Nashville SC

Nashville SC preseason preview: Tampa Bay Rowdies

Forrest Lasso used to play for Nashville and now he plays for Tampa Bay.

Third time’s the charm? Nashville SC’s first two Florida friendlies were canceled, as was the one scheduled for this upcoming weekend (well in advance). Let us see if the Boys in Gold can fit at least one competitive match in the Sunshine State.

The essentials

Opponent: Tampa Bay Rowdies (10-3-3, 33 points, first place Group H in USL Championship. Eastern Conference playoff winner – final was canceled)
Time, Location: 6 p.m. CDT Wednesday, March 31 • Bradenton, Fla.
Weather: 79ºF, 4% chance of rain, 75% humidity, 8 MPH WSW wind
Follow: @NashvilleSC

Vegas odds: It’s a friendly, you degenerate

Tampa Bay Rowdies

Tampa Bay put a pretty good product on the field in 2020: the Rowdies advanced to the USL title game (which was ultimately canceled, with a co-championship shared with Phoenix Rising), and it was deserved over the course of the year. The expected goal differential on the year was +12.14 – a fair amount behind Rising (+16.15), but ahead of Eastern Conference Final victim Louisville City (+6.22) and the second-best East team in the regular season, Pittsburgh Riverhounds (+11.40). There are some opponent effects here: Tampa’s group consisted of an Atlanta United 2 that has basically never even tried to win, expansion club The Miami FC, and a Charleston Battery team that was solid, but dealing with the end of an era and a stadium move, so perhaps not up to its usual standard.

The Rowdies have only announced a few of their players for the 2021 season, but their ranks do include some of the most important pieces they had a year ago: keeper Evan Louro and centerback Aarón Guillén played every minute of the season, while Guillén’s fellow CBs Forrest Lasso (a former Boy in Gold) and Jordan Scarlett were about 45 and 60 minutes shy of that mark, respectively. All are back.

So too is the top offensive talent: striker Sebastian Guenzatti was by far the team’s biggest scoring threat, with 10 goals and two assists on 10.63 xG+xA, while second striker/winger Juan Tejada had 2 and 2 on 3.17 xG+xA. That actually only put Tejada fourth on the squad in xG+xA, though. Keep in mind it was a very weird year, but central midfielder Zach Steinberger had 3.34 xG, and wingback Leo Fernandes had 2.71. They’re all back, as well.

Only 19 games played, yes, but your eyes don’t deceive you that this was a fairly meager offensive output. The Rowdies, despite the strength of opposition played (bad!), were sixth in the league in expected goals for. They at least outperformed that by a wide margin, but the third-best defense in the league by xG against is where they made their hay (and they outperformed that by nearly five goals).

You probably began to get hints in the personnel section there that this Rowdies team played some version of a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, and you’re right! They mostly went to the latter with Tejada (or Lucky Mkosana) as a strike partner with Guenzatti, but those guys also have the ability to play as tight wingers, and TBR went with a center forward up top occasionally, as well. This is the same philosophy Nashville SC oldheads will remember from 2018 and 2019 facing Neill Collins‘s squad (in the former season, going straight from the starting lineup to the coach’s box in like a one-week span of retirement).

The odd backline formations have often been difficult for Nashville SC to find openings against – although more so in the USL era than in the occasional opportunities to face them last year – so this should be a good test. If the gulf between the quality of individual talent is as great as it seemed against Louisville City, it may turn out more like a scout-team situation than a hard-fought battle. But getting reps against a back-three grouping is important nonetheless.

The Boys in Gold

Bro, I just want to see the game happen. I’ve sort of had enough of contests being canceled and would like the squad to have the opportunity to “kick someone else,” as they say. Of course, if the choice is between safety and playing, you pick the former every time.

Without Aníbal Godoy and Randall Leal (international duty), the personnel item to most look forward to here is what depth manages to step up. Tah Brian Anunga is almost certainly the top backup to Godoy and/or Dax McCarty, but who gets paired with him when Godoy is unavailable, and McCarty presumably doesn’t need much more than a 40-minute runout? Will Handwalla Bwana and Alex Muyl once again be the starters on the wing? Will a couple weeks to prepare allow Rodrigo Piñeiro or Luke Haakenson to try to gun for a starting role? Those are situations worth watching.

Up top, the assumption is that Daniel Ríos and Jhonder Cádiz are both back healthy (or close to it). If that is indeed the case, solid performances out of them – or a bit of information as to how a position battle is shaping up – would be nice to see. CJ Sapong is likely still your “starter” for now, but if he’s still there by the time the regular season rolls around, you’d like to see him have earned it by beating out healthy versions of the guys who competed for it last year. On a similar note, the implementation of Dom Badji and Abu Danladi (strikers who can also play wide) will be a topic to watch… if we get any meaningful data points there.

Predictions

Who knows how Nashville performs after an unexpected amount of time off? I would imagine there’s some rust to shake back off, and even if this squad was able to dominate a similarly-elite USL side a couple weeks back, the emotional, physical, and mental toll of the pandemic is something that is going to continue to be felt.

  • Nashville has a really hard time finding openings against a well-drilled Rowdies backline, but finds the breakthrough shortly before halftime (we’re assuming two 45-minute sessions here). It’s once again CJ Sapong, but this time he scores from open play with Dax McCarty providing the assist.
  • The gridlock continues a bit, even as both teams begin to remove their top-line personnel. Tampa leaves its top players in a little longer, and Forrest Lasso nods home a corner kick midway through the half.

The game ends in a 1-1 draw.

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