The playoffs are secured. But how high can Nashville go? They’ll have to fend off a Chicago team fighting for its postseason life if the Boys in Gold want a chance for a first-round bye.
Opponent: Chicago Fire FC (5-9-6)
Time, Location: Saturday, Oct. 31, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 56ºF, 4% chance of rain, 76% humidity, 5 MPH Southerly 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: 21 points, 1.05 PPG (10th East) • 1.35 GF/gm, 1.60 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.17 xG Power (8th MLS), +0.04 G Power (15th MLS). -0.14 “Luck.” • +0.31 Offense (2nd MLS), +0.14 Defense (19th MLS). -0.85 away disadvantage.
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +140, Draw +240, Chicago +215
Match officials: Referee: Malik Badawi. Assistant referees: Corey Parker, Peter Manikowski.
Fourth official: Marcos de Oliveira. Video Assistants: Jose Carlos Rivero, Fabio Tovar.
Etc.: NSC is in the playoffs, and a quick look at some of the scenarios for their final standing. Pregame chat with Dax McCarty and Gary Smith on the playoffs and the Fire. Postgame recap from waaaaay back when these teams played in the preseason.
Injury report: OUT: Kenneth Kronholm, Luka Stojanović
We shall begin with the availability report, as we often do, and this time because there’s a twist: although he was red-carded Wednesday evening, Fire captain Francisco Calvo was vindicated by the MLS Disciplinary Committee, and will be available tonight (for what it’s worth, it was a garbage red card and this is the right call). That’s particularly good for the Fire because losing a centerback when your defense already kinda stinks is not ideal.
The two injuries are expected: starting keeper Kenneth Kronholm tore his ACL in August and is out for the season, while Stojanović had MCL surgery in June. Raphael Wicky’s team has been accustomed to their absences for quite some time.
Raphael Wicky’s team is also a fun, productive one to watch: the Fire have launched the eighth-most shots in MLS, for the sixth-most expected goals. Their leader in expected goals by a country mile is lock-starter striker Robert Berić, with 9.68 xG on the year (next-closest is Fabian Herbers, just inching over 3 xG). He went cold early in the year, but since getting going after the restart, he’s scored in eight of the past 10 games. Although he’s a wiry 6-2 and tends to score a lot from crosses, he is not much of an aerial threat: his first headed goal of the season came just Wednesday night, part of a goalmouth scramble. He’s more of a guy who shoots first-time or settles crosses at his feet. The primary chance-creators are deep-lying midfielder Alvaro Medrán and US International Djordje Michailovic, who can play a variety of midfield positions from a DM in their 4-2-3-1 to the central attacker, to one of the wing positions. Despite his productivity, he only has about half of available minutes this year, with his recent starts at the No. 10, and substitute appearances wherever he’s needed.
Young DP Ignacio Aliseda has been a mainstay on the left wing of late, with a rotating cast of characters including Premisław Frankowski and even No. 2 striker CJ Sapong rotating through the other side. Herbers is the typical No. 10, where he’s capable of getting into really good positions, but is fairly poor as a passer.
“I honestly think this Chicago team’s one of the most talented in MLS, certainly in this Eastern Conference,” said NSC head coach Gary Smith. “There, of course, are some flaws in their game, which is why they are in and around the playoff positions and not having already qualified. But they’ve got some very talented guys, they put a lot of emphasis into their attacking play, which does leave them vulnerable at times, but I think that we’ve seen a group that, to all intents and purposes have grown throughout this second phase.”
Medrán is an outstanding passer from that deep-lying No. 6 position, but he’s also a pretty good defensive interruptor there. His compatriot has been a number of players (including Mihailovic). The first-choice option on-and-off has been Chicago’s third DP, Argentine-Paraguayan Gaston Giménez. The reason one of your most-compensated players is only an on-and-off starter is because he missed time over the international window playing for Paraguay. He should be full-go by now, so if he doesn’t play, it’s a coach’s decision. The reason for that would be that he’s pretty bad defensively, and only makes up for it a bit with his offense.
The backline has mostly struggled.
“Quite honestly, I see a lot of similarities between the team that they have this year, and the team we had last year when I was on the team,” said Nashville SC captain – and former Chicago captain – Dax McCarty. “A lot of attacking firepower – if you will – and idea of a way to play that’s on the front foot, aggressive. But like Gary said, they do leave themselves vulnerable at the back, and they are prone to making some mistakes that can really change a game.”
Calvo and Homegrown player Mauricio Pineda are mostly lock starters (though Pineda also contributes a bit in defensive midfield, with a few minimal-use guys stepping into the CB role), and according to American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added metric, they’re basically both awful (maybe Chicago would have been better off without Calvo after all…). Calvo is an extraordinarily bad defender for the position, but the idea is that he makes it up in possession – which he does to a degree – while Pineda is a steadier defender but poor in possession. Boris Sekulic has been a lock-starter at right back when available, and he’s the sort of FB who gets up the field (though his shooting has been below-average) more so than focuses on defending. Jonathan Bornstein gets the plurality of minutes at left back, and is basically the Jonathan Bornstein you remember from his USMNT stints, just 10 years older: a high-motor guy who’s, like, fine.
