Nashville SC is on a streak of 14 points in nine games. Can that continue on the road against one of the best teams in the league?
Opponent: Sporting Kansas City (8-5-2)
Time, Location: Sunday, Oct. 11, 6:30 p.m. CDT • Kansas City, Kan.
Weather: 78ºF, 15% chance of rain, 59% humidity, 15 MPH SSE winds
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: MyTV30, NashvilleSC.com (in-market), ESPN+ (out-of-market) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats: 26 points, 1.73 PPG (3rd West) • 1.80 GF/gm, 1.40 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.54 xG Power (2nd MLS), +0.40 G Power (4th MLS). -0.14 “Luck.” • +0.05 Offense (13th MLS), -0.48 Defense (1st MLS). +0.49 homefield advantage.
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +370, Draw +275, Sporting KC -120
Match officials: Referee: Fotis Bazakos. Assistants: Peter Balciunas, TJ Zablocki. Fourth official: Nima Saghafi. Video Assistant: Jon Freemon. Assistant VAR: Fabio Tovar
Etc.: Press conference with Mike Jacobs and Gary Smith. Q&A with Daniel Sperry.
Sporting Kansas City
Injury report: NOT MEDICALLY CLEARED: D Graham Zusi, M Felipe Gutierrez (season-ending)
International duty: F Alan Pulido
The book on Sporting Kansas City for a long time has been, ‘if they ever open the purse-strings to get Peter Vermes a Designated Player in the attack, look out.’ That’s happened, and it’s gone very well: Alan Pulido is in the top 30 in the league for expected goals, while wingers Gerso Fernandes, Johnny Russell, and Daniel Sallòi are having career years (albeit on the smallest sample size of Salloi’s SKC career to date, as he’s been a late-game sub) in terms of creation – and position-mate Khiry Shelton is having his best year as a winger, having been more productive in one season primarily playing center forward.
The catch? Pulido is away with Mexico on international duty (though he did not play against Netherlands last week, he may featured against Algeria in a couple days). So: has he awoken something in his teammates that will persist even in his absence? Gary Smith is not so certain.
“What I will say is that if you have somebody that leads the line the way that he does, it gives plenty of the other players – in fact a lot of the supporting players in that group – it gives them a bigger opportunity to shine,” the Nashville SC head coach said. “I think what you see is when Pulido’s playing, he brings more out of the guys around him, and certainly his goals create a very different dynamic to any game.”
Sporting is used to not having Pulido in recent weeks, though: Russell and Erik Hurtado have filled in to lead the front line of Vermes’s typical 4-3-3 formation as the Mexican was unavailable through all of September after
a positive coronavirus test muscle injury. Hurtado has under two games’ worth of action in nine appearances (mostly as a late-game sub for Pulido until lately).
Those games were a mixed bag results-wise: Sporting created as many chances as ever in a couple of the games, but had poor finishing. In a couple others, they created below their typical level but finished pretty well. Certainly the team is better with Pulido than without him, but the mechanism was not consistent. Notably, four of those five games were at home, which made it a little easier to be without a top player.
For a year in which the ‘is he going to Europe?’ drumbeat is as strong as ever, US Youth International Gianluca Busio is actually having the most anonymous season of his career: pretty close to dead-average numbers among defensive midfielders in all six categories (dribbling, fouling, interrupting, passing, receiving, shooting) encompassed by American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added metric. He’s played a slightly different role recently – dropping back as the holding midfielder after being more of a pure box-to-box guy earlier in his career. Ilie Sanchez and Gadi Kinda have also been unremarkable as central midfielders along with him. Roger Espinoza and Nashville product Felipe Hernandez have provided important minutes there, too. Espinoza has been notably bad defensively from a G+ standpoint. Unremarkable but effective is basically the SKC way, though.
“I think when you look at the teams that they’ve had a lot of success with, they’ve always had a great blend with their piano players – their creative players, their artists – and their piano carriers,” said Nashville SC GM Mike Jacobs, the former assistant technical director to Vermes. “When you look at the team in ’13 that won MLS Cup, it’s easy to point to guys like CJ Sapong or Kei Kamara before he left, Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi. You had guys like Todd Nagamura who helped kind of hold things together, and I think do a lot of the dirty work, sometimes they don’t always turn up in the statsheet.”
The defense is traditionally very strong for SKC, and it’s extremely deep this year in particular. Former US International Matt Besler and Roberto Puncec are first-choice there, and although Besler has missed the past few games with a hamstring injury, he’s not on the report for tonight’s game, and should be ready to go. West Ham loanee Winston Reid has been the top backup for either, and pretty effectiv when he’s on the field (it will not shock any Premier League followers to learn that he hasn’t been super-healthy this year himself). Besler has been one of the more effective players on the entire team in G+ terms thanks to his passing, dribbling, and defensive interruption. His availability to go 90 will be an important factor here.
One player whose absence is expected is another US International, fullback Graham Zusi. He left Wednesday’s game injured, and is not medically cleared for the evening’s game. I was a little surprised that the numbers don’t particularly care for how he’s played (below-average in Goals Added, hardly any production offensively in Expected Goals terms), but he leads the team in minutes played by an outfield player, so his absence should be felt.
