Nashville SC

Nashville SC preseason preview: New York City FC

These teams played waaaay back in preseason 2019. It will shock you to learn it rained. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Let’s try again, shall we? Wednesday’s scheduled friendly was scuttled due to a match official’s positive coronavirus test, but Nashville SC will head across the Bay to play New Jersey’s other MLS team this afternoon.

The essentials

Opponent: New York City FC (12-8-3, 39 points, fifth place East in 2020)
Time, Location: Noon CDT Saturday, March 27 • St. Petersburg, Fla.
Weather: 81ºF, 1% chance of rain, 62% humidity, 7 MPH SSW wind
Follow: @NashvilleSC

Vegas odds: It’s a friendly, you degenerate

New York City FC

NYCFC finished just one position ahead of the Red Bulls in 2020’s final table, but the seven-point gap between the two sides was the biggest of any consecutive teams in either conference: the quality difference was fairly large. It’s even more impressive when you consider that City lost four of its first five games, then suffered just three more defeats over the remainder of the year. And they did it while playing the majority of their home games at Red Bull Arena (as they will again this year, hence the jab in the header above).

So with that in mind, they also represent a very different challenge to the one Nashville was planning to undertake against the Red Bulls at the midweek. Whereas NYRB has traditionally been devoted to a hellacious press and fairly direct play after turnovers, NYCFC has typically stuck to the City Football Group plan of complementing a press with a firm philosophy of maintaining possession and playing with the ball, rather than against it.

Personnel-wise, this should be a season of transition for City. Defensive midfield metronome Alex Ring was traded to Austin FC, while fullback Ronald Matarrita headed to FC Cincinnati. While Ring graded out poorly to ASA‘s Goals Added metric, he was the team’s leader in minutes among field players, and coming sixth in xG+xA is impressive for a purely defensive midfielder who isn’t a set-piece taker (even if simple volume of time on the field was a big factor there). Matarrita was the opposite: not much of an offensive entity, even for the position, but G+ loved him. Other notable departures include Scottish winger Gary Mackay-Steven, who got his nuts stomped in the playoff loss to Orlando City, and Romanian winger Alexandru Mitriță. I think you could fairly say that neither worked out as-planned, though both were pretty productive on a per-96 basis according to G+.

Striker Taty Castellanos is the star of the show here, tying for the team lead with seven goals – winger Jesús Medina joined him at that number, though he was less productive in terms of expected. That actually brings up an interesting factoid: Castellanos, attacking 8 Keaton Parks, and striker Héber drastically underperformed their xG last season. I don’t know that it’s necessarily something structural in the team’s setup that causes it, or if NYCFC just had some bad luck last year (worth noting that Ring and fullback Anton Tinnerholm comfortably overperformed theirs).

CB Maxime Chanot graded out well in Goals Added, but it’s worth noting that NYCFC’s defense was mediocre in expected goals terms (and adjusted for opposition, good-not-great in pure goals-against). Goalkeeper Sean Johnson has basically always been among the elites in the league. Surprisingly given City’s reputation for playing out of the back and wanting to control the ball, he’s actually middle-of-the-pack among keepers in terms of pass length and vertical distance up the pitch.

The Boys in Gold

Nashville won’t get Randall Leal (Costa Rica) back just yet, and doesn’t have Aníbal Godoy (Panama) and Alistair Johnston (Canada) thanks to international duty. We saw what Leal’s absence meant for the lineup when NSC’s first unit got reps against Louisville City: Handwalla Bwana and Alex Muyl manned each wing. It would not surprise me to see a little bit of mixing and matching, though: is Rodrigo Piñeiro ready to get a shot with the first unit? Is Luke Haakenson? As for Godoy, there’s a simple plug-and-play replacement in Tah Brian Anunga, who filled that role last year. Johnston’s backups could be an interesting test case here. Eric Miller repped with the 2s against Louisville, but recent signing Nick Hinds was out with a minor foot injury. Giving time to both of them (assuming Hinds is ready to go) makes plenty of sense.

There are also personnel questions up top. CJ Sapong got the start (and a goal) in the opener, but last year’s primary contributors, Jhonder Cádiz and Daniel Ríos, were rested. Are they back? If so, does either of them begin the game in the starting lineup? Regardless of who gets first reps, the substitution patterns and depth could tell us a lot about how the position is shaping up in training. Minutes both up top and on the wing for Dominique Badji and Abu Danladi seem reasonable if they’re a little ways down the pecking order.

Otherwise, I think you’ll see a similar philosophy to the prior preseason game, just with the first unit given 45 minutes, rather than 30. You may also see some of the more-proven guys get subbed out over the course of that first frame, so backups who project for meaningful minutes this season have a chance to build chemistry with the first unit.

The over-arching philosophy between NYCFC and NYRB is different, but Nashville will certainly still get its chance to rep building out against a press. You can expect, given the effectively meaningless nature of preseason friendlies, that they remain dedicated to actually doing so, rather than giving in and going over the top. There will almost certainly be some growing pains in that regard.

Predictions

I think this will be a bit looser a game – with Nashville wanting to focus on its work against the press, rather than a “let’s be pragmatic and get over the top of this” gameplan that they’d likely take in a game with stakes. That could mean some comical errors at the back, and also some big chances as NSC beats the press.

  • NYCFC gets and early tally from Medina, who links up with Maxi Moralez.
  • Former Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty helps answer by threading a ball through to fellow former Red Bull Alex Muyl. He bangs one home from the corner of the six-yard box. Both those players scored against NYCFC in the infamous “Red Wedding” game (McCarty twice!).
  • Nashville has some struggles with the press, and although that’s concentrated in the non-starter groups, the backline shows some growing pains, as well. NYCFC gets two “when playing it out of the back goes wrong” tallies, spanning the end of the first period and beginning of the second.
  • Nashville’s second unit gets a goal, with Abu Danladi finding chemistry with… whoever the second striker is. I would guess either Cádiz or Ríos as they get fit after injury.

NYCFC wins 3-2.

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