For the first time this season, Nashville hits the road. Can the Boys in Gold take down Real Salt Lake?
Opponent: Real Salt Lake (2-1-0, 8th place West)
Time, Location: Saturday, May 15, 8:30 p.m. CDT • Sandy, Utah
Weather: 70ºF, 0% chance of rain, 29% humidity, 9 MPH NW wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30 (local TV), NashvilleSC.com (local stream), ESPN+ (out-of-market) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats (2020): 22 points, 1.00 PPG (11th East) • 1.14 GF/gm, 1.59 GA/gm
Nerd stats (2020): -0.21 xG Power (19th MLS), -0.46 G Power (22nd MLS). -0.25 “Luck” (21st MLS) • -0.37 Offense (23rd MLS), -0.16 Defense (20th MLS). -0.12 home disadvantage
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +177, draw +220, Inter Miami +162
Match officials: Referee: Marcos de Oliveira. Assistants: Jeff Hosking, Jose da Silva. Fourth official: Elijio Arreguin. Video Assistants: Edvin Jurisevii, Mike Kampmeinert
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe. Some of the key quotes from our conversation with Brian Dunseth, transcribed. Press conference video and transcript with Gary Smith, Randall Leal, and Alex Muyl. Get pumped for the game with some tunes in The Playlist.
New England Revolution
Injury/availability report: OUT: M Everton Luiz. QUESTIONABLE: D Aaron Herrera, D Marcelo Silva
Real Salt Lake started the year on a nice little high, beating Minnesota United on the road and then pasting Sporting Kansas City back in Utah. They came down a little bit with a loss to San Jose Earthquakes last week – particularly painful because they held a 1-0 lead in the 83rd minute before being Wondo’d. Certainly the more-mixed results of Minnesota United and Sporting Kansas City (the former picking up its first result at the midweek, the latter just 2-2-1 so far this year) contextualize the opening stretch of the year a bit more.
Nonetheless, a team that finished a point off the bottom of the West last year has to be happy with wins, no matter who they’re against – RSL got just five of them in 22 games last year, after all. Nonetheless, from the outsider’s point of view, low expectations were warranted. A little closer to the team, though, you can see the trajectory was headed in the right direction.
“I’ve been using a team analogy that this team is similar to what the Columbus Crew was when [Tim] Bezbatchenko and Caleb Porter got there: the Haslams buy in, Dr. Pete Edwards buys in. Next thing you know, you add a Lucas Zelarayan, you add a Darlington Nagbe, and all of a sudden you’re an MLS Cup Champion. Dependent upon the right owner – if there’s an owner that comes in and you’re willing to spend $5 million on acquisition per-player – all of a sudden you’re in a different bracket.”
That’s not to say this is the year Salt Lake goes on to win MLS Cup. But despite being in a situation where the league has taken over after forcing famed racist Dell Loy Hansen to divest from the team, things are a bit brighter than you may expect.
Rubio Rubin is the notable name this week. The former US International is still just 25, despite a bit of a journeyman career that’s seen failed stints in Europe and Mexico (and some significant injuries). If not for the great Wondo-ing to render it moot, his goal last week would have been the talking point of the entire league.
Finally healthy – and trying to get a grip on the job before another former US International, Bobby Wood, arrives this Spring to compete for the striker position – Rubin is performing at a level that has RSL fans very excited.
“Rubio’s just a great kid, man,” Dunseth said. “He wrecked his foot and his ankle. It stopped him from international appearances, brought him back – you don’t sign for Tijuana in Liga MX unless you’re a good player – and I think that all he wanted was the opportunity. I think out of all the big-name players: three games, three goals, two assists? Rubio’s phenomenal, what he’s done so far. He’s the first pure No. 9 this club’s had since Alvaro Saborio. It’s a guy that can hold the ball up; he’s not going to run into channels and get away from centerbacks, like he’s right there. All of his goals have been really, really high-level goals.”
He’s equally comfortable scoring for himself or assisting, with 0.50 expected goals per 96 minutes played this season, complemented by 0.40 expected assists. His actual assist rate is right along with expectations, but it’s worth noting that his goal-scoring is converting at nearly 2.5 times expected. Will that come down to earth? Anecdotally, you don’t expect a dude to nail overhead kicks on the reg. Statistically, he scored seven times on just 2.41 expected goals in USL Championship last year, so he greatly overachieved xG in that league, too. It’s a very small sample size, though (just 344 minutes!), so take it with a grain of salt. Lake of Salt. I dunno.
