from Muyl.
- DC gets only two shots on goal all game (though they put several shots off-target), and Joe Willis saves both comfortably.
Nashville wins 2-0