Two games, two 0-2 deficits, two 2-2 draws. Can Nashville SC change the narrative by welcoming 2020 expansion classmate Inter Miami CF to Nissan Stadium?
Opponent: Inter Miami CF (1-1-0)
Time, Location: Sunday, May 2, Noon CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 71ºF, 15% chance of rain, 45% humidity, 8 MPH Southerly wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: ESPN/ESPN Deportes (national television/stream) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats (2020): 24 points, 1.04 PPG (10th East) • 1.09 GF/gm, 1.52 GA/gm
Nerd stats (2020): +0.28 xG Power (eighth MLS), -0.37 G Power (21st MLS). -0.65 “Luck” (worst in MLS) • +0.13 Offense (ninth MLS), -0.14 Defense (eighth MLS). +0.16 away advantage
Vegas odds: Nashville SC -114, draw +260, Inter Miami +317
Match officials: Referee: Rosendo Mendoza. Assistants: Kyle Atkins, Eric Weisbrod. Fourth official: Joshua Encarnación. Video Assistants: Youness Marrakchi, Ian McKay.
Inter Miami CF
Injury/availability report: QUESTIONABLE: F Julian Carranza, M Federico Higuaín, M Gonzalo Higuaín, W Rodolfo Pizarro, F Robbie Robinson. It’s worth noting that most of these guys are known to be out of the country – Pizarro acquiring his green card in Mexico, the Higuaíns attending their mother’s funeral in Argentina. Pretty obvious abuse of the MLS policy to not list them as “out,” though I don’t imagine we’ll see it punished.
Any discussion of Inter Miami in 2021 has to begin with Inter Miami in 2020: The Herons were not good! However, a lot of their struggles were built around the margins: they were top-10 in the league in offensive and defensive expected goals (adjusted for opposition), but had some of the unluckiest finishing – in both directions – to be a well below-average team overall. This year, they aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire, but they’re not struggling with the offensive finishes nearly as much, and look a lot better.
Gonzalo Higuaín scored a single goal on 3.43 expected goals last year. He’s already got two goals on 1.48 this season, which is a marked improvement! Federico Higuaín has gone from below the line to above it, Robbie Robinson has done the same, Rodfolo Pizarro is still below-average – but much closer to it – and so on and so forth. A lot of this is just the type of bounceback that happens when you’re a statistical outlier in one direction.
Notably, though, all of those guys are expected to miss the game! I wouldn’t say that means the other guys who will play instead are going to finish at a low rate. But it’s also fair to expect that the creation will be more of an issue. Of course, last year’s star was Lewis Morgan, who has started both games this season after leading the team (by a wide margin) in xG+xA last year. There’s going to be a lot on him individually given the absence of the rest of the offensive talent.
“Neville said Thursday he plans to have his team come out with its same style of play despite the lengthy list of potential absences, but that might just be lip service,” SBI Soccer‘s Franco Panizo told me. “Given that five attackers, including three starters, may be unavailable it seems likely that Neville opts to go with a more reactive and counterattacking approach on Sunday in Nashville.”
“All-in-all, we know that it’s going to be a really tough game,” NSC head coach Gary Smith said. “There’s a tremendous amount of attacking ability in the group. It would seem that Phil Neville has got the group far more-organized, and has started to put his own fingerprints on that team. To what I’ve seen, it hasn’t affected their ability to score goals or create, but I believe there’s a far more disciplined and determined edge to that group than maybe we saw last year.”
On defense, things really came around after the signing of Leandro Gonzalez Pírez. It’s worth noting that keeper John McCarthy – who took over last year when Luis Robles broke his arm – is a career below-average keeper. He allowed 1.19 goals/xG last year (i.e. about 20% more goals than expected), and on low sample size this year, is at 1.34 already. If Nashville’s going to snap out of an xG underachievement, this might be a good opportunity.
“I think by and large that McCarthy is seen as a serviceable option, but not one that is looked at as a long-term solution in goal,” Panizo said. “He has made some very good saves that have largely flown under the radar and turned in some solid performances, but just does not have a ton of playing experience at a high level. That lack of seasoning has shown in some of the errors he has made.”
Style-wise, Miami has been one of the least possession-heavy teams in the league – which may not be a surprise when you ditch a South American manager (Uruguayan Diego Alonso) for an English one (Phil Neville). Will that continue coming to Nashville against the team in MLS with the most passes(!!!!) in Nashville?
Of note, especially since some of the more-unheralded Miami players are going to have to have their chance to shine, a little inside info might not hurt. Enter former IMCF right back Dylan Nealis, now playing for the Boys in Gold. If you need to know some tendencies of a guy who has limited playing time, a player who was on the squad with that guy last year (and through most of preseason this year!) is a good source.
“Yeah, definitely,” Nealis said on the topic. “Well, I think I’ve been reading up that a few guys have been out, so I guess I’ll find out on gameday who’s playing where. Yeah, I’ll definitely give any info I can to my teammates in Nashville, and try to give them the edge on some of the players for Inter Miami.”
The Boys in Gold
Injury/availability report: OUT: M Tah Brian Anunga (quad), F Abu Danladi (hamstring), F Daniel Ríos (foot).
