Nashville SC didn’t get everything desired out of the opening game against FC Cincinnati. Can the Boys in Gold respond with a stronger showing against their visitors from Quebec?
Opponent: CF Montreal (8-13-2 as Montreal Impact in 2020)
Time, Location: Saturday, April 23, 1:00 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 61ºF, 70% chance of rain, 73% humidity, 8 MPH Southerly 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: 26 points, 0.70 PPG (ninth East) • 1.27 GF/gm, 1.65 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.42 xG Power (23rd MLS), -0.15 G Power (18th MLS). +0.26 “Luck.” • -0.07 Offense (19th MLS), +0.35 Defense (25th MLS). +0.62 away advantage(!)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC -156, draw +275, CF Montreal + 459
Match officials: Referee: Fotis Bazakos. Assistants: Peter Manikowski, Adam Wienckowski. Four official: Brooke Mayo. Video Assistants: Daniel Radford, Craig Lowry
Injury/availability report: OUT: D Luis Binks (unspecified)
Montreal Impact was one of the weaker teams in the East last year (despite getting a fair amount of luck), and had an offseason of turmoil with a widely-reviled/mocked rebrand into Club de Foot Montreal, the departure of a head coach who just in his first year of building something fairly different from what the club had done in the recent past, and tons and tons of roster turnover. Expectations entering 2021 (including my own) were not high.
So, CF Montreal promptly came out and put four goals on Toronto FC, one of the more consistent Eastern Conference teams in recent seasons, in the opener at a temporary home in South Florida (shared with the primary tenant – Fort Lauderdale’s own Inter Miami CF). Were we all wrong to doubt the Club de Foot? Is everything that we know about the sport due to be reevaluated? Was the real Impact the friends we made along the way?
It’s worth noting that there are a couple epic caveats to last weeks game: first, TFC ran out a lineup that was not exactly first-choice, with as many as seven players you wouldn’t consider regular starters (Michael Bradley, Omar Gonzalez, Auro Jr. and Richie Laryea the exceptions), and the Reds actually sort of dominated the game! Montreal’s 4-2 victory came despite a 2.5-1.0 expected goals deficit. CF Montreal is well on the way to carrying its predecessor’s torch when it comes to luck status.
So with that in mind, let’s consider the lineup. New head coach Wilfried Nancy prefers a 3-5-2 setup with CAM Djordje Mihailovic sitting behind strike duo Mason Toye and Romell Quioto. It’s worth noting that one of those guys (Quioto, who joined in advance of the 2020 season) was on this team last year – the other two joined on trades from Chicago Fire and Minnesota United, respectively. Each scored, and it’s worth noting that each has been a reasonably consisted xG overachiever, so there may be some replicability to the offensive output from a week ago, even with meager expected goals.
“I think the easy thing to look at immediately is the pace and athleticism they have through the middle up top,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said of that trio. “Those two guys [Toye and Quioto] that got on the sheet are a handful athletically. But that combination, and the big signing in that No. 10 role [Mihailovic] has given them a different dimension, and it certainly gives them a real edge as they transition from some of their defensive shape.”
That defensive shape includes a trio of centerbacks, a pair of holding midfielders, and wingbacks who straddle the line between the two type of responsibility. NSC’s Alistair Johnston grew up with Montreal left CB Kamal Miller in the Toronto suburbs, and that familiarity can potentially be a blessing and a curse.
“Going into Montreal, playing against a guy like Kamal Miller who I’ve known all my life, almost it feels like,” Johnston explained. “He’ll be in that left-side centerback role for sure. And a couple of the other guys in that midfield and that backline. I’m excited about a challenge, and yeah, it’s cool.”
Facing a 3-5-2 after last weekend’s more MLS-typical 4-2-3-1 that FC Cincinnati trotted out will provide a bunch of different gameplan opportunities (and perhaps gameplan threats). Keeping wingbacks Mustafa Kizza and Zachary Brault-Guillard from getting comfortable will be a key. If the wide players can’t get into the areas they want offensively, Nashville can narrow its formation and make life tough for the big three up front. If those guys get stuck-in offensively and can’t get back to defend, NSC’s wingers are going to have a Very Good Time generating offense from cutting inside. The fullbacks playing off those wingers may have all sorts of time and space to pick out passes.
It’s clear that the Nashville personnel has focused a lot this week on predicting where those openings are going to pop up.
“There’s going to be different areas where we’re vulnerable, and different areas where they’re vulnerable,” said Nashville’s Alex Muyl. “With wingbacks, you always have to be ready to see whether they’re pressing on and whether they’re sitting back, and that’s really going to affect you as a winger. Ultimately you have to find the space and find the soft spots in the other team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Montreal comes and we see a completely different setup to how they set up against Toronto. I think that for us, it’s gonna be about preparing as much as we can, but when you get out there, you just have to basically play what’s been given to you.”
