A fine result on the road (though the aesthetics left something to be desired), and Nashville SC’s early-season concentration of home games is back. The Boys in Gold host the new kids in town Sunday evening.
Opponent: Austin FC (2-3-0, 10th place West)
Time, Location: Sunday, May 23, 8:00 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 82ºF, 0% chance of rain, 44% humidity, Negligible wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: FS1/Fox Deportes (national) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats: 6 points, 1.20 PPG (10th West) • 1.0 GF/gm, 1.4 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.01 xG Power (11th MLS), +0.22 G Power (9th MLS). +0.21 “Luck” (10th MLS) • +0.03 Offense (10th MLS), +0.02 Defense (10th MLS). No home games yet.
Vegas odds: Nashville SC -130, draw +250, Austin FC +390
Match officials: Referee: Chris Penso. Assistants: Kathryn Nesbitt, Chantal Boudreau. Fourth official: Elton García. Video Assistants: Kevin Terry Jr., Eric Weisbrod
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe. A look at Austin with Chris Bils of The Striker Texas. Gary Smith, Dan Lovitz, and Matt LaGrassa press conference on the game. Ian Ayre on the lifting of most capacity restrictions and more. Footage from NSC training.
Injury/availability report: OUT: D Hector Jimenez (knee), F Aaron Schoenfeld (knee), M Ulises Segura (knee), D Ben Sweat (knee)
Austin is, for obvious reasons, a squad we know a lot less about than the average MLS side: Verde has played just five MLS games, all on the road. That’s not a broad base of data upon which to build conclusions. We can point to a couple key points/assumptions, though: that longtime Gregg Berhalter assistant Josh Wolff is going to have similar ideas to those his mentor employs with the US Men’s National Team, and that what we’ve seen of Austin through five games is largely going to hold true at least for game six.
Austin has scored five goals (against 6.0 expected – given the opposition played, it’s barely underachievement), and has given up seven (against 9.69 expected, which is a lot of overachievement thus far). With a profile like that, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that this is a risk-taking, high-flying – or wannabe high-flying, at least – tactical approach.
“I would say that this Austin team have created quite a nice identity already in the way that they play,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “The energy, the enthusiasm, and of course the technical quality that they have throughout the group has given them, I think, a bit of a shape and a picture already. They’re very dangerous going forward. Their 4-3-3 shape is clear and concise. Are players within that shape still trying to work each other out? I’m sure.
“They are dangerous, they throw caution to the wind, they play with a very cavalier approach. To a large degree, to a lot of people, that looks good, and has been successful for them at this point. But I think you’ll find that for one reason or another, they’re either going to win or lose games [i.e. no draws]. They leave themselves very exposed.”
The reason that hasn’t turned into a bit more output on the scoreboard to date is not only that minor underachievement in finishing as noted above. There’s also been some disappointment when it comes to the performance of the top signings in generating more, which has led to a reliance on wide service.
Winger Cecilio Domínguez has been the slightly less-disappointing of the duo, with two goals on 1.47 xG thus far. He doesn’t have any assists, however (and has only six key passes to 11 shots – he’s a scoring winger, not a creator, and often folds inside from the left to receive that wide service). The other, attacking midfielder Tomás Pochettino, has been a bigger worry. Not only has he failed to contribute to a goal on nine shots and six key passes (0.98 xG+xA), Austin’s offensive breakout against Colorado Rapids – in which three of the team’s five goals on the year were scored – came with him sidelined due to a short-term visa snafu with the league.
“It’s still early, but I think it’s fair to expect more from Cecilio Domínguez and Tomás Pochettino than what they’ve given,” said The Striker Texas‘s Chris Bils. “Domínguez had somewhat of a breakout in the second half against Colorado, and Pochettino has had a few flashy moments that haven’t resulted in any goals. Wolff is right to point out that international players often take time to adjust to MLS, but fans might start getting antsy if they don’t see more from the DPs when Q2 Stadium opens.”
Austin is keeping its powder dry with that third DP spot being saved until the summer window – when the longer-term needs are more clear – but if both could step up their game a bit, it would go a long way toward making this squad a playoff contender. In the meantime, former New York Red Bull Jared Stroud came off the bench for half an hour in the opener, and has been a lock-starter on the right ever since. He has no goals, but two assists to show for it, leading the team with 1.71 xG+xA.
That group is complemented by a rotation of starter Danny Hoesen and backup Jon Gallagher at striker. The 6-1, 180-pound Hoesen is a bit more of a physical mismatch than the much-smaller Gallagher (5-9, 155), and he has a longer MLS résumé. However, his returns have dropped off precipitously in the past few years. He peaked with 12 goals and three assists on 13.13 xG+xA as a full-time starter for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2018, and got much less playing time and converted less (though on similar per-minute production) in 2019 before barely seeing the field last year. Austin’s bet is that more playing time sees him maintain the xG+xA and get the finishing luck to pay it off. Gallagher has performed better so far as his understudy, but missed last weekend’s game with injury.