From Nashville’s perspective, this should be largely a “take care of business” proposition. A Miami team that’s decent but not great – and then loses three of its top attackers, and a couple of the players who’d be on the field to replace those guys in a normal world – is not one that you’d think comes into Nashville and takes full points. As much as Nashville’s early-game struggles have been driven by bad luck, they’ve also been the unfortunate consequence of really good players making really good plays.
“I think two of the goals have been unfortunate, and then the Toye goal – you kind of just have to take your hat off: it’s a nice goal, the guy has a really nice finish,” said centerback Dave Romney. “That’s just going to happen in soccer sometimes. Then, even the first goal we gave up against Cincinnati, the guys plays a really, really nice through ball and Acosta flicks it over. It was a really nice place. You obviously can do stuff to limit those plays, but sometimes you kind of have to just take your hat off and say, ‘that was really well done.’”
The talk of Nashville’s slow starts has been nothing short of tedious (my apologies in that regard: fear not, it’s been tedious to write, as well), and you can bet nobody has found it more so than NSC head coach Gary Smith. He’ll certainly set out to prevent an 0-2 hole in this contest over basically any other potential priority in the game.
He wouldn’t be expected to say as much explicitly, of course. But his personality is such that a widely-identified weakness is going to be the thing he wants to take away from the opposition. When said weakness has been something that he prides as a usual area of strength? Even more so.
“I think you could look and you can see one or two little trends within our game in the last two performances, but you don’t become a poor defensive group – a poor group competing – from the type of season we had last year,” he said. “I think there are some difficulties that we have had to endure across the course of preseason, and the guys are still trying to find the right rhythm and momentum. And of course, within that, making good choices and being ready in those opening exchanges.
“Simply put, we’re four games into what would have been a preseason right now, having missed out on so many opportunities. But look: as I’ve said, I’m totally upbeat, very very positive with where the guys are. I couldn’t be happier with the way that they’re playing at the moment. If we were in a perfect scenario, and had kept clean sheets in the early 15 minutes of both games, I’d have been blown away, quite frankly, given the way that things went for us.”
That type of positivity is not something you’d expect to hear out of his mouth unless he’s extremely confident that he has the solution to the identified problem, either. He knows there’s an element of luck that his team will simply get on the right side of if they continue playing as they have been.
Lineup-wise, it’s fair to expect the same things we’ve been seeing, since it’s largely worked out. The question then is who starts at right wing, and given that Joevin Jones has been used a a stay-at-home LB through two games (a single key pass), it’s possible that you can risk a more-offensive player in Handwalla Bwana. That’s particularly true given the firepower in front of Jones that will be missing. Alex Muyl, on the other hand, could be used as an all-field guy with Bwana as a late spark sub if necessary. I would imagine Smith’s focus on defensive solidity early in the game means we get the latter.
Tah Brian Anunga’s unavailability will also give us a test case (hopefully once the game is well-decided) about who the next man up as a central midfield backup will be. It was Matt LaGrassa and Derrick Jones last year, and a week ago we didn’t get a like-for-like replacement with NSC opting to put Luke Haakenson and Dylan Nealis on the pitch when Dax McCarty came off it (Anunga had previously replaced Aníbal Godoy). Maybe Haakenson is that guy, maybe it’s still LaGrassa.
Either way, Nashville’s depth at a position that the team is not particularly well-stocked may get a bit of a test.
Keys to the game
- Ride out the first 15. Obviously.
- Get on the front foot. Your mileage may vary as to whether this is contradictory or a complement to the previous point. Nashville needs to not concede early… but would be even better off getting a lead against IMCF. After the opening exchanges, NSC should try to push to open the scoring.
- Don’t get beat by guys who aren’t stars. Miami has clearly leaned into the DP-heavy (too heavy, at times) philosophy of building its team. That’s certainly one way to get the job done, but it also means that when those guys aren’t available, that there’s quite a bit less star power available. If Lewis Morgan creates a goal, so be it. If like, Josh Penn does… that’s something NSC should be able to avoid more readily.
- Set pieces. A team without much of its attacking punch will be looking for ways to score. A guy like Leandro Gonzalez Pírez has the ability (though not all of his scoring production is set-piece-based) to drag the team up by the bootstraps a bit. Consistency marking defensively on set pieces is going to be a key for Nashville to avoid the fluky goal that we’ve seen in each of the previous two games. On the other end, Nashville’s set-piece reliance was big last year, and using it to the team’s advantage this year is a work in-progress.
Preview material from Miami Herald‘s Michelle Kaufman, and her story on the personnel absences. South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Khobi Price on Miami RB Ryan Shawcross. SBI‘s Franco Panizo was first to break the news of the Higuaíns’ decision to travel back to Argentina, missing this game. The expansion-year rivalry continues. Preview from Broadway.
These teams at full strength would be quite the interesting contest. With a depleted Miami, you never know if they come out with the “nobody thinks we can get it done” type of fortitude that allows them to play above the level of the available players. Based on last year’s playoff win, you may not expect it. That does feel like the sort of factor that Phil Neville is going to be able to unlock more than Diego Alonso ever did.
Nonetheless, the smart move is to not over-assume mentality aspects, and go with what the talent on the pitch dictates:
Nashville SC wins, 3-1.