Nashville SC has not lost yet this season. The Boys in Gold have also not won though! Will one of those change this weekend, or does it remain draw city?
Opponent: New England Revolution (2-0-1)
Time, Location: Saturday, May 8, 12:30 CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 69ºF, 17% chance of rain, 55% humidity, 4 MPH Easterly wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30 (local TV), ESPN+ (local stream), NashvilleSC.com (local stream) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats (2020): 32 points, 1.39 PPG (8th East) • 1.13 GF/gm, 1.04 GA/gm
Nerd stats (2020): +0.56 xG Power (2nd MLS), +0.24 G Power (9th MLS). -0.32 “Luck” (23rd MLS) • +0.17 Offense (7th MLS), -0.39 Defense (2nd MLS). -0.87 away disadvantage
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +122, draw +254, Inter Miami +214
Match officials: Referee: Victor Rivas. Assistants: Claudiu Badea, Jeffrey Greeson. Fourth official: Katja Koroleva. Video Assistants: Ricardo Salazar, Jeff Muschik
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe. Checking in with Tanner Rebelo of Trifecta Sports to get up to date on the Revs. Press conference video and transcript with Gary Smith, Dax McCarty, and Aníbal Godoy. Coverage of previous games against the Revs.
New England Revolution
Injury/availability report: OUT: Colin Verfurth, Luis Caicedo (lower body). QUESTIONABLE: Christian Mafla, Ema Boateng (lower body)
On the basis of the gap between their expected goals and scored goals (normalized for the opposition), New England was one of the unluckiest teams in the league last year. Despite that, the Goals power rating (backward-looking, less-predictive) was still in the top 10 in the league, barely lower than the eighth-place finish they had within the East alone. Oh, also they only got 788 minutes out of attacking midfielder Carles Gil, one of the best players in the league. Simply repeating last season’s underlying metrics would make this one of the elite teams in MLS.
“New England fans have high expectations for the 2021 Revolution following the 2020 MLS Cup Eastern Conference Final appearance against Columbus,” said Trifecta Sports‘s Tanner Rebelo. “With a healthy Carles Gil and some key depth additions the expectation for New England is to make a serious run at the MLS Cup.”
Although New England is one of the teams that had the most roster turnover this offseason, what the Revs do under Bruce Arena is not going to change. Nashville SC remembers the two hard-fought draws against New England last year. Whatever the difference in personnel, it’s going to be similar in practice.
“We know we play against New England, a tough team,” said NSC midfielder Aníbal Godoy. “Not like a different thing as last year, they have the same players. They changed like 2-3 guys maximum. They don’t change a lot. They have the same shape, they have the same energy, they move the ball well: they don’t change a lot.”
With Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou up top to finish chances – when Bou’s healthy, at least, after missing last weekend’s game – there’s a lot to like about the upside of the offense when Gil is added to the mix. Of course, there’s also a lot of room to go up. Bou led the team in expected assists while playing slightly miscast as an attacking midfielder at times. Allowing him to take that responsibility off his plate probably allows everyone to find more success.
That all comes down to Gil’s health. Gary Smith quickly pivoted to talking about some of the other attacking talent when I asked about it. But that seems a specifically-designed deflection of sorts.
“He was back fit and healthy for the playoffs for them, and for their final competitive games,” he said “But he certainly has impressed me in these first couple of fixtures. He looked very, very bright and effective in the Atlanta game this past weekend. Anyone with the sort of technique and talent and creative impetus in a game is always going to be a worrisome factor. He certainly will be one individual for us to keep a close eye on.
“But look: the center forward [Adam] Buksa, I don’t know whether [Gustavo] Bou will play, and [Tajon] Buchanan on the flanks is also another very, very talented wide player who certainly can hurt any group in those isolated 1v1 situations. So lots and lots of areas of creativity from their group.”
“Carles Gil is one of the best players in the league,” added captain Dax McCarty. “He’s their focal point, everything good that they do usually goes through him. If he has time and space on the ball, you’re in trouble. He’s going to pick out the right pass, and make dangerous chances for them. Their strikers are clinical.”
Moving back in the formation, you have the makings of an elite defense. Indeed, the Revs had the second-best xG-against defense in the league last year. Only Seattle’s (which was much better) was higher-regarded. As you see with Nashville, it starts with elite play in central midfield to protect an already-strong backline.
“Matt Polster has been the most consistent player on this Revolution team thus far,” Rebelo said. “His play in the defensive midfield has allowed for the right-backs to comfortably make deep runs. Polster has also helped nullify opposing team’s abilities to counter-attack. New England does have a very strong defense like Nashville. From the goalkeeper on up this is a team that works hard on defense. Whether that is Andrew Farrell making a goal saving clearance or Carles Gil working back to his own 18-yard box on defense.”
