mls Nashville SC

Nashville SC 2021 preview: The schedule (pt. 1)

RIP Nippert Stadium, long live Nippert Stadium. Courtesy University of Cincinnati Athletics.

Let us begin the Nashville SC season preview project with a look around the league. In part one, I’ll take a closer look at the squads that the Boys in Gold will play three times. The next two segments will explore the remainder of the Eastern Conference (each member of which NSC will play twice), and then an overview of the West, with a focus on Austin FC and Real Salt Lake, the two inter-conference opponents.

We already know that, based on last year’s performances, Nashville’s schedule is slightly easier than average – thanks to who these three-play teams are. Here’s a more in-depth look at each.

Atlanta United

In Atlanta May 29 & Aug. 28
In Nashville July 8

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall-3.53 (19th)-0.24 (21st)-0.32 (20th)
Offense13.74 (25th)-0.43 (24th)-0.23 (22nd)
Defense17.21 (7th)-0.18 (6th)+0.09 (15th)
ASA’s goals added are translatable to goals in terms of scale. My ratings are adjusted for strength of opposition, and 0 is average. Positive numbers are good for offense and negative numbers are good for defense.

6-13-4, 22 points (12th East) • 23 goals for, 30 goals against (-7) • 2-1-0 against Nashville

Atlanta United had… quite the year. The Five Stripes lost Josef Martinez to a non-contact ACL injury in the opener in Nashville. Your mileage may vary as to whether that was a game-changer or just the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to team success under Frank de Boer. The Dutchman got the axe after a pathetic showing at MLS is Back in Orlando, and former ATL UTD 2 coach Stephen Glass saw out the year as interim.

The team was quite bad – frustratingly for Nashville, getting an Atlanta with Josef and then falling a second time meant joining FC Cincinnati as the only teams the Five Stripes beat twice – and there was a need to remake some of the roster. That’s mostly happened in the image of new Argentine manager Gabriel Heinze, who is continuing Atlanta’s trend of focusing on South American talent to build the roster.

It’s worth noting that last year’s team, while not particularly good, was also rather unlucky, notably on defense: in expected goals terms, their D was well better than average, whereas it was below-average in terms of the ball actually going into the net (both adjusted for opposition faced). Goalkeeper Brad Guzan played as role in that (1.10 G/xG allowed) in addition to that bad luck. But repeated trials of the same season would probably see Atlanta finish in the top 10 in the East more often than not.

Key ArrivalsKey Departures
Mikey Ambrose (Inter Miami)John Gallagher (Austin FC)
Alan Franco (Independiente – Argentina)Adam Jahn (Orange County SC)
Franco Ibarra (Argentinos Juniors – Argentina)Jeff Larentowicz (ret.)
Josef Martinez (inj.)Eric Remedi (San Jose Earthquakes)
Santiago Sosa (River Plate – Argentina)

A large proportion of your opinion of where Atlanta United goes this year comes down to a small handful of factors:

  • How much of a coaching upgrade is Gabriel Heinze over Frank de Boer/Stephen Glass? This comes down to cultural fit as much as it does tactical coaching acumen, as well, since de Boer was… unpopular among many of his players. Glass was an upgrade there, but it seemed morale had been sapped by the time he arrived anyway.
  • How big an impact did the absence of Josef Martinez have on last year’s team? I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Martinez is one of the most-feared players in league history, even if you don’t think he’s one of the best.
  • In a weird pandemic year, how much more was Atlanta harmed by empty stadia than some other teams in the league? This is obviously unanswerable under the best of circumstances, but there’s something to be said for the raucous (and massive) crowds at Mercedes Benz Stadium.
  • How much of an upgrade is some of the incoming Argentine talent over the players who are leaving? This one probably doesn’t need further explanation.

All those factors interplay with the Occam’s Razor explanation: that Atlanta simply wasn’t particularly good last year, regardless of the circumstances. They’re mostly about how to overcome or change that narrative. Some growing pains early in the year wouldn’t be a surprise as Heinze’s tactical approach is smoothed out, but with NSC’s first game against Atlanta not coming until the end of May, that won’t likely have a direct impact on the Boys in Gold (unless it goes poorly and the locker room is lost for the second straight year).

