At long last, gameday is upon us. The Boys in Gold welcome a new/old rival to NIssan Stadium this evening. Everything you need to know is here.
Opponent: FC Cincinnati (4-15-4 Wooden Spoon).
Time, Location: Saturday, April 17, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 59ºF, 3% chance of rain, 52% humidity, 6 MPH NW wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30 (local broadcast), ESPN+ (national stream), NashvilleSC.com (local stream) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats: 16 points, 0.70 PPG (14th East) • 0.52 GF/gm, 1.57 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.69 xG Power (25th MLS), -0.85 G Power (26th MLS). -0.16 “Luck.” • -0.59 Offense (26th MLS), +0.10 Defense (17th MLS). +0.70 away advantage(!)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC -112, draw +234, FC Cincinnati +348
Match officials: Referee: Rubiel Vazquez. Assistants: Andrew Bigelow, TJ Zablocki. Fourth official: Matthew Thompson; Video assistants: Kevin Terry Jr., Jeff Muschik.
Injury/availability report: OUT: F Isaac Atanga and D Gustavo Vallecilla (visas). D Zico Bailey (concussion), F Franco Kovačevič (hamstring). QUESTIONABLE: van der Werff (hernia)
When you broke every record for futility in your inaugural season, and improved on the margins (but not too much on the league table) in your second season, there’s one obvious method to improving results: spend.
FCC has done just that, adding Brazilian striker Brenner and former DC United attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta this offseason. Given that goal-scoring has been a particular struggle, that’s a good way to start to turn things around. How effective they may ultimately be in the system is another question. Acosta struggled in MLS aside from his outstanding 2019 season alongside Wayne Rooney, and the Argentine had just two goals and one assist in 23 Liga MX games since leaving DC. Brenner has been a very solid goal-scorer in Brazil, but who knows how that’ll translate to the most meager attack he’s featured in.
“The club has tried to temper expectations for Brenner because of his young age (21) and having to adjust to the league while playing outside of his home country of Brazil for the first time,” Laurel Pfahler of Queen City Press told me. “However, Cincinnati didn’t drop $13 million on a project. The hope is that his knack for finishing at Sao Paulo translates quickly in MLS, and so far he looks up to the challenge.”
There’s plenty of winger talent available, including Japanese TAM signing Yuya Kubo and former US Youth International Joe Gyau (who’s getting run at RB, too). Dutch striker Jurgen Locadia also looks to be put out on a wing (he’s played on both for FCC) with Brenner taking over up top. However, even though he’s not listed on the FCC injury report, he’s less than 100%.
“Unfortunately, though, he suffered a thigh injury this preseason and didn’t get more than one match with his new teammates,” Pfahler said of Locadia. “If he plays Saturday, it will be coming off the bench – but he scored off the bench in his debut last year and could be looking for a repeat performance.”
With a few instances of messing around with odd backline situations last year also under their belts, Jaap Stam mostly deployed his guys in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 (fairly typical setups for MLS teams). There is some tactical flexibility here, and additional tweaks to the available talent. The latter seems more geared to plugging Acosta into a true No. 10 role, which is his preference.
From Nashville SC’s perspective, the changes in attacking talent at two of the most important positions in that general tactical approach mean there’s plenty of unknown as to what the tweaks or points of emphasis may be. There’s plenty of film – not much of it particularly threatening – on the FC Cincinnati attack. There’s precious little about how that attack will look with high-caliber players in it.
“Obviously, our process normally entails a lot of thorough and rigorous scouting on the other team,” said NSC defender Dan Lovitz. “For a team, like you mentioned in Cincinnati that’s had a lot of turnover, especially in attacking positions, it’s difficult to kind of know what you’re going to go up against.”
As I’ve mentioned a couple times, the defense was actually pretty solid. FCC allowed 32.86 expected goals, good for 11th in the league. There was some pretty poor luck, though, with opposition converting 37 times on the year. I’ve talked about it plenty this week, and a lot of goal luck can be explained by goalkeeper quality… and Przemslaw Tyton was indeed below-average in shot stopping, giving up 114% of expected goals faced. Spencer Richey was even worse, but Bobby Edwards (who only got 200 minutes, so there are sample-size issues here) was above-average.
