Nashville SC will begin its first-ever MLS playoff push this evening. Taking on an Inter Miami team that… will not be full strength. What should fans expect?
Opponent: Inter Miami CF (7-13-3)
Time, Location: Friday, Nov. 20, 8 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 57ºF, 6% chance of rain, 72% humidity, negligible SSE wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: ESPN2 (national) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats: 24 points, 1.04 PPG (10rd East) • 1.09p GF/gm, 1.52 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.32 xG Power (7th MLS), -0.25 G Power (19th MLS). -0.58 “Luck.” • +0.19 Offense (9th MLS), -0.14 Defense (8th MLS). +0.28 away advantage.
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +155 (and falling!), draw +205, Inter Miami +200
Match officials: Referee: Ismail Elfath. Assistants: Corey Parker, Kyle Atkins.
Fourth official: David Gantar. Video assistants: Daniel Radford, Fabio Tovar.
Etc.: Previews and game recaps from the first series against Miami. Press conference with Gary Smith, Walker Zimmerman, and Dax McCarty. Q&A with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel‘s Khobi Price. Miami… may not be in hyper-great shape!
Inter Miami CF
Injury report: M George Acosta, M David Norman, GK Luis Robles, D Denso Ulysse (not medically cleared). Andrés Reyes (red card suspension)
Somehow, with a fairly robust injury report even before an expected large slate of unavailable players added, I’m going to manage to not focus on who will and will not be there for Miami right off the top. Instead, let’s explore how a team that is one of the tops in the league by expected goal terms is very much not that when you look at the actual scoreboard. When the difference is so comprehensive (and consistent), across multiple phases of the game, there are really only two options: good coaching that is being let down by poor personnel, or bad coaching that is being propped up by the individual talents available.
On defense, poor goalkeeping is typically a culprit, and that’s been the case for the Cranes. Veteran Luis Robles was comfortably below-average in G/xG (the percentage of goals allowed compared to expected), per American Soccer Analysis, and after he broke his arm a few weeks ago, replacement John McCarthy has been slightly better, but still worse than the average MLS keeper. For what it’s worth, I do think Robles suffered from Joe Willis Syndrome early in the year (bad luck, facing unsavable shots that were destined to outperform shooter’s xG), but either way, the keeping has not been fantastic.
On the other side of the ball, “let’s add a proven finisher in Gonzalo Higuaín” was the Rx to any sort of finishing woes, but he has one free kick goal in nine appearances. Compared to 3.1 non-penalty xG, that’s definitely underachieving – and he’s also missed a penalty kick. Certainly, you expect a high-priced Argentine coming over from Juventus (which, it must be noted, is Juventus) to “snap out of it.” However, he’s been an underachiever for almost as long as we have robust data:
|Year||Non-penalty goals||Non-penalty xG|
Yes, we’re dealing in small sample sizes. And yes, getting into high-xG areas can be far more important than “living up” to xG when it comes to being an elite goal-scorer. But certainly there wasn’t reason to believe Higuaín would be the magic bullet to get a team to finally live up to its xG.
ANYWAY, he’s one of the three IMCF players who didn’t travel to Nashville (along with brother Federico and defender Leandro González-Pírez) due to positive tests for the novel coronavirus…
…so I guess it’s largely irrelevant anyway.
The offensive engines have been and will continue to be (now available after the Great Charter Rule Change) Rodolfo Pizarro – who I previously broke down largely because he wasn’t going to be in Nashville – and winger Lewis Morgan, who is easily the best player on the team. Morgan is one of the top dribbling threats in the entire league, and Miami will try to overload the left to get him one-v-one opportunities after a big switch. He’s a very good passer (particularly among the top dribblers), but not particularly adept at receiving passes in dangerous areas or shooting to score: your basketball comparison is a pass-first point guard who can shoot enough to keep the opponent honest but is more concentrated on creating for his teammates.
In Gonzalo Higuaín’s absence, you’ll probably see Julián Carranza, one of the highly-publicized signings Miami made before ever kicking a ball (more importantly: a player who wasn’t good enough to make major contributions to what has been a pretty bad Miami team). He started the team’s last Higuaín-less game and has played substitute minutes in the past couple months. He also has under two shots per 96 minutes, and two goals all year.