Moving backward in the formation, former NYCFC holding midfielder Alex Ring is back in that role with Austin, while rookie Danny Pereira and former Revs homegrown Diego Fagundez have rotated at the box-to-box central midfield position, while filling in for both Pochettino as the more attack-y type and Ring as the more defend-y of the midfield three. Ring was out last week with a red-card suspension, and it was Pereira starting as the holder. ASA‘s Goals Added is not fond of Pereira one bit – his defensive interrupting (an important part of being a holding midfielder!) and either passing to or receiving in dangerous areas (important parts of being any other variety of midfielder!) are particularly weak. He could improve rapidly, given that he’s just two years removed from high school, so one could contend Nashville is catching him at the right time.
There’s been hearty rotation along the backline, much of it due to injury – and those injuries also clear up any mystery, at least on the edges: Ben Sweat and Hector Jiménez are unavailable at LB and RB, respectively, putting Žan Kolmanič on the left and sealing Nick Lima (who is first-choice over Jiménez anyway) on the right. In the middle, Matt Besler and Jhohan Romaña are first-choice, though Julio Cascante has some backup action (and started in place of Besler when the vet didn’t travel to Colorado as his wife gave birth).
So about those fullbacks: they get into the offense. Three of the top seven players on this team in xA play the position (Kolmanič is No. 2, Lima No. 5, and Jiménez No. 7 in all of 64 minutes this year). The majority of Austin’s key passes on the year have come from wide areas, and in large part from crossing out of those FBs. That… should leave some opportunities for Nashville attackers – and even NSC’s own fullbacks to overlap.
“They take chances, and they want their fullbacks very high,” Smith said. “They want to try and be as aggressive as they possibly can be. And they leave themselves exposed. Now on some occasions, that pays dividends. On others, they’ve paid the price for that.”
“Generally speaking, I think we’ve identified some things that Austin may look to do that they’ve sort of shown in their first group of games that maybe give us an opportunity to exploit,” added Nashville FB Dan Lovitz. “That’s not to assume that they’re going to present the same formation or whatever going into this game, but just things that we can focus on, I think.”
Keeper Brad Stuver‘s allowing 1.13 time expected goals for his career in NYCFC and Columbus (and and now this year). However, he’s playing more this year than he ever has (he’ll double his career minutes by July), and allowing just 0.92 of expected goals – quite good. We’ve seen with Joe Willis that simply being in the right situation can see a keeper reach and maintain new high levels for performance, even later in his career. However, the expectation for Nashville has to be that he’s the replacement-level keeper that has been on display throughout his career.
Overall, Austin is about where they should be. In fact, the outcome of this game feels like it depends more upon Nashville, than upon the Verde. Austin has not only won but outperformed the average MLS team against the weakest opposition (Colorado and Minnesota), and not only lost, but underperformed the average MLS team against the three stronger sides. There certainly won’t be accusations of playing down to – or yet up to – the competition.
“Josh Wolff and the players will tell you they feel they should have more than those two wins,” Bils said. “They’ve certainly been in every match, which isn’t something I think a lot of people expected. But overall, I think six points is probably about right for how they’ve started.”
The Boys in Gold
Injury/availability report: OUT: M Tah Brian Anunga (quad), F Abu Danladi (hamstring). QUESTIONABLE: Walker Zimmerman (ankle)
I sort of ended the previous section with a tease – where does Nashville fit into the big picture of the league? – so let’s answer it. On the basis of expected goals in comparison to the expectations against the opposition played, NSC is third in the league (better than each team Austin has seen thus far except for SKC). On the basis of conversion, the Boys in Gold have been extraordinarily unlucky on offense, and reasonably unlucky on defense, and would be closer to the Colorado/Minnesota group. A Nashville SC team that converts at a league-average rate (to say nothing of getting a bit of luck) would be borderline elite. But we haven’t seen it yet (for what it’s worth, Nashville was on the “lucky” side of the ledger in finishing last year, so I wouldn’t say there’s anything endemic to the system or players that has led to the disappointment to this point).
“I think the team’s in a really good place, obviously,” said midfielder Matt LaGrassa. “But none of us are satisfied with what we’ve done so far. I think we want to continue to grow, and continue to get results, especially at home, now that we’re coming back home.”
The somewhat-surprising newsbreak last night – and yes, I’m sort of burying the lede here, is that the reigning MLS Defensive Player of the Year, Walker Zimmerman, is questionable. He’s obviously an extremely important part of what Nashville does on both ends of the pitch, so if he’s not ready to go, the potency on set pieces is diminished, as is the ability to have a guy cover the amount of grass he does defensively. Jalil Anibaba is the first man up there, but the depth gets tested quickly with sophomore Jack Maher or MLS newcomer Robert Castellanos (or possibly even right back Eric Miller, who has filled in there at times, but more in a back-three situation) in a position to be ready.
