Houston has been one of the less-consistent teams thus far in the MLS season, with many of the Dynamo’s struggles coming away from home. Can Nashville SC take advantage?
Opponent: Houston Dynamo (3-4-6)
Time, Location: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 64ºF, 30% chance of rain, 73% humidity
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: Univision, TUDN, Twitter (English broadcast) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats: 15 points, 1.15 PPG (11th West) • 1.3 GF/gm, 1.53 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.12 xG Power (16th MLS), +0.18 G Power (9th MLS). +0.30 “Luck.” • +0.14 Offense (8th MLS), +0.26 Defense (21st MLS). -0.42 away disadvanrtgae.
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +105, Draw +245, Houston +260
Match officials: Referee: Rubiel Vazquez. Assistant referees: Corey Rockwell, Cory Richardson [best corey duo since haim and feldman, imo]. Fourht official: Kevin Broadley. Video Assistant referee: Guido Gonzales Jr.; Assistant VAR: Jeff Muschik.
Etc.: Nashville SC headman Gary Smith talked briefly about the Dynamo in his postgame Wednesday.
Injury report: Michael Salazar (out). Wilfried Zahibo (questionable).
I alluded to it at the top, but this Houston team has been most known for its inconsistency this season. They built a bit of a narrative of putting things together upon return from the MLS is Back tournament, but have slumped to 0-2-2 in the past four (a solid win against a very good SKC side makes their recent form tracker 1-2-2, however).
That probably comes as no surprise for a group that looked to reform its identity with a coaching change this offseason, with former US International and Youth National Team coach Tab Ramos taking his first appointment to coach professionals. The reformation has continued recently, with winger Alberth Elis – a man who’s put together three of Houston’s top 10 xG+xA seasons (since 2013, as far back as American Soccer Analysis‘s data stretches) over the past three years – transferred to Portuguese club Boavista just last week. He’d been one of the most productive Dynamo players per-minute (albeit with limited minutes) so far this year, so his loss will be – has been – felt.
“Every single game is going to be difficult,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “You have got teams coming that – in one way, shape, for form, some terrific talent, creative individuals, top goal-scorers in the league – whatever area of the field you are looking at, you are looking at top-class players. So, there’s no easy games here, that is the first thing.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that, whilst Houston are extremely effective with some wonderful front-line players, we have shown here that we’re very, very capable and I’m sure they’ll know they have got a tough task on their hands.”
Elis’s former partner on the wing, Darwin Quintero, has carried much of the load and will probably bear an even larger burden over the rest of the year, with midfielder Memo Rodriguez – the more attacking of the CMs in a typical Tab 4-3-3, for those who are familiar with his (relatively defined and simple) tactical approach from watching USYNTs over the years – and striker Mauro Manotas tasked with much of the finishing. Ariel Lassiter and Niko Hansen will likely rotate through the opposite winger position.
Per ASA‘s Goals Added metric, Quintero and Lassiter are comparable to Elis from a shooting perspective, but Quintero is much more about successful distribution than he is receiving the ball in dangerous areas, whereas Lassiter is much more of a like-for-like replacement for Elis, with average passing but an ability to get into dangerous areas on the ends of passes. He was a halftime sub at the midweek, though he wasn’t a whole lot more effective than Hansen.
As effective as Houston’s offense has been (albeit much of that with Elis in the mix), the defense has been fairly poor. It’s certainly not because of heavy rotation: left back Adam Lundqvist, right CB Aljaz Struna, defensive midfielder Matías Vera, left centerback Maynor Figueroa, and right back (and ephemeral Boy in Gold, before being traded for Joe Willis) Zarek Valentin are, in descending order, the team’s minutes leaders among field players. Valentin was rested during Wednesday’s nightmare 4-0 loss to Chicago Fire, but certainly one man does not make that much of a difference, at least.
It’s worth noting that, with the quick turnaround from that Chicago game, Houston actually traveled yesterday, which to the best of my knowledge is a first since the MLS restart (all travel has been required to be same-day, though obviously the matinee makes that a little more difficult).
Keeper Marko Marić has played every minute for the Dynamo and been about league average (0.98 GA/xGA) thus far: the Dynamo’s struggles on the back end have been mostly about giving up good-looking chances. For a Nashville team that can struggle to create them… we’ll see if eminently moveable object or easily resistible force wins out.
