Nashville’s youth as an MLS team may mean there aren’t true rivalries yet, but the closest thing would certainly be the series against Atlanta United. The opening salvo in the 2021 competition will be fired this weekend.
Opponent: Atlanta United (2-1-3)
Time, Location: Saturday, May 29, 2:30 p.m. CDT (3:30 local) • Atlanta, Ga.
Weather: 72ºF, 0% chance of rain, 48% humidity. These weather conditions may very well be pleasant enough that the MBS roof is opened
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30/NashvilleSC.com (local), ESPN+ (national stream) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Non-nerd stats: 9 points, 1.50 PPG (5th East) • 1.17 GF/gm, 0.83 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.38 xG Power (7th MLS), +0.34 G Power (8th MLS). -0.04 “Luck” (15th MLS) • +0.24 Offense (6th MLS), -0.14 Defense (10th MLS). +0.19 homefield advantage (9th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +222, draw +231, Atlanta United +127
Match officials: Referee: Alan Kelly. Assistants: Adam Wienckowski, Cameron Blanchard. Fourth official: Thomas Snyder. Video Assistants: Fotis Bazakos, Jeff Muschik
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe, and listen to our interview with Atlanta sideline reporter (and host of MLS’s The Call Up) Jillian Sakovits. All the content from last week’s game against Austin FC. All the content from last year’s Atlanta games: (one, two, three). Gary Smith, CJ Sapong, and Alistair Johnston pregame presser. Q&A with LWOS‘s Chris Smith. Get hype with this week’s edition of The Playlist.
Injury/availability report: OUT W Machop Chol, W Jurgen Damm (lower body). QUESTIONABLE M Mo Adams (hernia), M Ezequiel Barco, D Alan Franco (lower body), GK Alec Kann (shoulder).
The Father is back.
Josef Martinez’s (mostly) healthy return from injury is the biggest storyline for Atlanta United this season. Yes, an individual player is a bigger deal than a coaching change and front-office turmoil when it’s this individual player. But is he healthy?
“At the start of the season, it looked like Josef had forgotten how to run properly but now, he’s definitely on the right track,” Chris Smith of Last Word SC told me. “That goal against Inter Miami a couple of weeks back, which was really well taken, seems to have filled him with confidence. He’s also more mobile now and while I won’t say he’s back to he’s best yet, he’s on the right track.”
There have nonetheless been injury issues in the early phase of the season for the Five Stripes, though head coach Gabriel Heinze has said that both mercurial attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco and left CB Alan Franco will be available for selection, despite both being “questionable” on the injury report. Wingers Machop Chol (a depth player in his rookie year) and Jurgen Damm (one of the most expensive players on the roster, but not very good other than being extremely fast) are the only pure “out” players, but probably not major losses.
Atlanta has based out of a 3-4-3 formation so far this year (though there have also been 4-3-3 structures used). That’s something NSC saw against Montreal Impact, but it’s not the typical setup that you’ll see around the league.
“We’ve seen it before with Montreal; it gave us some different pictures to look at, I think,” said Nashville fullback Alistair Johnston. “As a team, I think that we get excited by it, especially I know us fullbacks and us wingers. I think we look at it, as, ‘you know what, we potentially have an overload out wide.’ It’s one of those ones that we’ve played against it, we understand the strengths of the 3-4-3, and we also understand the weaknesses. So it’s going to be all about just playing to our gameplan that we have laid out, and just really taking advantage of those areas that are going to be vulnerabilities when you play three at the back.”
The attack is centered around Josef. It was bad for multiple reasons last year, but not least among them was his absence. He’s actually off to a fairly rough start this year: although he has two goals, one of them was from the penalty spot (in last weekend’s draw at Seattle), and his receiving score in American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added implies that he’s not popping up in dangerous positions – and his teammates aren’t finding him on the instances he does.
The wingers in the 3-4-3 have a hybrid role: they don’t need to get a ton of width (thanks to the wingbacks’ hugging the touchline a bit) so they can play more like attacking midfielders much of the time, while picking their spots to get wide. Marcelino Moreno has locked down one of those spots after impressing to close last season after getting healthy. He’s second on the team in xG and third in xA, so his creation has been solid thus far. The other attacking spot has seen a rotating cast of characters. Erik Lopez – also a primary option when Josef is not available up top – has received the majority of the minutes in the other spot (fullback Jake Mulraney was also playing on the wing before the full-on shift to the 3-4-3), but you have to imagine a fully-healthy Barco will get a run-out, at the very least to try to evaluate if there’s more potential in there before he’s labeled the biggest bust in league history.
“Even though he’s frustrating, Barco is that wildcard player who can offer Atlanta that bit of magic,” Chris Smith told me. “At his best, he’ll turn defense into attack at a moment’s notice and he presses well. They’re two things Gabriel Heinze is trying to install into this team. I doubt he’ll start against Nashville, but he’s a great maverick option from the bench.”
