After a blowout win in the play-in round, Nashville SC looks to continue its playoff campaign. Can a trip to Hartford be fruitful?
Opponent: Toronto FC (13-5-5)
Time, Location: Tuesday, Nov. 24, 5 p.m. CDT • East Hartford, Conn.
Weather: 35ºF, 1% chance of rain, 52% humidity, 6 m.p.h. NNE wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: FS1 (national) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats: 44 points, 1.91 PPG (2nd East) • 1.43 GF/gm, 1.13 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.21 xG Power (9th MLS), +0.05 G Power (13th MLS). -0.16 “Luck.” • +0.08 Offense (13th MLS), -0.13 Defense (10th MLS). +0.02 home advantage.
Vegas odds: Toronto FC +125, draw +230, Nashville SC +250
Match officials: Referee: Robert Sibiga. Assistants: C.J. Morgante, Ian McKay. Fourth: Rubiel Vazquez. Video assistants: Alan Kelly, Claudiu Badea.
Injury report: F Ifunanyachi Achara M Marky Delgado D Justin Morrow
Toronto FC is one of the most consistent teams in MLS – Seattle Sounders, non-coincidentally their opponent in three of the past four MLS Cup finals, is the other contender for that top spot – but that consistency also applies to the areas in which they experience struggles. Namely, that some of their aging stars are infrequently available (Jozy Altidore), losing a step in a way that significantly impacts their style of play (Michael Bradley), or bad at soccer and scored an own goal that kept the United States out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986 (Omar Gonzalez). OK, maybe the last one’s a bit unfair. Not taking it back.
Of course, you don’t attain the type of success that Toronto has (and still does, having been in the hunt for the Supporters’ Shield until Decision Day) without being able to overcome those issues. Indeed, this is a team whose aging stars are becoming the exception to the rule, which is a fairly young overall roster littered with Homegrowns and augmented by one of the top playmakers in the league.
“This group at full strength, I think, are as good as it gets, and their record will tell us that,” Gary Smith said. “I think they’ve taken part in the last three championship games [it’s three of the past four – ed.]. They’ll be no easy task, that is for sure. I do also think that there will be one or two things, of course, in a playoff game that will have an impact. One will be personnel for them – if they’ve got everyone fit and available, then that’ll be a challenge for us. If they haven’t, like a lot of other teams, whilst they’ve got a very good squad, I’m sure they’ll be feeling as though there’s areas that they might be a little more vulnerable.”
This year’s edition of the best playmaker in the league is Alejandro Pozuelo (following in the footsteps of Sebastian Giovinco), and the young talent includes the likes of 25-year old Canada International Richie Laryea, 20-year old US Youth International Ayo Akinola (a Homegrown and tri-national still considering Canada), and 22-year old homegrown Canada International Liam Fraser. This has been one of the biggest-spending clubs in the league – thanks in large part to massive contracts for Altidore and Bradley plus Giovinco 2015-18 and Pozuelo in the two years since – but the rest of it is smart management from Ali Curtis (shout out to him for a great presentation/panel just over a week ago) following in the footsteps of Tim Bezbatchenko, who moved to the Columbus Crew before the 2019 season.
So the point of alllllll that is to say the team is well-run, with a few key players. How do they actually play? On attack, Bradley will typically drop between the centerbacks who spread very wide, while the fullbacks – most commonly Laryea and the mononymic Auro, and certainly that pair with Justin Morrow unavailable on the injury list – get high up the pitch to combine with Pozuelo. Pozuelo will roam the width of the pitch to get the ball, but his primary goal is to get on it, move it to a central area, and connect with his striker. Defensively, the Reds play a more traditional 4-2-3-1, but the defensive midfielders (most often Jonathan Osorio flanking Bradley – a change from his high-flying days in attack) are activated high up the pitch to win the ball back and create quick offense.
You can see that general profile and figure two ways that a game can certainly be changed: a turnover gained and Pozuelo’s tendency to quickly play the ball through his his striker creating quick offense… and those central midfielders getting high up the pitch ultimately leaving their centerbacks exposed in transition going the other direction. They managed to make transition moments a smaller part of their season by simply being pretty good overall on either end of the pitch, but when those moments do happen, they’re a bigger deal than for the average team.
“When Toronto is at its best, it moves the ball quickly up the field,” said Canadian Press‘s Neil Davidson. “If that happens, Pozuelo has time, opportunity and vision to find runners in space. And with Ayo Akinola and Jozy Altidore (when healthy), he has powerful targets. The Spaniard can unlock defences and is a scoring threat himself, especially from the penalty spot where is a lock.”