Up top, we heard after last week’s game that the 4-4-2 formation is a bit more of a situational thing, and that was not only reiterated yesterday, but Smith alluded to a positive performance review for Hany Mukhtar‘s cameo, and that likely spells a return to the 4-2-3-1 (barring a back-three to provide more CB help in Zimmerman’s absence? I don’t expect that but it’s a distinct possibility).
“We’ve rarely played with a front two, but that game alone has given the team, coaching staff, everyone around the group a different perspective, and a bit of a lift,” Smith said. “And certainly an appreciation that if we need to go to that, that’s something that we feel a lot more comfortable about, even if it only ends up being a bit of a Plan B. So we’ll see. But Hany’s in training, and Hany’s been great. He was terrific when he came on last weekend. He understands the situation, there’s a lot of competition in the group, players have done well, and he’s doing his very utmost to be part of the group this weekend.”
Up top, I think a single-striker formation is another chance to Jhonder Cádiz to get back into the starting lineup. Daniel Ríos is back to practice (see the practice footage linked above), but Smith mentioned he won’t be available for selection this weekend, even though he’s not on the injury report.
The other big storyline heading into tomorrow evening’s match will be the crowd. It’s gon’ be a biggun:
“My best guess right now is opening day this season, we were just over 15 [thousand].” said club CEO Ian Ayre. “We’ll definitely be beyond that. I really couldn’t – we’re beyond that now – I really couldn’t say what the number will be. What I do know is that we’ve seen really encouraging activity for our ticketing team, and we’ve seen a lot of pickup in the last couple of days, which all trends in the same way as we saw back in last February.”
We shall see how a massive crowd affects proceedings. You could almost say that the limited crowds last season helped fuel NSC’s us-against-the-world mindset at times, and having a packed house won’t necessarily help (though it also wouldn’t hurt, of course).
NSC has been good at home – of course, the team has barely left home – but as noted at the top of this section, that hasn’t always meant results. We’re early enough in the year that focusing on process (especially when the process has served the underlying metrics very well) is more important. Sooner or later you expect things to even out – it’s easy to say the results haven’t been good enough while acknowledging that both Montreal goals and the second for Cincinnati are all low on the replicability scale – though obviously it’s impossible to predict when that happens.
“Our home form’s been very, very good to this point. The guys have been able to balance, more so, the qualities of creation and of course making life difficult for other teams and the defensive duties – more than certainly we did last year. I think we’ve given ourselves a really good platform to work from.”
Putting it all together at some point makes Nashville an elite MLS side. It’s inherently unknowable if that’ll come to pass until it actually does.
As you can see, I think Walker Zimmerman manages to play this weekend, even if he’s not quite 100% and ultimately gets subbed off. If he doesn’t play, a 3-4-3 wouldn’t surprise me. Given that Austin’s weakness is along the flanks (rather than inside the penalty area), a formation that provides offensive-zone width instead of overwhelming numbers in the box makes sense to me.
Keys to the game
- Let’s get physical, physical. (Olivia Newton-John voice). Alex Muyl is going to be a really important player in this game – and it makes even more sense in hindsight that he came off against RSL. He’s the most brutish defender among NSC’s attacking players, and his ability to body those dangerous left-sided players so Austin can’t combine in space over there is going to be important.
- Hit the flanks. The corollary to the above is that Austin’s going to throw those wide players forward in an attempt to create in NSC’s zone. They may do less of it than we’ve seen of them so far (playing against a team of Nashville’s style on the road imparts a certain gameplan on you), but the Boys in Gold have to be ready to hit those wingers into space on progressive passes.
- Solid at the back. This wouldn’t typically be something Nashville needs to key on, but if Walker Zimmerman is less than 100% (or out completely), the marauding style and coverage he provides won’t be there. If Nashville needs to be a little less progressive with the central midfielders in order to take responsibility off Zimmerman’s plate to be rangy, so be it.
- Pick shots wisely. Certainly Stuver’s performed above his career numbers so far this year. You can expect that not to continue all you want (though teams were likely saying the same about Willis last year), but it would be wise to not give him some easy saves to get into the game and build confidence.
The Striker Texas‘s Phil West takes a look at Nashville SC, and Chris Bils previews the game. Do the teams have the same philosophy in their builds? A preview from Capital City Soccer. Final Third Pod previews. Local news in Austin (the local ABC affiliate has an Austin FC-specific podcast! It’s incredible what coverage a team gets when it treats its media well). Austonia preview. Something called SportsMole looks at the game. Preview-type substance with a roster-build overview from Drake Hills, and the Austin Chronicle on the same topic. The Austin American-Statesman takes a look at Nashville SC.
I think Nashville is much closer to the LA/LA/SKC category in terms of overall quality than it is to the Colorado/Minnesota cohort. The issue is that NSC hasn’t been able to convert at a solid rate (while opponents converted above xGA for the first two games, and have obviously been shut out since). Assuming the team snaps out of that mini-funk – again, inherently unpredictable – the Boys in Gold represent the far better team on the day.
Nashville wins, 2-0.