The playoffs march on, and with the bracket’s reduction from 18 teams, to 16, and now to eight, the Boys in Gold continue marching along. Can Nashville SC survive the cut to fourth?
Opponent: Columbus Crew (12-6-5)
Time, Location: Sunday, Nov. 29, 7 p.m. CDT (8 local) • Ohio State Fairgrounds, Columbus, Ohio
Weather: 43ºF, 7% chance of rain, 68% humidity, negligible wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: ESPN (national) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats: 41 points, 1.78 PPG (3rd East) • 1.57 GF/gm, 0.91 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.12 xG Power (15th MLS), +0.45 G Power (4th MLS). +0.57 “Luck.” • -0.09 Offense (19th MLS), +0.03 Defense (12th MLS). +0.39 home advantage.
Vegas odds: Columbus +140, draw +240, Nashville SC +210
Match officials: Referee: Armando Villarreal. Assistant referees: Andrew Bigelow, Cory Richardson. Fourth official: Nima Saghafi. Video assistants: Jon Freemon, Adam Garner.
Etc.: Preview and coverage from last time out against Columbus. Pregame press conference with Gary Smith and Dan Lovitz.
Injury report: D Vito Wormgoor. Columbus also has six players reportedly unavailable due to positive tests for the novel coronavirus, and added M Sebastian Berhalter, Miguel Berry, W Derrick Etienne, Waylon Francis, GK Jon Kempin, and GK Eloy Room to the list, so…
Let’s start out by talkin’ luck: Columbus was one of the luckiest teams in MLS this season, and of the higher seeds eliminated in upsets last weekend, two entered the postseason also among the luckiest in the league – before their bad luck in round one, Philadelphia Union and Portland Timbers were Lucky Nos. 2 and 3 behind Columbus, in fact. (The exception was Toronto, in a game you may have watched).
So: Columbus was a lucky team this year, but a lot of that can be credited to outstanding finishing from Lucas Zelarayán (six goals on 2.23 xG) Pedro Santos (six on 4.08) and Gyasi Zardes (12 on 10.53), great goalkeeping from Eloy Room (allowed only 92% of expected goals), and the fact that this squad was a machine early in the year (teams in the lead don’t bother taking enough shots to compete in the xG battle since they’ve already got an advantage in the battle that counts). How does that apply in a single-elimination game? By definition, “luck” is largely random – being lucky earlier in the year didn’t make Portland or Philly lose, it just made their margin for error smaller than was obvious going in – though it’s worth noting that the ways in which Columbus’s luck was built are replicable.
That brings be to the bigger storyline with the Crew: they have just one squad member on the injury list (defender Vito Wormgoor, who missed almost the entire year). They also, however, have at least six players unavailable after positive tests for the novel coronavirus. Their updated injury report reveals them. That group includes Room.
“Obviously, we went through this whole situation and saga down in Orlando earlier: we know that the logistics can become really hard to follow and not really worth investing in because you’re not in control of it,” Nashville defender Dan Lovitz said. “We obviously had some news prior to the Miami game as well, similar this situation, and we did a very good job of sort of compartmentalizing it and being ready for what we knew we could handle, which is the game.”
I’m of the opinion that a largely good-not-great defense (which the xG numbers are even more down on, since Columbus’s schedule was extraordinarily soft) looks good (which the actual goals-against numbers in the standings show) because the goalkeeper is good. As noted above, Room allowed only 92% of expected goals, which was just a tick below Joe Willis’s performance. Andrew Tarbell is almost just below replacement-level quality, so he’s not a catastrophe. To quantify the difference between the keepers: had Room played every minute this season – at the same level he played all year, the Crew would have given up about 20 goals. With Tarbell? About 23. Not a huge difference. But if one of those three happens on one of your shots? You’re happy that it was Tarbell in net rather than Room.
Nashville mostly got lucky last time around, too: midfielder Darlington Nagbe missed the game entirely, while attacking mid Zelarayán played just 20 minutes as both were working their way back from injury. Nagbe’s reputation is known: he’s outstanding in possession, and reasonably sturdy defensively. He has some of the best technical skill in the United States player pool… and if he had the mindset to use that skill more progressively, he’d have the potential to be one of the top players in the world. This is not hyperbole: it’s an indication of the incredible degree of his conservatism on the ball. It’s fine from a defensive midfield spot, and very successful in MLS. There will always be that tantalizing “what if” hanging out there, too.