Another phase of the game that’s a big deal – and likely all the more crucial when Nashville is the opponent – is the set-piece game. 30.4% of their expected and actual goals allowed came from dead-ball situations this season. That’s seventh-worst in the league in xG terms, and while there’s some noise (good defensive teams don’t give up a ton of goals from the run of play generally, though Miami and Colorado are among the mediocre teams near the top of this particular stat as well so that’s not the only mechanism here), it’s also NSC’s most-likely way to score regardless of opponent, and all the more so when said opponent has that profile.
“French centre back Chris Mavinga is the key,” Davidson said of the defensive unit. “His athleticism and speed allow him to clean up his and others’ mistakes. He also adds to the backline as a left-footer. Veteran Omar Gonzalez is solid but lacks pace. Brazil’s Auro, Justin Morrow, Richie Laryea and Tony Gallacher provide excellent options at fullback. Quentin Westberg is a reliable goalkeeper who is a good shot-stopper. Opposition goals have often started farther upfield, with giveaways that leave the Toronto defence vulnerable.”
Westberg is a slightly above-average keeper this year (0.93 goals allowed versus expected), despite being put in some poor situations for a lot of them, so he may be slightly underrated.
Finally, let’s talk forwards. Ayo Akinola was the breakout star at the MLS is Back Tournament, and a guy who’s been waiting in the wings (sometimes literally playing that position) for his chance to be ‘the guy’ up top. He’s been barely more productive in the 12 games he’s entered since the Orlando tournament than he was in just three games there.
“Akinola had a really good Orlando tournament: showed exactly what he can do, and showed he can fit in with that group,” Nashville SC defender Alistair Johnston said. “Again, I think he’s one of those guys that fits that system really well. Toronto FC’s got a ton of talented guys playing underneath. I think it kind of comes from us closing down his service, you know: getting tight on Pozuelo, closing down space in the midfield, and making it difficult to break us down.”
With Jozy Altidore very rested – famously a guy who needs his rest to keep nagging injuries under control – placing the US International up top and sliding Akinola to one of the wings gets the best available players on the pitch, with lock-starter Nick DeLeon on the other side. That also allows Pablo Piatti (who has been oft-injured this year, but was not on yesterday’s injury report) to come off the bench in a super-sub role, and there’s flexibility to move Akinola up top if Altidore (whose 32 decision-day minutes were his only action since Oct. 3) runs out of gas.
“They’ve rotated players with the schedule being so full and ongoing – the midweek games, and the travel, etc,” Smith said. “So I think we’ve seen a number of bodies go through that group. I know they’ve had their own problems with injuries and omissions. The center forward area is one of those.”
The implication there is that even their backup options are not only talented, but experienced. And that’s the case.
“The rest will do Toronto a lot of good after losing three of its last four with some key pieces missing,” Davidson told me. “While the roster may not be completely fit, most of the pieces will be in place Tuesday. And Toronto is comfortable in big-game situations.”
It’s a tough ask to beat a team like this, there’ll be little doubt about that.
Injury report: M Aníbal Godoy, D Jack Maher
We saw Nashville SC’s best lineup Friday evening, and also how effective Nashville can be when it has its top players available. Unfortunately, we also saw one of the key players to that approach go down with injury. I do suspect Aníbal Godoy will try to make the bench tonight – he’s the sort of guy who doesn’t want to be unavailable in an elimination game, particularly if his team needs him – though his course of treatment on the left hamstring over the course of the day will determine if that’s even possible.
“We’ve had two or three different bodies go in there: the likes of Brian Anunga and Matt LaGrassa have done a sterling job in that midfield area, of course, Derrick Jones is more than capable of fulfilling that role,” Smith explained. “I think the question that only I can answer is, given Aníbal’s experience – and his relationship with Dax, I think the pair of them have formed a wonderful relationship in there and they give us an awful lot on and off the ball – is against a very talented and capable Toronto team, and in that central area of the field, you know you look at [Alejandro] Pozuelo’s work and the abilities that come through the experience through [Michael] Bradley, that central area of the field is very instrumental for them. My challenge is: how do we make that a more difficult place to navigate, whilst also keeping some of our own qualities and abilities that you’ve seen over the last, four, five, six weeks?”
Nashville isn’t quite relishing the Minnesota United-esque ‘disrespekted underdog’ role (though the post-Miami news cycle treated it as such), but certainly playing against a Toronto team that’s only one step down from its juggernaut status provides much more opportunity to do that.