How transition is handled is my other big question about the Impact. By crowding the midfield, they can try to tiki-taka their way down the field, certainly. But Samuel Piette and Victor Wanyama are not forward-playing CDMs, for the most part, so fast-break offense is not going to necessarily be initiated by that duo. Despite being a converted winger, Mihailovic isn’t much of a dribbler for the CAM position, either.
As we know from the Gary Smith days, transition-to-cross can be one way a 3-5-2 wants to generate its offense. It’s not the only way, though, and given that this type of offense is typically combined with an elite (eight-behind-the-ball, minimum) defense – and Montreal didn’t seem to show such a thing last weekend – the philosophy is still up for some development.
The Boys in Gold
Injury/availability report: OUT: F Daniel Ríos (foot), F Abu Danladi (hamstring)
After a disappointing result last weekend, it’s back to the drawing board for Nashville SC. Wait, no it’s not.
The Boys in Gold certainly weren’t happy to only draw FC Cincinnati 2-2, but the disparity in offense generated for each team, a bit of bad luck, the annual tradition of one big Joe Willis goof in the home-opener… there’s reason to be encouraged with the way the team played, even if there’s disappointment in how much they got for it.
“We were slow to start – there’s no getting away from it,” Smith said. “The group didn’t look as we’d left the season last year. They didn’t acquit themselves as we’re accustomed to, and Cincinnati did a very good job of taking advantage of that. So, we have no complaints there, but what I would say is, the focus, the determination, the energy – I looked at some data on the players post-game, and compared it to the opening game last year against Atlanta, and the average distance and high-speed movements of the players were way in excess of where we were last year. So there’s a lot of progression athletically, we showed that in that 75-80 minutes. I’d like to think that everyone saw a much brighter, positive, and exciting group, with 32 efforts at goal, that really should have won the game in the end.”
The difference in opportunities provided by the Montreal system will be an intriguing part of Nashville‘s gameplan to evaluate. Do they want wingers who will be comfortable isolated in space against a CB, in hopes of forcing that matchup by getting behind the wingbacks? Does Smith lean more toward a slow build and letting the wingers and fullbacks have the interplay out wide that can hopefully create one-v-ones? Is it more about stretching that backline horizontally and letting runners find space?
There are a lot of intriguing options, is what I’m saying. And we don’t necessarily know from CFMTL’s opener which ones are going to be let open for exploitation with a tweaked gameplan.
“Playing against a back-5 definitely opens up some different opportunities for guys,” said Johnston. “There’s going to be some isolations, especially in the back five, when if we probably spread the field out and get the mismatches that we want, I think we feel pretty comfortable. It’s going to give me and [Dan] Lovitz, if we take up really good spots, lots of time on the ball.”
I do think there’s a question on the right wing. Alex Muyl had an iffy game against FC Cincinnati, and perhaps a player in Handwalla Bwana who can be more of an issue on the ball would be a better fit for battling Montreal’s odd backline anyway. However, the defensive solidity and that sort of Red Bull mindset (defend with everything you’ve got, try to spring transition offense from there) is a perfect fit for Gary Smith generally, and will keep Muyl on the field in this one specifically.
Up top, do we get a longer runout (perhaps even a start?) for CJ Sapong? Or does Jhonder Cádiz’s size-and-athleticism combo keep him on the pitch for longer. As I did last year with Daniel Ríos, I almost think playing a more traditional big-strong striker early and then putting big-fast Cádiz on against tired legs could be the way to go. But Gary Smith didn’t agree with me in 2020, and I doubt he does in 2021.
The back seven should be exactly as we grew to expect all last season – with none of those guys on the injury report. Holding firm against a really, really good front two of Toye and Quioto will be a task, but quite frankly I think you’d trust Nashville’s group – as much as anyone in the league – to be able to do it.
Keys to the game
- Be physical with the forwards. Toye is a tall, strong forward, while Quioto is a speedy converted winger. They’re good complements to each other in that regard, and both are able to put the ball in the back of the net. Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney present a different physical matchup for them than did 19-year old Luke Singh, though. Winning the physical battle will be big here.
- Improve communication. The big chance (and ultimately season-opening goal) that Nashville gave up to FC Cincinnati was largely a result of Alistair Johnston, Walker Zimmerman, and Dax McCarty not being on the same page in a semi-transition moment. Some of that is a result of not getting competitive action in preseason, and if it can be hammered out after one game, that would be nice.
- 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. A team that’s really stout but perhaps not as explosive from the run of play (albeit trying to change that latter reputation) has to be solid on both ends of the field from dead-ball situations.
- Work the width. You probably gathered from the way I wrote the sections above that I think this Montreal backline can get stretched horizontally if Nashville focuses on getting the ball wide before the wingbacks can recover. If NSC can consistently find the combinations to open passing or shooting lanes centrally, A Good Time should be had by all.
I think Gary Smith – as he did in USL – will continue with an offensive focus perhaps at the expense of being as sound in the back as the team was last year. Being good enough on both ends of the field to win consistently is the name of the game, and going out to win rather than not lose is the plan unless and until it’s not working out.
Nashville SC wins, 3-2.