Zelarayán is, in many ways, an opposite: he lives the YOLO lifestyle in basically every facet of the game – shooting, dribbling, and passing most notably – and that gives him pretty serious dings in American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added (G+) metric… but when it works out, the moments of brilliance are impressive. The transition from Liga MX might have gone even better – and cleaned up some of those weak points – if he’d been fully healthy. CB Josh Williams (about whom more in a moment) also missed the previous game against Nashville.
“Those guys, that sort of spine – if you like – down the middle of the team, have played their last couple of games and of course their first playoff game,” Nashville head coach Gary Smith said. “I have to suspect that Caleb [Porter] feels as though that’s his strongest group, and we didn’t see much of all three of those guys. If I remember rightly on the day, we actually played very, very well first period: had some good control of the game, and looked like we were in a very decent spot. What we found – and fell foul of – was some clinical finishing. Not many chances either way, but they were ruthless when they had their opportunity in front of goal, and came out two-nil winners.”
The first-choice wingers flanking Zelarayán in the attacking trio have been Costa Rican Luis Diaz and Santos, a Portuguese DP. G+ loves Diaz’s dribbling and ability to draw fouls, and is lukewarm (at best) on most of his other aspects. Santos is a stronger player in a number of areas, but his ability to receive the ball in dangerous areas, and his quality in actually shooting the ball are major weaknesses in his overall G+ score. Ironically, it’s Santos who has radically underperformed his xG while Santos has outperformed his. Here’s where Derrick Etienne – probably the third winger and second attacking central midfielder on the depth chart – will be significant in his absence: the depth is diminished bigtime. It’s worth noting that when Columbus was without Zelarayán, head coach Caleb Porter largely played one of the wingers as a second striker and went to a flatter 4-4-2.
The finisher is a guy we all know love, Gyasi Zardes. He’s exactly who you think he is: a guy who is not always going to be pretty, but will going to work his butt off, get into dangerous spots, and just get goals. You let him get into spots to finish, and he’s probably going to do it. Sometimes with his face. He’s also going to be a pest when Columbus comes out to press. Zardes is Columbus’s third DP.
Working backwards, I’ve already touched on Nagbe, but he’s most-often joined in the defensive midfield by mononymic Brazilian Artur – who also happens to be second on the team in minutes. He’s the true defensive bull, a good interruptor who gains a lot for his team by taking the ball away and then getting fouled. He’s also an offensive non-entity, for the most part. FC Cincinnati castoff Fatai Alashe was generally third on the list – and not half bad when removed from the rot of FCC – but a mini-youth movement with Sebastian Berhalter (who is not available as one of the coronavirus absences) and Aidan Morris taking bigger roles.
The backline is led by the only player to see more time than Artur, centerback Jonathan Mensah. Mensah had an outstanding year (I don’t remember if I ultimately went with him or Mark McKenzie, but it was splitting hairs for my second-place vote in Defender of the Year behind Walker Zimmerman), and was a big part of Columbus’s overall defensive quality. Josh Williams and Aboubacar Keita essentially split minutes next to him, though Williams was preferred when healthy (and not on a four-game suspension, as he was to close out the regular season). Williams was the only truly active defender, as measured by G+’s interrupting metric, so it makes sense that he’d be a better complement to the more-passive Mensah. G+ basically did not care for Keita at all.
The fullbacks were largely Harrison Afful on the right and Milton Valenzuela on the left. They have a lot of pretty similar characteristics to each other – good service, average-ish in most other ways – aside from the fact that Afful’s dribbling is a liability, whereas that phase of the game is an asset for Valenzuela. Hector Jimenez and Chris Cadden were mostly anonymous as their backups. Anonymity is not the worst thing for a backup.
It’s worth noting the incredible degree of Columbus’s home-field advantage, even in this fan-free year. Their +0.39 difference in performance according to the xG numbers was eighth in MLS. The simple records underscore it even more: 9-1-0 at home, 0-5-5 away. The Crew finished third in the table literally without winning an away game. Chicago was the only other MLS team winless away from home, and finished 11th in the East.
Injury report: M Aníbal Godoy, D Jack Maher
The story is basically the same for Nashville as it was Tuesday: down Aníbal Godoy, the Boys in Gold go on the road to take on a talented team that has been much better in its own environs than it was away from them. I wouldn’t make the comparison if this weren’t a Crew preview, but Tah Brian Anunga is in a lot of ways a poor man’s Darlington Nagbe: not as talented on the ball, but similarly conservative with it – if not more so. He’s a solid defensive piece (probably a bit more physical than his counterpart) who won’t make a ton of mistakes with the rock. As a replacement for Godoy, he was fine against a more dangerous midfield Tuesday.