MLS journeyman Bobby Shuttleworth has stepped up in Kronholm’s absence, and performed much better than the German. Obviously the sample sizes are very different, but Kronholm was well-below average in his 504 minutes (1.25 G/xG – allowing 25% more goals than expected) while Shuttleworth is slightly better than average: 0.92 G/xG, saving 8% more than you’d expect, probably within the confidence interval of being about exactly average.
Injury report: David Accam, Dom Badji, Ken Tribbett (out)
Nashville has qualified for the playoffs, but there’s plenty more to play for here: the team can still finish as high as third (realistically fourth)… or as low as 10th in the East.
“I think as an expansion team, it should certainly be recognized and celebrated a little bit that we were able to qualify for the postseason,” McCarty said. “But for me, that’s the bare minimum expectation that I have for our club, and for all the pieces that we have at this club, to be able to achieve. Now’s when we get into the fun part of the season. The fun part of the season is when the games take on greater importance and players really get to show their worth.”
The injury report is as clean as it’s been in a while: David Accam and Ken Tribbett have been out basically the entire year (in Accam’s case, since the Dallas makeup games during the early return-to-play), while Dom Badji is still working back from a hamstring tweak suffered early in the win over DC United.
That means Hany Mukhtar is back, though I’d expect a bench appearance as Nashville both tries to keep him healthy going into the playoffs and rides with the hot hand as the Randall Leal/Alex Muyl/Derrick Jones combo in a fluid midfield attacking three has worked pretty well in recent weeks. Up top, Daniel Ríos has shown the ability to basically play as long as needed in his own return from injury, with Abu Danladi available off the bench for an injection of speed (either on the wings or for Ríos up top) and Jhonder Cádiz for link-up play and perhaps a bit more finishing.
All told, NSC’s best-available lineup right now is a possibility for the starting lineup, with a burst of speed plus two players working to full fitness available off the bench (not coincidentally: best-compensated players). That’s a pretty good situation to be in, and if Nashville had had it for more than like seven games this year, the offense… probably stil would have had “GaryBall” pejoratives thrown at it, but to a much lesser degree.
“We’ve created a well-balanced team, we’ve got individuals that are capable of creating moments and opportunities,” Smith said. “I think where we’ve fallen short on too many occasions is when we execute, and that execution can be the difference with very, very top teams, and that’s why forwards obviously cost so much money who can score 20, 25 goals a year. I think we’re moving in the right direction. What you’re seeing are two pieces of a very big puzzle in terms of stopping goals and scoring goals. We’ve stopped them very well this year so far, and I think we’ve slowly-but-surely managed to convert it at a better rate than we were in the early stages, and that’s a good combination.”
With the playoffs on the not-so-distant horizon, finding the right balance of the best team on the day and not over-extending players to risk missing them in the postseason is the name of the game.
Keys to the game
- Keep up the pace. Chicago is going to get forward and try to score. Nashville will want to return the favor against a very poor defense. On that note, it’s possible that we see a different philosophy from Gary Smith: a counter-oriented 3-4-3 could be the name of the game as Chicago’s FBs get upfield and are open to punishment.
- Muscle Berić. He is a good player, and has that wiry build where he’s stronger than he looks at first glance. But Nashville’s talented CBs should very much be able to prevent him from finding too many openings unless service is perfect.
- Go at the CBs. They aren’t very good, and while Calvo is available, the psychology of having picked up a soft red card mid-week may still play into his mind in terms of how physical he’s willing to risk being. Nashville should try to dribble them with attacking midfielders and strikers alike.
- Set pieces. Score on ’em. Don’t get scored on from ’em.
The league’s “What to watch for.” NSC’s version of same. AP pregame brief. Field Level Media preview. The Nashville Post with the playoff story. Hot Time in Old Town preview. The Tennessean‘s Drake Hill on Dax McCarty’s Chicago history and Gentry Estes on aiming higher than just qualifying.
Chicago is desperate, and that probably means a draw is not in their minds. If the game ends up level, I have a hard time believing it’s a scoreless draw (unless finishing issues abound).
- Berić gets Chicago on the board first, frustratingly on a play that’s exactly what I warned about above: a ground-cross (from Mihailovic) that lets him get just enough distance from Dave Romney and Walker Zimmerman to finish.
- Nashville doesn’t take long to respond, with Dan Lovitz’s corner kick to Zimmerman blocked away. However, McCarty collects near the top of the box to bang home the rebound against his former team.
- Nashville takes the lead just before halftime, with Ríos playing Muyl into space. His shot to the far post is bound just wide, but Leal is there to clean up and slides to send it home.
- Nashville extends the lead in the 72nd minute. Substitutes Hany Mukhtar and Cádiz combine for a 1-2, and Mukhtar finishes it off in space with a chip over Shuttleworth.
- Herbers brings his team back within a goal in the 82nd, but that’s as close as Chicago gets.
Nashville wins, 3-2.