Photo from file. Honestly p. tough to tell what’s going on there, as well.
Shall we preview a game that nobody can watch? We shall.
Opponent: Louisville City FC (11-2-3 USL 2020)
Time, Location: 3:30 p.m. CDT Saturday, March 20 • Currey Ingram Academy
Weather: 61ºF, 0% chance of rain, 33% humidity, 8 MPH NE wind
Vegas odds: It’s a friendly, you degenerate
The big headline last weekend was that Louisville (a USL club) smacked FC Cincinnati (purportedly a member of MLS – have yet to see any evidence of this) 3-0. Reports around the country indicate this is not particularly difficult to do. But when it’s a lower-division club looking dominant against the Major League Soccer team, it’s notable nonetheless.
Louisville City’s postgame stories say the team executed a full line change with a 1-0 halftime lead, but Brian Ownby was among those who played basically the whole game, with John Hackworth mentioning his defensive work i the first half, and then Ownby getting rewarded with a goal after the break. Cincinnati almost went with the full change (centerback Nick Hagglund went nearly the distance), so while the score is very funny, it probably doesn’t actually indicate a gulf between these teams.
The Boys in Purple scored on a first-half penalty (from Abdou Mbacke Thiam) with goals from Ownby and George Davis IV in the second half. It’s worth noting that Davis is semi-retired and a team administrator in addition to occasional player for LCFC, even though he’s still a top-five all-time goal-scorer in the league – I think you can sort of assume that manager John Hackworth went with mixed lineups in terms of strength over each half, whereas Cincy basically took out every starting-caliber player. Given it was a closed friendly, “assume” is the best we can do there.
The strength of Louisville is nothing to scoff at, particularly because they’re deep into preseason – they’re five weeks into training, whereas MLS teams couldn’t full get together until a couple weeks ago – and because they’ve been among USL’s elite since their entry into the league in 2015. The only year they didn’t finish in the top two in the East was 2019, when they nevertheless made it to the title game before falling to Phoenix Rising (falling just short of a three-peat).
Among the familiar faces on the squad is former Nashville SC player Cameron Lancaster (also: one of the top all-time scorers in USL, I believe coming in eighth all-time, though the recent “upgrades” (a term which here means “severe downgrades”) to the league’s website make it tough to parse for certain). LCFC does a very good job maintaining roster consistency year-to-year, so some of the other names will probably be familiar to fans whose experience with NSC dates back to the USL days: midfielder Paolo Del Piccolo, left back Oscar Jimenez, forward Niall McCabe, right back Pat McMahon, and centerback Sean Totsch were all on the first LCFC team Nashville played back in 2018, along with Davis, Lancaster (who obviously had a brief stop elsewhere), and Ownby. That means a lot of stability, and it probably also means finding guys who are the perfect level for a certain type of USL team: at the top of that league, but not quite good enough – or perhaps young enough, in some instances – to get poached by MLS or foreign clubs.
With three 30-minute periods in the works for today, I would expect Louisville to go full-on first team for 60 minutes as they taper upward in their fitness regimen, which is significantly further along than Nashville’s, given the comparative timelines of preseason. Maybe some typical substitutions to test out personnel groupings, but a Best (Healthy)-XI for as long as possible, before both teams dip into depth in the final 30. Louisville has a couple academy kids training in preseason, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of them (Joshua Wynder seems to be the one they’re more excited about) get thrown to the wolves just a bit, too.
Hackworth has made no secret that LCFC is out to win its preseason friendlies – particularly those against MLS sides – even if preparing for the regular season is priority No. 1. It wouldn’t surprise if the in-game adjustments make that clear. However, he’s also mentioned that beating Cincinnati was a priority while he wants to test out some new things in the next couple friendlies – so a bit more experimentation with shape (rather than personnel) could make for a less-difficult task than FCC had to face.
The Boys in Gold
I would expect three completely distinct waves of personnel for Nashville (inasmuch as they have the bodies to completely rotate through three groupings). The starters will go 30 minutes, the position-battlers and top backups will get 30, and the final 30 will be deep bench and probably some practice-player/trialist sorts. With that in mind:
Obviously, we’ll see a little bit of personnel overlaps, and the final 30 minutes won’t be populated by more trialists than rostered players. Still, you’re likely to see the depth show in that segment.
The big issue for Nashville here is the lack of Randall Leal. That means your first-choice left winger and your second-choice central attacking mid is unavailable in Guadalajara. How Gary Smith adjusts for that is up for debate. Does Rodrigo Piñeiro stick on the right, where he’d be in a full-strength unit? Or does he get a chance to be in that right-footed shooter spot on the left as an inverted winger, to give it a go while available? There’s a lot of positional flexibility with not only him, but every winger on the roster, so I’d imagine you’ll see plenty of side-switching, and likely a fluid line of three with Mukhtar bumping out to the wings, as well.
From Nashville’s perspective, this is about fitness, competition, and trying things out, not as much going out to get a result.
Since we won’t really know how this one plays out, I won’t bother too much with specific predictions. However, in terms of game-flow:
- I expect Nashville to be the more-dominant team in the first segment, but still working out the kinks when it comes to generating good chances and finishing them (this slow build has been typical in three years under Gary Smith – and while it’ll be more ahead of schedule with the personnel consistency year-over-year, it’ll be until close to the regular season and with Leal back before I’ll be confident).
- The second segment sees Louisville stick with its first-choice guys and limited substitutions (as mentioned above), and Nashville’s second unit is a little less dominant, but looks a little smoother or more ruthless/goal-hungry in the final third (these guys are trying to win starting spots, after all).
- The third segment is sloppy and inexperienced for Nashville, while Louisville’s longer run-up to the game shows through, and the Boys in Purple assert some dominance both on the scoreboard and in the run of play.
Louisville City takes it 4-2, but it’s 2-1 Nashville through the first two periods.