The quick turnaround with limited depth at that spot is the bigger question. Of course, part of the reason that the situation hasn’t changed much is because there’s a relatively quick turnaround: Nashville’s only on four days of rest (Columbus is on seven). As you can imagine, the recovery after a 120-minute outing is a little more significant.
“I think, at the end of the day, one of the physical silver linings of this year and the schedule and the way it’s been is we’re used to the quick turnaround,” Lovitz said. “It’s not some great hurdle that we feel like we have to overcome, and I feel like that’s a strength we have going into this, on top of being a fit team in general – since the beginning of the year, and all the work we’ve put in, I think we’re in a great place to continue to compete at a high level, first and foremost.”
The bright side of that, of course, is that Nashville came away with the win in similarly difficult circumstances, and against a team that was quite a bit better than Columbus over the course of the year. Hopping right back out and doing it again while riding the high of that confidence isn’t the worst timing.
“We first of all, I think we’re growing as the group with confidence, in belief of what we are capable of and what we can achieve, after every hurdle we jump,” Smith said. “That would normally go without saying. It was a very very good performance all-round Tuesday night: not just a victory, but a comprehensive one against a very, very good team. So that does wonders for everyone’s morale and positivity.
Will we get the Miami version of NSC’s finishing or the Toronto version? There’s really no way to know before the game, since we’ve seen Nashville wildly exceed and wildly underperform its xG over the course of the year. The major positive is that the Boys in Gold have begun to augment what has almost always been a very strong defense with an attack that can step in and make it matter.
A big part of that is production from the three DP spots. I wouldn’t say Jhonder Cádiz has been the piece that’s unlocked everything. Adding him has helped, certainly, but the bigger change has simply been more health and better play from the duo that has been here from the start. It’s Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar who are the keys to this one, much more than their new attacking mate.
“We’ve been unfortunate enough that we’ve either had someone injured, we haven’t fulfilled all three slots, or, in the process of our growth, there’s just not been much of a connection,” Smith said. “But all of those things are starting to come good now at the right time. The addition of Jhonder has, I think, helped the group. Hany is coming back from some niggly problems. Randall is probably in the most productive out of our attacking group of players. And now, to bring all three of them together and to see them producing on the field, I think puts a little bit of doubt in an opponent’s mind, but also gives the rest of the group another dimension and a lift. So it’s certainly very, very pleasing to see all three of them out there.”
“We always knew that there was going to be a gear that those guys could hit and would at the right time,” Lovitz added. “Like Gary said, this is a great time for them to sort of be syncing up and to be confident. For us, it’s great, we’re going to continue doing what we do and improve on the defensive side, but I still think we have an offensive next gear we can hit – and we’re slowly starting to sort of grow into and show – and it’s led by those guys that have been doing the hard work all year and are finally starting to click up top.”
Once again, it’s about simply getting the job done. It wasn’t necessarily pretty Tuesday, but it got done.
Keys to the game
- Test Tarbell. He may not fail that test, but he’s a heck of a lot more likely to than Room would have been. Put the ball on the frame and hope. Heck, we saw Tuesday that even a good keeper making a save can give up the game-winning goal.
- Keep the ball off Nagbe’s feet. The Boys in Gold did a really good job preventing Alejandro Pozuelo from getting on the ball in the areas he wanted to. This is a different challenge, because Nagbe largely isn’t getting on the ball to be creative with it: he’s dictating pace and distributing to the pass-before-the-pass. Get it away from the metronome, and the machine has a harder time functioning.
- Track Zardes. His second goal in the previous game was mostly a matter of the contest already being over, sure. It was also emblematic of what he’s capable of: popping up in the right spot and putting the ball on the net. So don’t let him do it, I’d say.
- Build your confidence. Come this far. Beat a team that’s quite a bit better than the Crew (albeit with more clear cracks). Why stop.
- Set pieces. Columbus actually doesn’t give up much from them, but this Nashville team will take scoring however they get it, naturally.
The cute underdog story is gone. This team is coming to win. But the question is not “what are they trying to do,” but rather “will they do it?”
- The DP attacking combo is a lot of Nashville to handle early. Zelarayán slips Santos through for an early chance, and while his shot is blocked, Zardes is there to clean up the rebound.
- Nashville responds with Jhonder Cádiz – remaining onside! – heading home set-piece service from Hany Mukhtar early in the second half.
- Alas, Columbus manages to respond, with Nashville slowly starting to creep forward as the Crew cedes possession, and Artur sending Zardes in-behind to earn his brace.
Columbus wins, 2-1.