The only other players who are above zero in American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added metric are right back Andrew Brody (who has played in the stead of banged-up starter Aaron Herrera), attacking mid Damir Kreilach (who joined the squad as a holding mid, but has contributed throughout the center of the pitch, including at striker, in three-plus years), and defensive midfielder Pablo Ruiz. As with Rubin, plenty of their statistical-profile résumés are based upon small sample size: Kreilach and Ruiz were very poor for a very bad RSL team last year, while Brody was with the reserve team in USL.
Kreilach is second on the team in xA/96, with winger Justin Meram coming in a solid No. 3 (among guys with any playing time to speak of). Winger Anderson Julio doesn’t have a key pass yet this year, but is actually producing more xG/96 than Rubin – much of this came against the terrible Minnesota team, though. There’s some ability here, and only (very) small sample sizes prevent us from knowing what’s statistical noise and what will be consistent.
The backline and goalkeeper are newsworthy for this squad, particularly if you’re a fan of US Youth National Teams. Herrera, centerback Justen Glad, and goalkeeper David Ochoa were all key contributors to the US U-23 team’s Olympic Qualifying effort (and ultimately failure) in Mexico back in March.
They’re key members of this team, and regular starters. A week ago, they were even joined by a couple less-heralded (and older) Homegrown players in left-back Donny Toia and CB Erik Holt to mean the entire back five came up through the RSL system.
“I mean, they started against San Jose [Herrera missed due to injury but would have started]: back four and goalkeeper were all Homegrowns,” Dunseth said. “It’s really mind-blowing when you think about it. Then on top of that, they’ve identified kids that are MLS caliber, but not MLS starter – and that’s the tough part.
“Of those three, I would say Herrera is at the head of all three, because I think he’s adaptable to play on either side, left or right. But he picked up a hamstring injury against Sporting Kansas City. Ochoa, I believe, his ceiling is a US Men’s National Team starting goalkeeper. Glad, I think is going to end up being more like a Nat Borchers or even a Walker Zimmerman: he’s going to get a cup of coffee with the national team. Going to be MLS lifers for the most part, but not necessarily full international-caliber starting World Cups.”
Glad is not popular in the USMNT/YNT-viewing world, and it may not surprise folks coming from that side of things that he’s the team’s worst G+ performer so far this season (he was below-average but not awful last year). Herrera is obviously less than 100%, and per the injury report is “questionable” after missing last week’s game.
As a member of Costa Rica’s U-23 team, Randall Leal has a bit of familiarity with RSL’s American contingent, having played against all three in Guadalajara.
“I always try to see against who I have to play, you know,” he said. “I know the right back is Herrera and he was playing with national team for USA in this tournament in Mexico. We know a little bit – I know a little bit of them. But also he knows about me. This is good, it’s going to be a challenge always to try to beat him, and also he tries to do the same. We try to not focus on one player, you know? We try to do what the coach wants, and try to give the opportunity to win this game.”
Ochoa is a very good player, and someone I’m very high on. After a season-opening dustup with Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath (managerial record in MLS: 61W-76L-35D) who called him a bad player after Ochoa had a little sportsmanship snafu, kicking the ball into the MNUFC supporter’s section after winning in St. Paul. I’m firmly team Ochoa in this one, though he has been a below-average keeper in his time in MLS (by a goals allowed/xG allowed metric), and also in his USL minutes, despite a championship to his name in 2019.
“He’s in that one position that, when the ball hits the back of the net, you’re gonna hear a lot of s–t-talking,” Dunseth said. “He’s going to get it from his own fans – he was already a target [for opponents]. I think now, you can play that role, and it’s totally fine. If that’s who you want to be, awesome. I’m here for it. But you’ve now given a pass to every fan in any opponent’s stadium to come after you, and know there’s an opportunity to get underneath your skin.”
Certainly, you can look at the results to date and see an RSL team that is much-improved. But taking the squad item-by-item,
The Boys in Gold
Injury/availability report: OUT: M Tah Brian Anunga (quad), F Abu Danladi (hamstring), F Daniel Ríos (foot)
Not much has changed for Nashville: the injury report is the same, the production on the margins was basically the same last week as the early-season averages, and this is still a team run through the middle with keeper Joe Willis, a centerback pairing of Dave Romney and Walker Zimmerman, and a central midfield pairing of Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty running the show.