The centerpiece defensively – as he has been for over a half-decade – is goalkeeper Tim Melia. He’s one of those ‘born at the wrong time’ goalkeepers (see also: Luis Robles) who hasn’t had the USMNT career he should have because of the overlapping tenure of Tim Howard and (ugh) Brad Guzan, among others. He real good tho. The issue with Melia is that his performance seems to be on a fairly consistent year-over-year decline. He had his best year in 2017, but aside from that outlier, each season sees a consistent decline in goals allowed as a percentage of expected goals allowed:
Yes, there are other confounding factors at play including the quality of the teams in front of him. He’s not a young guy, so it’s very fair to believe that may be his end-of-career decline. It still is well within the range of ‘MLS starter,’ but no longer ‘above-average MLS starter.’
Injury report: NOT MEDICALLY CLEARED: David Accam, Dom Badji, Aníbal Godoy, Jimmy Medranda, Daniel Ríos, Ken Tribbett
It’s no mystery that Jacobs’s hand has guided Nashville SC’s roster toward a similar philosophy that his mentor has taken at Sporting Kansas City (nor that Smith is the right coach to execute it). Indeed, he continued immediately after speaking on SKC’s instrument-oriented soccer metaphor:
“For us, I think Gary also has got a really good balance of the creative artists – those piano players – and the piano carriers,” the GM explained. “I think for us, trying to create a mentality that we were going to be hard to play against was really important. When you look at the likes of guys like, I mentioned Alex Muyl, Dax McCarty, Aníbal Godoy: you have like this gritty, grind-it-out type group that I think takes a lot of pride in making the opposing team uncomfortable, and I think that’s always been a hallmark of the Sporting teams: on both sides of the ball, trying to make teams uncomfortable.”
There is no change to the injury report from the midweek contest against Minnesota United, but two positive signs nonetheless: Abu Danladi returned to the squad and got a healthy-looking 20-plus minutes in that game, and new signing Jhonder Cádiz has been medically cleared, had a couple training sessions with his team, and should be ready to go. Neither is a magic bullet for the attack after both have played sparingly-at-best since March. It’s two more in the chamber for a team that has had exactly zero of them since Daniel Ríos‘s injury.
“Jhonder’s been part of the group,” Smith said. “He looks in a good place. Very pleased to have him around the group: he’s been, I think a lift and an inspiration for the other guys to see on the grounds and working. He’s available for us. That’s all I’ll say at this point. He’s available for selection at the weekend.”
On that note, not getting Ríos or Dominique Badji back is tough, because it will make it just a little bit tougher for Gary Smith to ease Cádiz into the lineup and get him on the field with the best opportunity to find quick success – there just aren’t as many options for that. I would guess that we’ll see Danladi up top to start the game, whether that’s the newfangled 4-3-3 (often 4-3-1-2) or going back to a more typical 4-2-3-1 now that there are a couple guys capable of being that line-leader in the ‘1.’
The continued absence of Godoy leads me to believe there will be an attempt to start with the former, and Matt LaGrassa and Tah Brian Anunga will be defense-first support for Dax McCarty since neither individual can replace what Godoy brings. Sacrificing a bit of offense for defense has been a necessary even in recent weeks, as we’ve seen. That concept also gives Gary Smith the flexibility to sub Cádiz into the game while maintaining tactics in the 4-3-3, or replacing one of the defensive midfielders with him and going with the 4-2-3-1, depending on the needs when he’s ready to go into the game.
As you can see… I expect he’s eased in still, frustrating though it may be for fans who are excited to see their DP forward hit the pitch. Giving him a decent run-out (but not needing to rely on him in the starting lineup for 45-70 minutes at least) sets the team – and Cádiz individually – up to be more successful in the final seven games, even if it’s not quite as fun for this one.
The backline and keeper should be the same, while Hany Mukhtar‘s return will add a little bit more scoring punch (and give some formational/tactical flexibility) in the forward half of the field.
Keys to the game
- Attack the backups! Even is Besler is available and Reid is not in the lineup (and for the record on Reid – he’s really good, just never ever healthy), there’s a weak spot at RB with US Youth International Jaylin Lindsey pulled into duty for Graham Zusi. He has some of the same versatility as Zusi going forward, but is not going to have the same consistency defending. Similarly up top, Alan Pulido’s movement just isn’t going to be replaced by the group of available forwards. Zimmerman and Romney taking care of players at that position can mitigate the damage the talented wingers will be able to cause.
- Finish the chances. In a stunning turn of events from my typical “just shoot” key, I think the finishing, rather than the volume of shots, should be the greater focus against a team like SKC. You aren’t going to get cheap ones against Melia, for the most part, so concentrating on generating high-value chances is more important. Making the most of said chances is even bigger.
- Ride the wave. We’ve seen in recent weeks that a Nashville SC team having trouble scoring is going to have some moments where the ball stays pinned in the defensive end for long stretches. Riding those out without giving up a goal (effectively forcing SKC to earn it with a cheap one, if at all) will be important.
- Set pieces. Gonna keep saying it.
The Tennessean‘s Gentry Estes on Nashville’s need for goal-scoring. Match preview and five things from SKC’s official site, along with a Vermes presser. Kansas City Star preview. Jacobs-oriented fluff from same. Wyandotte Daily preview. Preview-type substance from Blue Testament. What to watch for from the NSC official site.
I think Nashville’s going to go hyper-defensive and try to ride this one out, potentially nicking a goal on the counter. A lot like the New England game. I think it will end up in a similar result, though if either team scores to open proceedings, they may continue at a much more offensive pace.
Sporting Kansas City 0-0 Nashville SC