FC Cincinnati

In Nashville April 17 & July 24
In Cincinnati Oct. 27

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall-10.92 (24th)-0.69 (25th)-0.85 (26th)
Offense10.42 (26th)-0.59 (26th)-0.72 (26th)
Defense21.34 (17th)+0.10 (17th)+0.13 (18th)

4-15-4, 16 points (14th East) • 12 goals for, 36 goals against (-24) • Did not play Nashville

For the second year in a row, FC Cincinnati put the worst team in the league onto the field. Unlike the inaugural season for the club, though, there were signs of life. The defense was solid (at least compared to everything else), and while the goals you score and don’t score are the part that actually matters in the table, the writing in the margins shows that FCC may have actually been better than DC United if you squint and look at things just right.

Of course “not quite the worst team in league history – and there’s an argument that you were better than somebody else, despite the results!” is not exactly the rosiest silver lining, particularly when the worst team in league history was… your own squad, barely a year ago. Head coach Jaap Stam build some defensive foundations tactically, even if there wasn’t quite the talent to execute it consistently.

That there didn’t seem to be an offensive plan nor the talent to execute one on the other end of the pitch is quite the bar to clear, though. You’d be hard-pressed to say FCC isn’t at least trying to change that:

Key ArrivalsKey Departures
Luciano Acosta (Atlas – Mexico)Mathieu DePlagne (San Antonio FC)
Isaac Atanga (FC Nordsjælland – Denmark)Andrew Gutman (New York Red Bulls)
Brenner (Sao Paulo – Brazil)Kendall Waston (Saprissa – CRC)
Ronald Matarrita (NYCFC)

FC Cincinnati didn’t shed many players who earned more than 1000 minutes (my cutoff for the chart), but it’s worth noting the disparate landing points of the three defenders who are gone: Andrew Gutman moved within MLS – to a better situation – with New York Red Bulls, Mathieu DePlagne dropped to USL, and Kendall Waston ended up somewhere in between at a Saprissa team that isn’t as strong as it typically is in Costa Rica. Seeing a full-time starter end up in USL is probably not a warm-fuzzy provider. However, given that the defense was a fairly solid aspect of last year’s team, seeing three full-time starters depart could be a little worrisome (especially when both backup keepers are also gone). LB Ronald Matarrita is certainly an upgrade from Gutman, but there’s enough messing with the only thing that wasn’t broken for this franchise.

It’s an improved offense that is Cincinnati’s gameplan. There were key additions to the attack. Former DC United attacker Lucho Acosta has fallen on very hard times in recent years performance-wise: he was solid-not-great in 2016 and 2017 for United, outstanding in 2018, and pretty bad in 2019. In a year with Liga MX’s Atlas, he made 23 appearances and recorded just two goals and an assist. There’s something to be said for how he can thrive in the right situation, though, and – all caveats about FC Cincinnati aside – talented young Brazilian Brenner could be the finisher he needs to find success as a setup man once again. One of the most expensive signings in MLS history has got to be that piece, though.

Inter Miami CF

In Fort Lauderdale Aug. 8 & Sept. 28
In Nashville May 2

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall+2.89 (8th)+0.28 (8th)-0.37 (21st)
Offense13.74 (13th)+0.13 (9th)-0.18 (21st)
Defense16.74 (4th)-0.14 (8th)+0.20 (20th)

7-13-3, 24 points (10th East) • 25 goals for, 35 goals against (-10) • 0-2-1 against Nashville

Man, if you thought Atlanta or Cincinnati had a bit of bad luck, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. By the advanced metrics, Inter Miami put a borderline-elite team out on the field. That’ll be useful for looking forward, but based on what was actually accomplished, the Cranes were rather bad. They undershot their xG for by nearly seven goals, and were scored on nearly six times more than expected by their expected goals conceded. For Miami more than perhaps any other team in league history, changing nothing and just running it back could have been expected to achieve big results.

So, naturally, IMCF blew everything up. Bringing in a bunch of Beckham’s Buds® in the form of manager Phil Neville and defender Ryan Shawcross seems to be a departure from the South American-heavy philosophy previously employed, while the big-money, low-performance DPs will have to have their number reduced by one, given that Miami got caught breaking the DP rules a year ago, as well. Other changes were involuntary (Luis Robles was hurt last year and then retired, for example), but clearly changing the whole dynamic was an intentional choice.

Das Reboot should be an interesting case study for whether shaking everything up when your team was snakebitten a year ago is a way to use chemistry to change your luck… or whether staying the course and hoping to bounce back through simple luck would have been smarter.