Toronto native Johnston says it’s a blessing and a curse to avoid the banks of Lake Ontario.
“Maybe we can use it to our advantage with there not being a crowd there, because I’ll tell you what: TFC, when they’re in the playoffs and they get a pretty good atmosphere going in BMO field,” he said. “So I think it’ll be – still they’ll have some type of atmosphere, I bet they’ll have some crowd noises pumped in there or whatever’s going on – they’ll have a homefield advantage, but we’re just looking forward to it. A little bittersweet, for sure.”
Nashville will win or lose this game – give-or-take some set-piece scoring – based on what happens in the midfield. Can Tah Brian Anunga be a reasonable enough proxy for Godoy on the defensive end of the pitch to slow down (not shut down) Pozuelo? Can the passing of Anunga and Dax McCarty, and the dribbling of Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal allow the team to offensively play through and around a version of Bradley that’s like 40% as mobile as he was at his peak? If the answer to both of those questions is ‘yes,’ Nashville will be able to shut down a lot of what Toronto does, while creating more than may be expected of them.
From there, it comes down to finishing, and it’s a pretty nice time for Hany Mukhtar (two goals in 46 minutes against Houston Dynamo, a goal and an assist in 21 minutes against Orlando City, a goal in 69 nice minutes against Inter Miami – fairly solid last three appearances) and Randall Leal (🚀🚀🚀🚀) to be finding their scoring boots. Even that’s not a guarantee to get the job done, of course, but a team that’s scored 15 of its 27 goals on the season in the past eight outings – and only allowed six in that span – would have to feel pretty good about its chances, no matter who the opponent is.
Team chemistry is certainly building toward a squad that can surprise.
“This whole team has been great,” Johnston said. “I think this veteran core that we have has been – I’m a rookie so I haven’t been in too many locker rooms, but at the same time – you can just tell this is probably a pretty special locker room; you don’t see this everywhere around the league.”
Queme los barcos.
Keys to the game
- Control Pozuelo. Hey, this is going to be extraordinarily tough! Particularly barring a miracle recovery from Aníbal Godoy! But Pozuelo will travel the width of the field to collect the ball, and try to find his way to the middle to thread throughballs. If McCarty and Anunga can slow him down enough – they won’t stop him completely – the Boys in Gold have the opportunity to really limit the ways Toronto likes to generate offense.
- Control the ball through midfield. Nashville’s build-up play (when not playing long or in true transition) tends to gravitate to wide areas, where overlapping fullbacks can help progress the ball into the final third. HOWEVA, there are advantages to be gained if you can 1) make Toronto’s central midfielders step up in defense, and 2) eliminate them on the pass or dribble. A more central build carries greater risks, but against this opponent, much greater rewards, as well.
- Spark transition moments. Let’s not kid ourselves here, Nashville is going to play a fairly defensive game against a squad with Toronto’s firepower. That backline is susceptible to getting turned around at times, and making some mistakes. This is Nashville’s most likely route to score in the run of play.
- Set pieces. I say it in virtually every game preview, but it’s never more crucial than against a team like this Toronto side.
Local – as in where the game will be played, not local to Toronto – talk on the, uh, locality of it all. Field-Level Media preview. A couple stories from the other side’s media availability. TFC certainly rounding into form health-wise. Unrelated to the game itself, but TFC has officially partnered with Black Players for Change. Waking the Red preview. More views from the 6. You aren’t a massive club until you have a wild youtube preview guy.
Randall Leal is one of three Costa Ricans still alive in the playoffs. MLSSoccer.com preview from the Nashville side. Broadway preview. Five things to know about TFC from Drake Hills in the Tennessean. What to watch for from the team’s official site.
Can Nashville SC do the semi-thinkable and spring the upset?
- Toronto gets things going early with a counter goal from Akinola crashing in on the wing. Pozuelo plays through to Altidore in a hold-up position, and he lays off for the young winger to put the hosts up.
- Nashville responds early in the second half with – you guessed it – a set-piece goal. Hany Mukhtar’s corner kick finds the head of Walker Zimmerman. The loose ball is smashed home on the goalmouth by Alex Muyl.
- The regular time ends without any further scoring. Tension is ratcheted up. Two nations stand on edge.
- Pablo Piatti wins it after being subbed on in the first extra-time period. He makes a run down the flank, cuts inside, and finishes himself, unassisted.
Toronto FC wins 2-1 (AET)