It is Decision Day. Nashville SC will try to level its series against Orlando City (the Lions have a win and a draw thus far) and earn sixth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Opponent: Orlando City SC (11-3-8)
Time, Location: Sunday, Nov. 8, 2:30 p.m. CDT (3:30 local) • Orlando, Fla.
Weather: 80ºF, 42% chance of rain, 67% humidity, 20mph ENE wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: CW58 (NOT MyTV30) or NashvilleSC.com (in-market), ESPN+ (out-of-market) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats: 41 points, 1.86 PPG (3rd East) • 1.73 GF/gm, 1.00 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.30 xG Power (5th MLS), +0.60 G Power (2nd MLS). +0.30 “Luck.” • +0.18 Offense (10th MLS), -0.12 Defense (9th MLS). -0.74 home disadvantage.
Vegas odds: Orlando City -108, draw + 275, Nashville SC +350
Match officials: Referee: David Gantar. Assistant referees: Adam Garner, Benjamin Hall-Volpenhein. Fourth official: Elvis Osmanovic. Video assistants: Sorin Stoica, Kyle Longville.
Etc.: Previews and game coverage coverage from the first two Orlando contests. Gary Smith and Handwalla Bwana press conference.
Orlando City SC
Injury report: F Dom Dwyer (season), D Michael Halliday, F David Loera, D João Moutinho
OCSC has been good this year. That’s hardly breaking news, of course.
“I think if you look at the way that they’ve been able to find a groove and consistently perform, it’s been a very, very good level: hence why they’re sitting in third position in the Eastern Conference,” Gary Smith said. “And in all fairness to them, are putting the top two positions under pressure. There isn’t an awful lot in it, and I think that’s testimony to the quality of their season and the way has come together and performed.”
Orlando City will be without Mauricio Pereyra (yellow-card accumulation), but after a late overrule* by the Independent Review Panel – following the MLS DisCo’s decision not to overturn his red card – star midfielder/forward Nani will play for Orlando City SC. We’ll get to his game in a moment, but Pereyra’s absence is somewhat significant: he’s No. 2 on the team in expected assists, and his presence allows Nani to be in his more comfortable spot on a wing.
“His reputation precedes him,” Smith said of Nani. “He’s an incredibly talented guy. Even at this stage of his career where I’m sure even he would admit he’s incredible condition for his age, and is still performing at an incredibly high level.”
*While the initial call may have been on the softer side for a red, “clear and obvious” is… a phrase that’s going to need a more clear and obvious definition in future years. It’s worth noting that he’s still putting studs halfway up an opponent’s calf, and even without malicious intent, you’re responsible for how your actions affect the safety of the opponent. This was: 1) elevated to red using a “clear and obvious” standard during the course of the game, and 2) upheld by MLS’s Disciplinary Committee on first review.
Orlando’s other absences are mostly inconsequential: Dwyer has missed all but two games this season. Halliday is an Orlando City B player who has zero first-team minutes this season. Loera has 15 minutes in just two appearances this year. Moutinho’s most recent appearance came before the second Nashville/Orlando game of the year (which you may recall being a long time ago), so the team has adjusted to not having its first-team left back.
Nani is a potential league MVP (you know, a guy that unseen forces don’t want to have off the field on an important television day). Playing left wing, No. 10, and as a second striker, he’s OCSC’s leader in xG+xA… though that does include a penalty kick. Without it, Chris Mueller would be the team’s leader in expected scoring contributions. He’s far more goal-oriented whereas Nani is a creator for his teammates – who also scores a bunch. Mueller can play across the front line, but is at his best cutting in from the wing.
I’ve already looked at two very important offensive contributors, and still not the guy who’s drawn buzz as one of the best young players in the league: rookie Daryl Dike. On this roster, he’s behind only Mueller and Nani in xG, though oddly for a guy whose physique is tailor-made for being a hold-up forward – big, strong, and not remotely fast despite being reasonably quick – he’s not providing much in the way of assists. He’s also a guy with a go-to move with his back to goal (using his left shoulder to body up the defender and turning with the ball on his right foot) that teams are sort of figuring out. He’s still good enough that it works at times; it’s way less successful than is was earlier in the year.
“You want someone who’s going to be a good focal point, and he’s that,” Smith said of Dike. “You want somebody physically who can compete, he’s certainly that. He’s got a turn of pace. He looks like he’s maturing very, very well and actually very, very quickly. In the short space of time that he’s played – and of course we’ve run into their group a couple of times already – he looks quite considerably in front of where he was in that college final that I watched him in.
Dike and winger Benji Michel are both productive despite far less time on the pitch (around 1200 and 900 minutes, respectively) than the other guys we’re talking about. They’re a rookie and sophomore, respectively: their futures are bright. Michel has played in all but two games this year, though given the minutes breakdown, you probably already deduced that it’s largely in a substitute role.