It’ll be intriguing to see if a little more forward thinking from the backline puts those guys under more heat this year, too. After turning FCC into a solid defensive team, Stam has mostly focused on getting offensive firepower onto his backline (not like it was anywhere else on the team last year, either).
“In rebuilding the defense this year, Stam wanted to shift to more mobile centerbacks (hence the departure of the more physical Kendall Waston) and fullbacks who could really make an impact getting forward into the attack, which led to the acquisition of [former NYCFC LB Rónald] Matarrita and switching winger Joe Gyau to right back,” Pfahler said. “Matarrita was the big addition on defense, but there are still questions at center back with three returning players who were a part of an underachieving roster in 2020. I think Nick Hagglund will have a big role early on in how successful the defense is, especially with a back line that doesn’t appear overpowering.”
When you have the talent deficit that FCC did in its first two year in the league, you have to make up for it somehow, but I’m not certain risking all manner of leaks at the back makes sense, either. If Stam stays a little more conservative with his fullbacks for this game in hopes that Brenner and Acosta can make the magic on offense, don’t be surprised.
The Boys in Gold
Injury/availability report: OUT: F Daniel Ríos (foot), F Dominique Badji (adductor). QUESTIONABLE: F Abu Danladi (ankle)
NSC is taking on an Adrian Heath-style “nobody respects us” personality. While that’s a little fair – more than it is for Heath’s Minnesota, at least – doing the majority of the talking on the field is a welcome direction to take that mindset.
I’ve spent all week previewing the Boys in Gold, so I don’t know that there’s a whole lot to point out that I haven’t yet. One thing to watch tonight will be how free defensive personnel are to get involved in the attack.
In the modern game, that’s what’s expected of fullbacks: get up, provide service, create different angles of attack, different dynamics going forward that takes the pressure off of the wingers all the time and our attacking players to be operating independently as their own unit as a front four and a back six,” Lovitz said. “We don’t really like that: we want to get guys involved more consistently in different ways, into different looks of frankly, putting the ball in the back of the net. I think Alistair shares my desire in improving every day and making sure that we can become a more integral part of what we do on the offensive side of the ball.”
Getting off to a strong start is also important.
“Usually the beginning of the season, every team wants to start out on the right foot,” said captain Dax McCarty. “You want to have positive momentum heading into the season, you want to start out getting that first one out of the way. It’s always the most difficult one to come by.”
With Nashville increasing attendance to 40% availability in the venue, there may very well be crowd effects on this game in a much more significant way than we’ve seen since the opening game of 2020, which was 10-15 years or so ago. NSC didn’t have the chance to impress the home crowd with a win (even though they only lost once at home after the COVID break), and having that opportunity to perform for well more than the 4k per game once the stands re-opened will be huge.
“If we look back to last year: our first home game of the season against Atlanta, the energy and the electricity in the stadium was unbelievable, and it was something that I still remember to this day as one of the better experiences and the better atmospheres that I’ve ever played in,” McCarty said. “So we know that our fans are extremely excited to get back into the stadium. Even in the playoffs against Miami, with the limited number of people that were in there, you still felt their presence, you still felt their energy, and we have to use that.”
Keys to the game
- Control Acosta and Brenner. If FC Cincinnati is going to have a season that’s meaningfully better than the past couple, it will be because one or both of these guys ends up with a ton of production. Not letting that start against your team is preferred.
- Bombs away. I’m always of the mind that when you’re facing a below-average keeper, it’s worth testing him a little bit, even if the shots come from distance. Nashville hasn’t exactly been hyper-prolific in the attack yet in its time in Major League Soccer, so making the most of even small scoring chances is big.
- Set pieces. Nashville generated over a third of its xG from set-piece situations last season. The Boys in Gold also didn’t give up a ton of scoring opportunities to opponents, and if FCC were to take advantage of set pieces, it would change the calculus in how NSC can defend in the run of play.
- Remain aggressive. Even if Nashville goes up a goal or two (or even down a goal or two), this FCC team doesn’t have the quality and depth to punish you for aggressive play, so take advantage of it. You may not realize it from watching a ton of Nashville in the past three years, but Gary Smith knows there’s No shame in winning 4-0.
Nashville SC wins, 3-1.