’twill be a little different venue in comparison to the last preseason friendly between these teams. Tim Sullivan/Club and Coutnry
Nashville SC’s final preseason friendly is upon us. The Boys in Gold will host ephemeral USL rival Birmingham Legion in Nissan Stadium this evening – a bit of a dress rehearsal for the season opener next weekend.
Opponent: Birmingham Legion FC (7-5-4, 25 points, second place Group G in USL Championship. Fell in first round of playoffs to Tampa Bay Rowdies).
Time, Location: 7:30 p.m. CDT Saturday, April 10 • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 64ºF, 3% chance of rain, 58% humidity, 11 MPH WSW wind
Vegas odds: It’s a friendly, you degenerate
Although the Legion came in second in Group G during the 2020 USL season, one could argue that a +10 goal differential indicates a better overall team than Charlotte Independence’s +2. Indeed, in their four games against each other, the Legion one 4-1 twice and lost 3-1 once, while the squads also split the points in a 1-1 draw.
The attack last year was led by former Pittsburgh Riverhounds striker Neco Brett and rookie midfielder Bruno Lapa, who scored nine and eight goals, respectively. Lapa also led the squad with five assists – it’s wild that he wasn’t picked in the MLS SuperDraft, given the former Wake Forest star was considered one of the top prospects in college soccer prior to the 2020 event.
Either way, both guys are back, and another major piece has been added: former Phoenix Rising winger Junior Flemmings. He has been, by a wide margin, the best player in USL over the past two seasons. He’s also firmly in “second chance” territory (albeit one that’s endorsed by the aggrieved party in his homophobic-slur incident, and one that he seems genuine about embracing). Especially as a winger, he manages to get into – and convert upon – elite scoring positions, and adding him to a team that seems to be building toward a special future could help Birmingham become an elite attacking squad. The Legion was fourth in the Eastern Conference in scoring last year, and while that was in-part based around wildly outperforming their expected goals (29 goals on 19.7 expected – nearly half-again the expected total), adding the most dangerous attacking player in the league can’t hurt.
The Legion’s defense wasn’t quite as elite, with 19 goals allowed (against 24.2 expected, again an overachievement).
Goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel was slightly better than average, allowing 93% of expected goals – you’ll note that doesn’t account for the entire difference between allowed/expected, so there’s an element of luck in there, too.
Right CB Alex Crognale, right back Jonathan Dean, and left back Mikey Lopez (a defensive midfielder or even winger at previous stops, including more than a cup of coffee in MLS) led the team in minutes, so there’s some continuity on the backline with all three of them returning. Lopez and Crognale were borderline elite for the position, while Dean was a bit more up-and-down. There was a bit more rotation at the other CB spot, but it was led by former NSC midfielder Bolu Akinyode (at the position that was a better fit for his athletic and technical skillset all aloooooooooong), so the Legion has to settle on another starter there or have a less-settled rotation with his departure for THE Miami FC.
Since you recall Akinyode as a defensive midfielder, it stands to reason that the Legion found a midfield pairing that worked consistently and there was no need to play Akinyode at his preferred position. Anderson Asiedu was certainly the No. 1 CDM in the “2” of a fairly consistent 4-2-3-1 formation, and Crognale’s younger brother, Eli, got the plurality of the minutes next to him. Both were slightly below-average for the position.
Depending on how the team continues to develop, they’re augmenting an above-average defense and above-average attack with one of the best players in league history. I don’t know how much better the defense will get in an absolute sense, and Flemmings isn’t really a guy who’s going to go out there and possess a ton of the ball to play keepaway from the opposition and protect the backline a bit more. But having a fine defense along with an offense that’s going to score a ton of goals is a recipe for success in USL.
As for what it means against MLS competition? Well, I guess we’ll see (or not see but rather hear about) some of that today. Nearly two weeks ago, Atlanta United only beat Birmingham 1-0 in the second half of a double-header after a scoreless draw with Josef Martinez on the field. You never know how much of a first-choice lineup plays (particularly against a team from a lower division), but even though Atlanta was pretty bad last year, I’d say it’s a good pair of results for a USL side nonetheless.
The Boys in Gold
…with the above just noted, what can we expect out of Nashville SC’s lineup? Without any preseason matches against MLS teams, it probably makes sense to give the first-choice squad one last runout, even if they begin to filter off the pitch pretty quickly.
That’s particularly true of those who’ve missed time in preseason and have yet to get into a competitive friendly (what an oxymoron): Aníbal Godoy, Alistair Johnston, and Randall Leal due to international duty, and Jhonder Cádiz and Daniel Ríos due to minor injuries. Some others have filtered into and out of the lineup in the course of the past two friendlies, including goalkeeper Joe Willis, most other striker options, and a couple different defenders.
Although it wouldn’t normally be the choice at this stage in the preseason – when you might see a hard, competitive 45 minutes for the starters, then have them come out to start the second half (to get acclimated to returning to the field after a halftime break) before coming off – it wouldn’t surprise me to see 30/30/30 segments, with the projected starters getting the first 35 minutes or so before the substitutions really begin in earnest. Of course, this sort of schedule – with the cancellations – is essentially unprecedented, and without Gary Smith spilling the beans, we don’t know exactly how it’ll be handled substitution-wise, either.
I think this will be a fairly open game, with Birmingham’s defense probably a little too weak to shut down an MLS attack, while the offense (with Flemmings) can test Nashville’s defense, and does so plenty when the subs start rolling through.
- Unsigned tralist is held off the scoresheet for the first time this preseason.
- There are goals, and some of those goals are assisted, and since none of them are scored (or assisted) by unsigned tralist, we get to see all of them this time.
Nashville leads 2-0 while the starters are on the pitch, and goes on to “win” 4-3.