Injury report: F David Accam (out), F Domiinique Badji (out), F Abu Danladi (out), M Jimmy Medranda (out), D Ken Tribbett (out)
Nashville SC’s injury ward continues to be pretty filled-up, but with Randall Leal managing a half-hour off the bench Wednesday, he’s both healthy and not fatigued, while Dan Lovitz‘s return from yellow-card suspension allows a little more flexibility in wide positions from Nashville SC, as well. The question will be whether Hany Mukhtar – who was unavailable, but not on the pregame injury report Wednesday, and was once again not on this game’s injury report – will be back. If so, Smith can put out pretty close to a full-strength lineup, albeit without a ton of depth.
When he was asked specifically about Houston’s potential fatigue – coming off a Wednesday road trip to Chicago – he pivoted immediately to talking about his own team’s rest:
“What I’ve got to try and do – to the best of my ability – is make sure, not just that we have a competitive team out, but we’ve got a team that’s full of energy; they’re going to conduct themselves here on our own field in a way that can win a game,” he said. “And if I force too hard, if I push too hard – like most coaches would understand – you lose players. It’s not just about the players that fit, it’s not just about the teams that are coming here and when we get them. It’s a lot to do with where we’re at as well, and the players are in a good place coming in when they play at home.”
Given that Daniel Ríos is the lone healthy center forward, you might expect more speed on the wings (namely Alan Winn over either Alex Muyl or Randall Leal) to make up for anything lost in Badji’s absence – combined with an opponent that’s a little susceptible to runs in-behind. However, given Houston’s talent level out wide even without Elis, and the need to produce attacking combinations offensively, I don’t see how you can live without Muyl’s defense and Leal’s shooting, respectively. Bringing Winn off the bench later against a Houston defense that’s already pretty bad and will be tired seems like a way to see out a game.
Otherwise, expect more of the same from Nashville, with the back-end settled from Joe Willis up through the central midfielders, and only a Derrick Jones-or-Hany Mukhtar question remaining.
You’d expect the defense to be strong as ever, and it will be very telling to see whether Nashville’s offensive output can ramp up against a more questionable defense. They’ve been better-than-average in xG terms over the past two home games, which is a very different bar against Houston (2.16 xGA per road game) than Atlanta (1.14) or DC (1.62).
Keys to the game
- Find ways to strike quickly. Houston’s defense is a mess in various ways, but the one that feels most exploitable for Nashville SC – particularly given the available talent – is to hit with quick passing movements. That’s not necessarily on counter-attacks (Houston has enough front-four talent that they don’t need to commit a ton of bodies forward), but if you give the Dynamo time to involve more bodies in their defensive end, a pliable defense becomes less so.
- Contain Lassiter and Quintero. We’ve seen enough from this Nashville team to know that they aren’t going to get beaten through the middle much with Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty on the pitch (though Gary Smith did imply Wednesday evening that McCarty is under 100% fit right now). Containing Houston’s wing play – which, coincidentally, is the strongest area of the field for the Dynamo – will be utterly crucial.
- Provide a token press to slow down the Dynamo. We’ve seen a couple occasions against teams with talented attacking talent that Nashville isn’t necessarily going to run scared and sit in a low block, absorbing that group’s pressure. Instead, slowing the movement of the ball into that group, and potentially creating turnovers and quick offense for themselves has been on the table (it has also backfired at times). Pressing the backline into turnovers would help both the offense and the defense.
- Set pieces. Get a goal on a set piece, give me license to include it in the next game preview.
This is a matchup of a mediocre offense and a bad defense on one end of the pitch, and a fantastic offense versus a fantastic defense at the other. Who shall prevail?
- Nashville SC gets on the board first, with Alex Muyl taking a layoff from Daniel Ríos. He fires from a somewhat speculative angle, but manages to sneak the ball past Marić.
- The lead is doubled moments before halftime, with Dan Lovitz hitting a curling free kick around the wall and into the back of the net.
- Houston responds almost immediately out of halftime. A moment of individual brilliance from Quintero sees him weave from the wing and slot one home.
- Nashville extends the lead back to two goals in the 78th. Substitute Alan Winn makes it 13 goals from 13 goal-scorers on the season, taking a couple touches after receiving a pass from fellow substitute Tah Brian Anunga and hitting a bouncer from the edge of the penalty area.
- Houston makes for a nervy ending, with Christian Ramirez heading home a corner kick as the Dynamo starts to push numbers forward and earns the set piece opportunity.
Nashville wins 3-2.