At the same time, everything has changed: the team played without CAM Hany Mukhtar for the first time this season, which meant playing a 4-4-2 for the first time. The first win is finally under the squad’s belt, and now after a four-game homestand to begin the year, they hit the road to play at altitude.
It’s that last factor that will be a talking point if there’s any sort of visible fatigue. What you shouldn’t expect is that winger Alex Muyl will be the one feeling it.
“Obviously when you go to altitude it can be really tough: it’s something that you really feel it,” he said. “But I’ve been there many times in my career: I’ve been there, I’ve been to Denver. I’ve played at altitude before and it definitely does affect everybody. My mindset is that, ‘yeah, there’s going to be tough moments, there’s going to be a lot of moments of fatigue, but everyone’s going through it.’
“I know eventually you catch your second wind, you catch your third wind, and you just basically have to push yourself as much as you can. I’m not sure if my meterage or whatever that would be – the output – will be the same, but I can promise you that, as far as everyone else on the field, I’ll still be doing the most. I just might be everyone’s doing a little bit less.”
It’s not just the altitude, of course, the travel itself is novel to this Nashville SC team in 2021. Of course, they traveled a lot last year (and in more-trying circumstances with day-in travel, which they won’t have to suffer through for this one). It’ll be an adjustment to the routine this squad has been able to settle into, but not super-damaging to their chances.
“The one thing that we have to be mindful of is that it is a longer journey, and the longest one that we’ll have to undertake this year,” said head coach Gary Smith. “We’ve got some support and help for the guys in terms of clothing to wear, food, etc. that we have to just think a little bit more thoughtfully about. Aside that, there’s not really an awful lot to change.”
The more-practical question will be how Nashville lines its team up to play. The 4-4-2 was a success last weekend. Is that because it’s a better overall fit for the Boys in Gold? If so, how does Designated Player Hany Mukhtar fit into the lineup? Are the starting strikers once again Dom Badji and CJ Sapong? I don’t know if these are quite “embarrassment of riches” problems, but certainly the fairly settled tactical decisions of a year ago have more flexibility with some healthy strikers if RSL’s weaknesses line up right.
“Last weekend, I think, gave us a little bit of a peek behind the curtains of what it looks like to have two up top, and what that pairing can offer us,” Smith said. “I was very happy with what happened at the weekend. I really would love to see Jhonder [Cádiz] up there with one of those two guys as well. I think any forward wants to be with a partner, but in the modern game, more often than not, they end up on their own. So it can be a thankless task on some occasions when you’re on your own.
“Hany’s very, very capable of playing other positions. So I’ve got some really nice decisions to make. It’s always better being in a spot where you’ve got choices, and good ones. And I certainly have that.”
I do expect a 4-4-2 once again. However, I don’t know that it’ll be long-term – it’s a formation that makes sense trying to earn a draw or nick a game-winner on the road – nor that Smith has all the answers for how it fits into Nashville’s big picture.
“We’ve played with a 10, predominantly in Hany – Randall’s been in there of course, and a couple of other guys – it certainly gives me food for thought now, dependent on who we’re playing, where we’re playing, and what we may need out of a game,” Smith explained. It’s given me and the group a hell of a lot of confidence to play a slightly different shape, and to be very, very happy and comfortable about what we may get out of it.”
For one more week, it feels right.
Keys to the game
- Be ready to absorb pressure. Although Real Salt Lake is hardly the most formidable offensive team in the world, but Nashville wants to get settled in for its first foray onto the road.
- Get shots on target. I’ve noted that I really like Ochoa’s potential… but the numbers don’t really lie: he’s a below-average MLS goalkeeper at this point. Forcing him to make the saves is probably worth the risk of an offensive opportunity fizzling out. This one calls for Leal bombs.
- Attack the centerbacks. This is why I think the game calls for a 4-4-2: as with New England, the centerbacks here are OK-to-good… but they’re pretty slow (less so if Silva is playing over Holt, but he ain’t winning any Olympic sprinting medals, either). Getting strikers into the channel right next to them and running in-behind could be fruitful.
- Maintain composure and stamina. A first trip is going to be a challenge this Nashville team isn’t used to. Playing at altitude is something… they haven’t done in the NSC era.
On the pod, I expressed skepticism about Nashville SC’s ability to get a result. After a closer look at RSL, I’m not so sold on this team. I certainly see mechanisms through which they win. But more realistically, I lean toward a draw or a one-goal Nashville win. In the name of optimism…
Nashville wins, 1-0.