Key ArrivalsKey Departures
Gregore (Bahia – Brazil)Juan Agudelo (Minnesota United)
Kelvin Leerdam (Seattle Sounders)Andrés Reyes (Nacional – Colombia)
Ryan Shawcross (Stoke City – England)Luis Robles (ret.)
Wil Trapp (Minnesota United)

A lot of what Miami is changing year-over-year is more feel than practical shifts, and that’s largely because of the Neville appointment. The Beckham influence that saw both Higuaín brothers and Blaise Matuidi end up in Fort Lauderdale combined with Neville is the primary difference. Also landing a washed-up player from a bad Championship team in Ryan Shawcross seems very MLS 2.0-y.

We shall see if there was something inherent to Diego Alonso’s coaching style that caused the team to underperform its expected goals on either end of the pitch. If it’s as simple as that, Miami has the talent to get the job done. If it’s more about the concept of “aging European stars” being out the window as a viable strategy, Miami may be in trouble. That’s particularly true since they have to get rid of a DP, and all indications are talented young winger Matías Pellegrini is the one being shopped around.

CF Montreal

In Nashville April 24 & June 26
In a mystery location [hopefully by this point Montreal] Sept. 12

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall-8.93 (23rd)-0.42 (23rd)-0.15 (18th)
Offense19.04 (16th)-0.07 (19th)+0.25 (5th)
Defense27.71 (25th)+0.35 (25th)+0.40 (25th)

8-13-2, 26 points (9th East) • 33 goals for, 43 goals against (-10) • 0-1-0 against Nashville

In its first – and as we know now, only – year under former Arsenal and New York Red Bulls legend Thierry Henry, Club de Foot Montreal (née Montreal Impact) put together a fairly solid year. They took a little while to find a tactical identity, but produced offensively and made baby steps toward solving defensive issues of years past.

They did all that while stuck in the United States for much of the year, without a place to truly call home. With all three Canadian clubs, the nature of their season away from home has to be evaluated in that context. That’s particularly true for Montreal, given it was so stressful on their head coach that he decided to move back home to England rather than try to coach the Impact through another pandemic season. It’s understandable from a human perspective. It puts a lot of strain on an organization nonetheless.

Key ArrivalsKey Departures
Bjørn Jøhnsen (Ulsan Hyundai)Bojan (out of contract)
Kamal Miller (Orlando City via Austin)Jorge Corrales (FC Tulsa)
Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire)Rod Fanni (out of contract)
Aljaz Struna (Houston Dynamo)Jukka Raittala (Minnesota United)
Maxi Urruti (Houston Dynamo)

This is a re-shaped roster. However, given the success of the team last year, and the landing points of some of the departing players, it may not be that troubling. Bojan and Rod Fanni seem set to retire or end up at small-league teams, while Jorge Corrales has already landed in USL. That, of course, raises the question of “why are these guys getting over 1,000 minutes for your team, and is there anyone to replace them,” but to project the following season, it’s better to lose those guys than someone moving up to a higher level of competition.

Head coach Wilfried Nancy will have his work cut out for him, not least of which because some of the guys who have joined (particularly Djordje Mihailovic) specifically wanted to play for Thierry Henry and now… will not. Nancy has been involved with the organization for a decade, and on the senior-team coaching staff since 2016. There should be some continuity in that regard. But a second straight year without knowing when the team will be able to head back home, and without seeming to add a ton of building blocks to a squad that was just OK while outperforming its expectations… could be a rough one in Montreal.

Or Nancy could do a bang-up job, and the group could come together to be more than the sum of its parts! But more likely, a step back.

Orlando City SC

In Nashville Aug. 18 & Sept. 29
In Orlando Oct. 31

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall+1.87 (9th)+0.29 (7th)+0.40 (4th)
Offense21.33 (10th)+0.16 (8th)+0.33 (3rd)
Defense19.47 (11th)-0.13 (9th)-0.07 (10th)

11-4-8, 41 points (4th East) • 40 goals for, 25 goals against (+15) • 1-1-1 against Nashville

Bigtime Óscar Pareja guy over here. The former Rapids and FC Dallas coach pushed all the right buttons to find a formula to get Orlando City playing at an OK level in 2019, and the groundwork laid during that season built toward the first MLS Cup Playoffs berth in club history this season. Indeed, there were times early in the Summer (a word that here means “Fall” since that’s when the vast majority of the MLS schedule took place) that an argument could be made for the squad being MLS’s best. A 1-1-4 stretch in October took away that possibility, but this was easily the best Lions team in its short MLS history.