Central midfielder Junior Urso provides some offense going forward (indeed, he bombs forward somewhat recklessly at times), but he’s also the link to the back-end, as well. He’s one of the team’s minutes leaders, eclipsed only by centerback Robin Jansson. American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added metric, at least, is not super-high on Jansson. He’s good at drawing fouls and not committing them, but everything is replacement-level at best. His CB partner, António Carlos, is a little more balanced, but he is also not an interruptor (a guy whose actions end opponents’ possessions).
Of course, that style is because OCSC’s defenders don’t have to be hyper-active in their actions: They’re playing in front of a solid keeper in Pedro Gallese. He’s actually been about average as a shot-stopper – the eyeball test and the advanced stats agree, he’s allowing almost exactly as many goals as his xG against – but forcing opponents into mediocre shooting positions and trusting The Octopus to do his thing plays to the strengths of all involved. Orlando is happy giving up a ton of shots as long as they’re not super-dangerous. Gallese is good enough to deal with those, he’s just not a game-changer.
It is worth noting that Orlando is, oddly, much worse at home than away – at least as compared to league averages. Their xG advantage at home is only 1.58-1.40, but they outperform both the offensive and defensive portions of that (they actually win their average road game, which is incredible in MLS generally, and probably more so in a year of same-day travel). The trick – such as it is – is to keep OCSC to their average creation while not allowing them to convert at a greater-than-average clip. On the other end, it’s to create as much as the average opponent does, but beat Gallese more than that.
Motivation-wise, Orlando City needs a draw to ensure its position ahead of Columbus Crew, while the Lions could still finish ahead even with a loss – so long as the Crew doesn’t beat – uh, Atlanta United? – yeah, best for OCSC to ensure the point.
Injury report: F Dominique Badji, M/F Abu Danladi, D Jack Maher
Nashville SC’s injury report is as clean as we’ve seen in a hot minute: still no Hany Mukhtar, but also no David Accam(!!), and no Ken Tribbett (who is unlikely to see the field even if healthy). I would anticipate some minutes for Mukhtar as he works back from injury and needs game-reps to stay tuned up – particularly given that NSC will likely be without the other creative linchpin of the offense, Randall Leal for at least one playoff game.
“As far as the group’s concerned – and Hany’s obviously a massive part of that – I would like to feel, as I’m sure the players do, that if there’s the option of playing minutes, however many they are, for guys that are coming back from an injury, can they get a run-out? Are they finding themselves in a place where, mentally and physically, they feel better about themselves? Then that can only be positive.”
The other question mark in terms of what Nashville SC needs to do or can do is where the Boys in Gold will end up on the table. Thanks to the unavailability of Leal and Mukhtar for the play-in round, suddenly getting to sixth (which otherwise was probably not preferred) has a little more importance. Minimizing the games for which two of your best players will be missing… seems like it should be a priority!
“For ourselves, we still hold out hope that a victory there can somehow prise sixth spot away from either New England or perhaps New York Red Bull, and we’ll be doing absolutely everything we can to try and make that a reality,” said Smith. “But it certainly won’t be easy. Whatever the outcome, the one thing I do hope is that we take another step towards feeling confident and comfortable going into the postseason.”
Look for a best-available group – though I’d still say it’s more likely Mukhtar comes off the bench so they can control his minutes a little better – trying to finally get that first win over OCSC.
Keys to the game
- Don’t get impatient. I worry a lot about Nashville SC in a game when they have to score (it’s a, uh, difficulty!). That’s particularly true when playing an opponent that can be very content to play for the draw. Orlando has every ability to sit back and wait for Nashville to get stretched before striking on a counter. Not giving them that opportunity would be preferred!
- Ease Mukhtar in. He’s missed the past few games with minor injury, though he was “healthy” for selection in most of them, and getting him back to playing sharpness come playoffs will be important. The Boys in Gold won’t want his first game in a month to be one where he needs to go 80-plus minutes and be pretty instrumental.
- Give Godoy and Leal key roles. You’re not gonna have ’em for the play-in round (and possibly not the quarterfinal round), so might as well get as much contribution from the Central American duo as you can. If their respective national teams are also like, “you seem tired, go home after the first of these two friendlies” …it might not be the worst thing.
- Set pieces. IMO they’ve been important.
Like I said above, I have major trepidation about needing a win against a team that is more-than comfortable with a draw.
- Nani curls home a free kick from just outside the box in the 23rd minute.
- Orlando adds to its lead midway through the second half, with substitute Benji Michel running onto a lay-off pass from Daryl Dike, and sliding one past Joe Willis.
- Nashville’s late corner parade finally provides a breakthrough – Walker Zimmerman heads home service from Dan Lovitz – but it’s too little, too late.
Orlando City SC 2, Nashville SC 1