Moving backward in the formation, Nashville got MLS’s first taste of former France international Blaise Matuidi in the teams’ September matchup. He showed promise in that game (after just a few training sessions with his new team), but has been at-best replacement level in central midfield. As with other high-profile signings, the hope – and a reasonable one – for IMCF is that it just clicks at some point and he starts to play like a guy who started a World Cup Final barely over two years ago. Wil Trapp has played the majority of minutes next to him in recent games, and made up for Matuidi’s defensive ineffectiveness (while being closer to the Frenchman as a pure passer than you may have expected).
“Miami needs to stay disciplined defensively to pull off the win,” said South Florida Sun-Sentinel beat writer Khobi Price. “Too many of their losses have come after individual mistakes/lapses in concentration cost them a goal. Miami needs to stay locked in defensively for the full 90 and aggressive on offense, even if they score first or early in the match — both of which have been issues this year. I wouldn’t view Miami winning as an upset because of the talent they have.”
The backline has been mediocre all year, but it is worth noting that the best performances – and particularly best road performances – largely happened in the immediate aftermath of González-Pírez’s arrival. Small sample size caveats apply there, and it’s worth noting that IMCF’s three worst road performances from a defensive xG perspective came in their past four games – and the lone good game in that stretch came in a game that he missed entirely. He may be an emotional leader of the Cranes’ backline, but it’d be fair to say they don’t play much better with him in the lineup, and perhaps that they play worse. The games in which he didn’t play since signing are the dark-colored dots. Miami was a bit improved with him on a regular basis… but occasionally terrible in ways that they weren’t when he was out of the lineup.
He is, however, an offensive threat, so from that perspective, one less scorer for NSC to deal with… on a roster that is hemorrhaging them.
Nicolas Figál and Andrés Reyes are the most-used CBs other than LGP, but with Reyes unavailable… 20-year old Christian Makoun may be adding to his 203 total minutes so far this year. As noted above, the keeper situation is a known slightly-below-average one. If NSC can take advantage of a weakened backline, it seems unlikely that McCarthy steps up to bail his team out with any regularity.
Despite all that questionable-ness over the course of the season, and the added, uh, [gestures to the above], NSC isn’t taking anything lightly.
“I would suspect that there’s probably a little bit more disappointment in their camp in the way that things have gone this year,” said NSC head coach Gary Smith. “However, they’ve certainly finished the season off in a decent run, and they’ve clinched that final spot. So they’ll be dangerous, there’s no doubt about it, and we’re by no means taking this game lightly – and shouldn’t be.”
Injury report: F Dominique Badji, M/F Abu Danladi, D Jack Maher
NSC’s injury report is unchanged from the Decision Day edition. That’s a good thing: Badji has been out long-term, so his loss is one NSC is used to dealing with. Same with Danladi, though he’s been in-and-out of the lineup a bit more recently. Maher is a depth piece at this point, so (while the hope is that his injury is not significant long-term) his absence isn’t a game-changer.
The question then becomes how Gary Smith aligns his team with close to a full roster available. He’s already implied that David Accam won’t be ready to go this evening:
“He would have to expect that there’s probably a lack of playing time for him at the moment, but if we can jump this first hurdle and keep this postseason moving, I would think for someone like Dave or maybe one or two of the others that are still not quite right, it gives them a little bit more time, and they can certainly be of big help to the group.”
..but for the first time in ages, not only does he have a relatively healthy team, it’s a rested one. Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal haven’t been on the field together for more than eight minutes at a time since Oct. 3 – the New England game in which Gary Smith was forced to play a very different personnel grouping and philosophy than we’re used to seeing. Will they both be in the starting lineup tonight? Honestly,. I doubt it for a couple guys who are working back to full fitness (and in Leal’s case, less than 36 hours removed from a trans-Atlantic flight and without a full training session)
With the chance to take a week-plus to get ready, it was more about tweaking and refining than reinventing the wheel.