When you augment that with one of the best goalkeepers in recent MLS history in Matt Turner (he allowed just 73% of expected goals last year), you’re going to have a real good time. His impact on the game – as measured by the difference between defensive xG power and G power – was not that large, but it’s largely because the margins on which he can improve an already-elite defensive output are pretty slim.
Altogether, you’re looking at a team that… probably shouldn’t feel like it finished behind Nashville in the table last season. The luck factor played a big role, of course. Nonetheless, with more of the same plus a healthy Carles Gil, strides forward from an already-good team… are the reason I ranked the Revs No. 1 in the Eastx in my predictions.
“They are one of the most complete groups, I believe, in the Eastern conference: capable of not conceding, capable of competing, difficult at both ends of the field on set pieces. Also incredibly talented in creating their own opportunities. IT’s going to be a real tough game. We know from last year that they’ll come, they’ll want to go and force the issue. They’ll want to get on the front foot, and I’d expect nothing less than maybe the most difficult encounter we’ve run into.
The Boys in Gold
Injury/availability report: OUT: M Tah Brian Anunga (quad), F Abu Danladi (hamstring), F Daniel Ríos (foot)
The book on Nashville at this point is clear: this team simply loves to draw. The first 15 minutes of each contest remain an adventure, even if the opponent doesn’t score. Joe Willis had a couple nice saves against Miami in the opening seven minutes, and they didn’t get a shot on-target again. Cincinnati broke through twice – including a penalty conceded by Willis – and didn’t have a single other shot on-target. Montreal’s scoring was a little more spread out (the second goal didn’t come until the 42nd minute), but the team had its feet under it after a rough start, at least.
So why is it happening, and what can Nashville do to fix it?
“There’s two things that I think stick out to me: one has to do with our team, Nashville,” McCarty said. “I think we have lacked sharpness in the first 10-15 minutes. I think that we have been a little bit loose with our technical ability on the ball. I think that we’re giving other teams the incentive to come and be more aggressive, and to try to press us, and to try to punish us because of our mistakes. That’s something that we need to clean up. I’m not going to sit here and make excuses for why that is. I think that there are reasons for it, but at the end of the day, we are better then what we’ve shown in the first 10-15 minutes of every game that we’ve played. There’s no question about it.
“And the other major aspect of that is I think that with how we played last year, and the – I guess mantra, that we sort of achieved for ourselves when it comes to being a difficult team to play against, not being an easy out, I think, for a lot of teams in the league: we have garnered a little bit more respect, and with that respect comes other teams trying to say that they want to be on top of the game when they play us.”
If Nashville can start to begin games without that rough patch, the Boys in Gold should be in a pretty good spot. Without finding the back of the net last week – against a Miami team that packed it in after not finding the opening breakthrough – there was still a lot to like.
“I think we’re in a very good place with regards to creation,” Smith said. “We had good territorial advantage, possessional advantage, and managed the game well last weekend. However, against a more resilient and slightly deeper Miami group than weeks before. It became a tad more difficult to find multiple opportunities to score. But I think somewhere in between the real extreme of Cincinnati and maybe last weekend is where we’d like to slot most weekend. I don’t see any reason, with the guys that we’ve got, that we can’t.”
The major issue, of course, is that Nashville hasn’t yet won a game. Yes, that also means a lot of overlooking the fact that they haven’t lost a contest. Four points is four points, and quite frankly I think if Nashville had beaten Cincinnati and earned a draw in one of the past two weeks, the “must-win” discussion point wouldn’t be the same this weekend even though the point totals would be the same.
Either way, finishing a four-game home-stand with just 3-6 points is not ideal. It’s also not the end of the world. The club has every intention of making it the latter, not the former.
“I don’t think it’s up to our standards that we’ve set for ourselves as a club, and I think that with a very front-loaded home schedule, we need to be picking up positive results and three points at home,” McCarty said. “And it’s not going to happen every time, but certainly with the way that we played, I think, the majority of these first three games, I would have expected us to pick up at least seven points, but that’s not the case.”
With as healthy a lineup as has been available this year, just putting a 90-minute performance together could change the narrative.
Keys to the game
- Take charge in the first 15. Last week, Nashville broke its streak of conceding early in games. This week, an upgrade from “surviving” to “thriving.”
- Dominate set pieces. Against a New England team that’s getting a lot of its scoring from them, both the offensive and defensive end of the pitch are going to be crucially important.
- Production from the front line. Not that the front four has been unproductive so far this season, but keeping that up (and not relying on service from the wings) will help create more-dangerous opportunities. You probably need such levels of danger to beat Turner. So here we are.
- Ride the home crowd. It will be fascinating to see if today’s announcement about coming games injects a little bit of excitement into the fanbase. If they can really get going, it may very well give a wave of momentum (that, uh, will see the team play at home once in the next month) to the squad.
“This is a game that changes with the first goal” is typically lazy analysis, but I think for these two teams, it rings true. They’re both defense-first teams whose gameplan and style is going to change a ton if they aren’t locked into a scoreless draw.
Alas, I think they are.