mls Nashville SC

Nashville SC 2021 preview: The schedule (pt. 2)

CJ Sapong photo from a bygone era courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer

Now that NSC’s most-frequent opponents (representing over half the schedule) have gotten a close look, let’s close out the Eastern conference. We’ll notch the depth of analysis back just a bit, but try to get a feel for each team.

Chicago Fire FC

In Nashville July 17
In Chicago Sept. 26

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall-1.89 (16th)+0.09 (12th)-0.03 (14th)
Offense19.43 (15th)+0.33 (3rd)+0.20 (8th)
Defense21.25 (16th)+0.25 (22nd)+0.23 (21st)
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.

5-10-8, 23 points (11th East) • 33 goals for, 39 goals against (-6) • 0-0-1 against Nashville

Given the amount of technical skill that Chicago could put on the field last season, their results often felt like a team that was snakebit and getting bad luck to not live up to its underlying stats… but that didn’t really turn out to be true over the entirety of the season. Certainly the Fire’s propensity to pile up goals in big wins and go dry when they needed scores the most knocked them a couple slots down the table, but ultimately they were about where they deserved to be. So, that’s a second-straight year of doing worse in the table than the xG numbers would lead you to believe. The team essentially lived up to its xG résumé in scoring, though, and that’s at least an improvement. You’d hope to get some sort of improvement after blowing the whole thing up, and they got it.

There’s a less-significant rebuild this year, but it does include replacing homegrown winger/attacking mid Djordje Mihailovic (traded to Montreal at the player’s request) and striker CJ Sapong (hey, we know him! NSC grabbed him as a free agent after Chicago declined his option). That’s Nos. 2 and 3 on the team in xG+xA per 96 minutes played, and while neither got a full load last year, you’d still prefer to not have to replace that production.

Other than those two, there’s a lot more of the same – and it’s worth noting that Sapong was expendable largely because Robert Beric lived up to expectations – and baby steps forward for this Fire team (particularly on defense) would make it into a playoffs contender.

Columbus Crew SC

In Columbus July 21
In Nashville Oct. 20

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall-1.30 (14th)-0.01 (13th)+0.51 (3rd)
Offense19.43 (14th)-0.04 (16th)+0.22 (7th)
Defense20.73 (14th)-0.02 (12th)-0.29 (4th)

12-6-5, 41 points (3rd East) • 36 goals for, 21 goals against (+15) • 2-0-0 against Nashville

I’m having a real hard time with the Crew. Cognitively, I know Columbus was a very good team, and not a paper tiger. But the underlying stats largely don’t agree. And given that Columbus’s regular-season points total (impressive though it was!) was built on zero (0) wins in the opponent’s house, and four games against FC Cincinnati (although they only went 2-1-1 against FCC)… the regular-season accomplishments feel good-not-great. Obviously winning MLS Cup thereafter outs a bow on things.

So did Columbus overachieve despite being a mostly middling team last year? I think it’s important to look at a couple ways in which teams can beat the xG numbers with any sort of consistency. First is great goalkeeping. Eloy Room was very good, allowing only 94% of expected goals, but that was also only enough to save Columbus one goal over the course of the season. When backup Andrew Tarbell had to fill in, he gave about a quarter of that back, anyway. The other way is in looking at guys who consistently convert at higher rates than xG. Yes, “finishing is a myth” to a large extent, but that adage is more about how generating high-xG opportunities is more important than the conversion rate versus xG. Columbus has managed to do both consistently, and Gyasi Zardes has been a career-long xG overachiever.

Anyway, Columbus was not a paper tiger last year, but nor was the Crew quite as good as it sometimes felt. Add an elite (if minutes-limited) striker in Bradley Wright-Phillips, a top midfielder in Kevin Molino, and presumably more health/availability from Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayán, and Luis Díaz? Baby, you got a stew goin’.

DC United

In Nashville Aug. 15
In Washington Oct. 16

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall-13.00 (26th)-0.77 (26th)-0.48 (23rd)
Offense13.87 (24th)-0.36 (22nd)-0.02 (15th)
Defense26.87 (24th)+0.41 (26th)+0.46 (26th)

5-12-6, 21 points (13th East) • 25 goals for, 41 goals against (-16) • 0-1-0 against Nashville

Your mileage may vary as to whether it’s slightly ironic that a team with a defense-first coach put a much better attack on the pitch than its goal-stopping unit last year – or whether “defense-first coach whose defense is bad” goes a long way toward explaining why Ben Olsen is no longer the head coach on Buzzard Point. A little of column A, a lot of column B.

Either way, Argentine Hernán Losada was plucked from Belgium’s first division… but there wasn’t as much roster churn as you may have expected given that DC was significantly worse on the margins than FC Cincinnati last season. Indeed, nobody who got more than 1,000 minutes last year is gone, while only Dutch striker Nigel Robertha provides much in the way of big-name signings.

This year may very well be a test case of Losada’s tactical and motivational acumen, and if he’s not vastly outperforming Olsen, it could be a rough year in DC.

New England Revolution

In Nashville May 8
In Foxboro Aug. 4

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall+5.92 (5th)+0.56 (2nd)+0.24 (9th)
Offense26.14 (3rd)+0.17 (7th)-0.16 (19th)
Defense20.21 (12th)-0.39 (2nd)-0.40 (1st)

8-7-8, 32 points (8th East) • 26 goals for, 25 goals against (+1) • 0-0-2 against Nashville

The Revs, in their second year under Bruce Arena, were probably a sleeper as one of the best teams in MLS. The advanced stats loved them, and while the offense underachieved its xG by a fairly significant margin (10.6 goals in absolute terms, the unluckiest in MLS), one can always hope that bad luck evens out with enough trials. New England even has a number of noteworthy stars – goalkeeper Matt Turner is a star in the stathead world, Gustavo Bou has been one of the league’s best strikers when healthy, Tajon Buchanan is a rising Canada international, etc. etc. – yet still managed to be mostly under-the-radar a year ago.