“As far as doing anything different or working in a different manner, the players are used to a training schedule or routine daily, to a large degree, that people get into a rhythm with, and I think that type of rhythm is something that lots of us like, players included,” Smith said. “There’s nothing new, really, to go over. It’s a reinforcement and some work, some repetition on areas of our game that we could do with just maybe smoothing out some rough edges on where there’ve been a lot of games, and you lose some of that connectivity in certain areas and that understanding.”
Relying on the veteran leadership of a guy like Dax McCarty – who has captained multiple side in the playoffs – and Walker Zimmerman – the newly-crowned MLS Defender of the Year – is a luxury that not a ton of teams have.
“The main theme and main point that I’m going to make is: games like this, making the playoffs, playing in big games, playing in important games? They don’t come around as much as you think they do,” McCarty said. “So we need to make sure that as a group and as a team, that we’re all ready to go, because it’s a tremendous opportunity to cement – ourselves individually in our own careers, but also as a team – that is going to make history.”
“Ultimately it’s about inspiring the guys to do the work that we’ve done all year at home,” Zimmerman added. “That’s just go out and compete, and know that there are going to be plays, and there are going to be situations that the intensity’s just going to be a little bit higher. And that’s how it is in these bigger games, in these bigger moments. Making sure guys don’t put too much pressure on themselves, but that at the same time, they’re aware and focused for every second of the game because in these types of matches, it’s one moment that can change it.”
Keys to the game
- Blast ’em. This was a bad team for much of the year, and mostly remains one. Taking several of their top players out of the lineup isn’t likely to rectify that. Give an underdog belief, and they might spring the upset. So just don’t risk it, and run them from start to finish.
- Put shots on goal. Thanks to the injury/coronavirus/disciplinary situation, the spine of Miami’s defense is not going to be at its strongest. The Boys in Gold should be able to generate looks. They need to take those chances with a greater regularity than we’ve seen (non-Leal edition) much of this season.
- Don’t make the big mistake. A Nashville team playing its best game should not lose to this Miami squad. However, we’ve seen plenty of instances this year – fortunately, not too many – where the team wasn’t locked-in for the entire 90 minutes. Those lapses are the moments that change outcomes.
- Set pieces. The spoonerism “pet sieces” is not as funny as I would have hoped.
The rivalry is heating up. WHO WANTS TO DRINK 14 ENERGY DRINKS AND DO SOME CRAZY STUFF WITH ME (of note: cameo by the best, most important neighborhood in Nashville). Broadway preview. NewsChannel 5 chats with Alex Muyl. Some light reading on IMCF. The “Rodolfo Pizarro Back!” stories have lost a bit of their luster in the past 14 hours or so. What to watch for from the league site and NSC’s site. Nashville SC mo’ betta. Tactical preview from Matt Doyle. Why each team could advance to win MLS Cup. I’m halfway between “very excited” and “extreme eye-roll” for something described as video game-like broadcast enhancements. First-round preview from High Press. Questions to answer from ASN. Tactical preview from Fait Analytics. I joined the Pharma boys for a playoff preview. The homie Ben Dudley with a preview. SBI preview. Philly Inquirer preview from Jonathan Tannenwald. Khobi’s preview in the Sun-Sentinel. Friend of the blog Justin Sousa with questions for each team. A couple companian pieces from Drake Hills: What to know about Miami’s team, and what to know about NSC’s playoff debut. All-time playoff statistics from Nashville Soccer Archive.
I do not see a way in which Miami has much of a chance barring unexpected changes to their available personnel, or massive goofs from Nashville SC.
- Nashville gets going early, with Dave Romney heading home a corner kick service from Dan Lovitz in the game’s opening 10 minutes.
- Daniel Ríos adds to the lead in the 30th minute, collecting a ball on the shoulder of a centerback, whose risky tackle attempt leaves the Mexican striker alone on John McCarthy. He makes no mistake with it, and Dax McCarty earns the assist.
- Second-half subs unite! Jhonder Cádiz shows the hold-up play that we haven’t seen much of this year, feeding an on-rushing Randall Leal (or Handwalla Bwana, choose your own adventure) who rolls one home.
- Miami gets a consolation goal in the 75th, but never comes closer than that. Robbie Robinson’s strike from distance doesn’t have much chance to flip the final result.
Nashville SC 3, Inter Miami CF 1