Winger Chris Mueller and fullback Ruan were the unlikely stars over the course of the entire season, per Goals Added, but Portuguese playmaker Nani and rookie striker Daryl Dike had their moments to shine, as well. This was a good, well-rounded team throughout, with a sprinkling of stars here and there.

Key ArrivalsKey Departures
Pato (São Paulo – Brazil)Kamal Miller
Silvester van der Water (Heracles Almelmo – Netherlands)

Uh, not a ton of change here! Of course, the elephant in the room is whether Barnsley will exercise a purchase option on Daryl Dike (or if a Premier League club will come in with enough money to make it worth Orlando’s while). If that happens, the Lions lose a guy who developed into a full starter over the course of the year, but honestly wasn’t a big star in Central Florida (eight goals and a single assist on 5.29 xG+xA). They’d be missing out on future Dike, rather than any sort of irreplaceable production from a year ago.

If everything else remains mostly constant, the other issue is the Nani Fatigue Question. At 34, he’s had late-season fades dating back before his time with Orlando City. It popped up again in 2020, despite a season that was unnaturally spaced with months of rest between some of the games:

  • 0.26 xG/96, 0.18 xA/96 through Sept. 27 (14 games)
  • 0.11 xG/96, 0.06 xA/96 through end of season (11 games)

That’s a drop from 0.44 xG+xA per 96 – being good for nearly half a goal per game – to 0.17 per 96. He made up for it a bit by being his team’s primary penalty-taker, but unlike free kicks, that’s a “slot a competent guy in and he’s similarly effective” role (and for what it’s worth he was the only Orlando City player to miss a PK in the shootout win against NYCFC). Orlando has to be able to keep him fresh this year.

Toronto FC

In a mystery location [hopefully by this point Toronto] Aug. 1 & Sept. 18
In Nashville June 23

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall+5.28 (7th)+0.12 (10th)-0.01 (13th)
Offense22.26 (9th)+0.09 (12th)-0.07 (17th)
Defense16.98 (5th)-0.03 (11th)-0.06 (11th)

13-5-5, 44 points (2nd East) • 33 goals for, 26 goals against (+7) • 0-1-0 against Nashville

TFC faced the same adversity as its Canadian compatriots: basing in the United States and being unable to return home to family for large stretches of the Fall. The Reds managed to put together a very good year, though. This was a well-balanced team with a good defense and a good-enough offense. A squad that’s been one of the league’s more consistent powers ever since, uh, deciding not to be aggressively not that… was more of the same.

Attacking mid/second striker Alejandro Pozuelo ran this for your league xG+xA king for the year, an improvement on his great 2019 that saw him replace Sebastian Giovinco without much of a hiccup (but not hang among the elite of the elite in the league). Striker/winger Ayo Akinola played multiple roles, much of it in place of (rather than alongside) Jozy Altidore, who didn’t quite clear 800 minutes due to injury. The central midfield of Micheael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio did the workmanlike job (though Bradley’s decreasing mobility has become a bit of an issue), the backline was solid, and Quentin Westberg was a slightly above-average keeper.

It was a TFC team.

Key ArrivalsKey Departures
Pablo Piatti (Elche CF – Spain)

Toronto was very close to Supporters’ Shield in 2020, so it’s tough to be too harsh here. But the way the Reds were unable to do much of anything against Nashville SC – and knowing that this was by far the oldest team in the Eastern Conference – doesn’t leave one with a ton of positive feelings about the more-distant future. Knowing that this is a team that’s constantly pushing back against old-age narratives, seeing it not get a whole lot younger, and then watching head coach Greg Vanney replaced with a press-happy (as RBNY coaching alums tend to be) Chris Armas… there are a lot of little pieces that could add up to be problems for TFC.

Perhaps there’s a bit of balance to what Armas wants to do, perhaps the Reds don’t suffer from the fatigue of never going home that they’ll have to deal with for at least half the season, and perhaps their incoming academy players are the next generation of greats. But that’s a lot of little things that have to go right in the midst of a coaching change to maintain levels here.

A little less depth from the remaining Eastern Conference previews, and most of the West will get a mere flyby. Stay tuned.

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