A lot of that is a matter of timing: through September 19, the Revs were 3-3-6 (1.08 ppg) and not exactly lightning the world on fire. A 5-4-2 close to the regular season (1.55 ppg) was much better – if not a game-changer – and allowed the team to enter the playoffs with some momentum. Once there, a squeak past Montreal Impact was enough to set Arena’s team up for impressive wins against Philadelphia and Orlando, and the upward trajectory for this season became obvious.

There have been limited departures (DMs Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe chief among them), and if those can be papered over, New England could be one of the best teams in the East this year.

New York City FC

In Nashville Sept. 4
In Harrison, N.J. Oct. 3

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall+15.90 (1st)+0.35 (6th)+0.52 (2nd)
Offense28.48 (1st)+0.40 (2nd)+0.34 (2nd)
Defense12.58 (1st)+0.04 (13th)-0.18 (7th)

12-8-3, 39 points (5th East) • 37 goals for, 25 goals against (+12) • Did not play Nashville

NYCFC was the best team in MLS according to ASA’s Goals Added (though in writing this series, I’ve found that it may not be as useful a metric for “is team X good” purposes as it is for more descriptive-type things), and wasn’t far off in terms of power ratings according to my calculations. City wasn’t quite as good in the xG department, but there’s no denying that Ronny Deila’s first season in charge went about as well as could be expected.

NYCFC’s big-money transfer out was fullback Joe Scally, who played all of 83 minutes last year with a move to Moenchengladbach waiting for him. The more impactful ones will be DM/CB Alex Ring, who led the team in minutes (though he did not impress ASA‘s Goals Added), and fullback Ronáld Matarrita, who was second on the team in G+ and sixth in minutes played. Wingers Gary Mackay-Steven and Alexandru Mitrita will also be missed, though they didn’t get a ton of minutes.

So, how much do those departures impact the bottom line? Without a ton of incoming talent, NYCFC will have to paper over from within, so a step back is likely. It probably won’t be a huge one.

New York Red Bulls

In Harrison, N.J. June 19
In Nashville Nov. 7

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall-5.00 (21st)-0.21 (20th)-0.10 (17th)
Offense16.66 (22nd)-0.04 (17th)+0.00 (14th)
Defense21.67 (18th)+0.17 (19th)+0.10 (16th)

9-9-5, 32 points (6th East) • 29 goals for, 31 goals against (-3) • Did not play Nashville

Weirdly, it feels like the Red Bulls were pretty down last year, but then you look at the table and they were at the very least good enough to get that first-round playoff bye. That they lost to the Crew in the quarterfinals shouldn’t even take any bloom off that rose, but a midseason coaching change will really alter our perceptions, I guess.

The Red Bulls were really a middle-of-the-road team in all regards, and in fairness, weren’t a whole lot better after Chris Armas was fired than while he was in charge. Also he didn’t lose to FC Cincinnati so we’ll give him credit for that. We shall see if Red Bull system coach Gerhard Struber can provide more of what the parent company – uh, the sheet here says it’s a soft drink manufacturer? That can’t possibly be right – wants. They had to pay Barnsley to let him go, so certainly landing him for RBNY was a priority.

Meanwhile, while there are only a couple key players gone, that includes captain Tim Parker and underrated winger Jared Stroud. Additionally, there’s a breadth of guys who got some time (200-800 minutes or so), and at a certain point, that’s gotta be worth losing a starter, even if like Ben Mines or Mark Rzatkowski doesn’t fit that definition in the strictest sense. Add in the impending departure of wunderkind Caden Clark, and the sabre-rattling of Aaron Long (who wants to go but can’t convince the club to sell him), and there’s an interesting chemistry experiment on the way for Struber, and it might not surprise if it takes him a while to solve it while the Red Bulls struggle.

Philadelphia Union

In Nashville July 5
In Chester, Pa. Oct. 23

ASA G+C&C xG PowerC&C G Power
Overall+8.91 (4th)+0.50 (4th)+0.82 (1st)
Offense25.98 (4th)+0.12 (11th)+0.44 (1st)
Defense17.07 (6th)-0.39 (3rd)-0.39 (2nd)

14-4-5, 47 points (1st East) • 44 goals for, 20 goals against (+24) • Did not play Nashville

Last year was The Year for Philadelphia. The Union was the best team in MLS for the vast majority of the year before getting dunked by a hot Revs team in the playoffs. The Supporter’s Shield winners scored the second-most goals and allowed the fewest in the entire league.

So pretty much they should have won it all, because Philly is building itself into a selling club, and this offseason was the end of a peak in the life cycle for a club with that description. US internationals Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie were sold for transfer fees upwards of $6 million a pop, while defender Ray Gaddis retired, and a couple role players had their contract options declined. The conceit here is that you develop more youngsters and find success (and ultimately profit) with them, as well. You still have to earn the silverware at the apex of that sine curve, and I get the feeling the Union wanted more than a Supporter’s Shield for the effort.

It will not surprise that most of the incoming talent is from the Union Academy (including Aaronson’s younger brother, Paxten), with a couple exceptions. German-American midfielder Leon Flach comes in from FC St. Pauli, and Scottish centerback Stuart Findlay arrives from Kilmarnock. Those are obvious hole-pluggers for the specific gaps Aaronson and McKenzie leave while the youngster get up to speed.

A step back, and a build toward another peak within a couple years, and Philly will remain right on track as the club we believe it to be.

Western Conference getting its look – with a little less depth for most teams – later this afternoon or tomorrow. Busy times here at C&C headquarters.

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