Emerson Hyndman and Franco Ibarra have taken over as the primary central midfielders. You may recall Hyndman from the worldie he scored in Nissan Stadium last year, though G+ hates him so far this season. He’s been poor dribbling, fouling, interrupting, passing, and receiving while coming in slightly below-average shooting. Not great, Bob. The advanced numbers also don’t care much for Ibarra, so it could be a system-fit thing that the metric can’t see through, or Atlanta may not be particularly good.
The width on the left is provided by longtime Great Left Back Hope George Bello, who manages to somehow still be only 19 despite years and years of hype. Brooks Lennon mans the right. Each of them stays on the field (sliding back to fullback in a back four), rather than playing time being dependent upon system. Lennon has been the team’s best G+ player largely by getting involved in the attack, while Bello is near the bottom of the list because he’s struggled in the passing game.
In the back-three, recent signing Santiago Sosa has more often than not played as the middle man, even though the 5-10 Argentine is more naturally a defensive midfielder (and he played as the holder when Atlanta started the year in a 4-3-3). Miles Robinson (right) and Franco (left when healthy) or Anton Walkes flank him. Robinson has been one of the top Goals Added players on the team: the US Youth International is an elite interruptor in addition to being very good on the ball for the position.
“I think trying to put an actual formation to Atlanta is quite arbitrary at the moment,” Chris Smith said. “In possession, Santiago Sosa has been stepping into that deep-lying midfield role to dictate play. He’ll then retreat back in defensive transition to try and keep Atlanta solid.
“Heinze definitely has the side better with the ball, largely dominating possession. While the attack isn’t humming yet, which is frustrating, that possession makes Atlanta tough to hit on the break. And if you don’t have the ball, you’ll struggle to hurt the opposition regardless. Some frustration, but plenty of progress.”
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan is having an outstanding start to the year. He’s only allowed 79% of expected goals, despite facing more rubber than most of the other keepers that are in the ranges of the elite. I’m on the record as thinking he’s pretty washed, and the fact that he’s been slightly below-average for this same ATL UTD team in the past three years could indicate a bit of noise to the data (the teams that have underachieved their finishing against him include Chicago and New England, who have been dreadful regardless of opposition). Of course, if any team’s going to be expected to underachieve its project finishing, that’d be Nashville.
We have limited data on every MLS team at this point in the season. It’s even tougher for a squad like Atlanta, after Heinze implemented wholesale tactical changes a couple games into the year. Are there elements of struggle (or of success) that show in the aggregate numbers that don’t really apply anymore? It remains to be seen.
The Boys in Gold
Injury/availability report: OUT: M Tah Brian Anunga (quad)
“I think this is the first week that we could truly say that, if need be, Daniel’s available. He’s had another very good week, I am very mindful of the fact that Daniel, because of the offseason, has been inactive for four or five months. So, that in itself is something that I do have to consider. But the other thing is Daniel’s record is a very good one.”
As an added bonus, the other long-term member of the injury report, winger Abu Danladi, is also free of it (midfielder Tah Brian Anunga, who played the opener but has been injured since, remains out of action). That’s a real clean injury report, and it also gives Smith some serious options up top.
I would imagine we’re going to see a 4-2-3-1 that’s focused on hitting Atlanta in transition. Nashville’s going to have to sit back and absorb a bit against the most possession-heavy team in the league (fortunately, it’s something this NSC team excels in), and having a No. 10 to connect with the wingers down the sidelines and get speed into the transitions for a lone striker makes the most sense to me. The 4-4-2 might be too defense-first, given the circumstances. It’s also worth noting that in a previous game against a 3-4-3 formation, Smith went with a single striker.
Whoever it is, dude’s gotta score. That hasn’t happened consistently enough this year, with NSC underperforming its expected goals by 3.8 (more than the xG total for Columbus Crew to date!),
“Clinical finishers are the most expensive soccer players in the world, and to have one of those individuals is normally a king’s ransom to get in the team,” said Gary Smith. “But listen: I’ve got some very good forwards here, I’ve got a lot of belief in those forwards, and I do believe, if we continue to make the chances we are, that we’ll see those guys not only come good, but hopefully hit in the sort of digits that we would like to see our forwards hitting, and up there with the contenders at the end of the season.”
“For a forward, it’s always just becoming prolific, right?” added striker CJ Sapong. “And becoming proficient and being that forward that can make that half-chance a goal. The area that allows me to consistently get on the field and feel confident is I know I have total control over the mentality in which I approach the game. With that, I can bring effort. With effort, mostly likely you’re going to push the scales in your direction a good amount of the time.
My bet is what we saw in the playoffs last year – you could fairly say that’s Smith’s preferred lineup, and with no additions this offseason who you’d consider top-XI players – which is to say Jhonder Cádiz getting the start and the likes of CJ Sapong and Ríos available off the bench. If Danladi is indeed healthy enough to be in the matchday squad, his counter-attacking speed is also something that makes you go “hmmmmmm” in a counter-oriented gameplan.
A major factor to consider will be the crowd: it’s gonna be the first full-ish hostile one Nashville has seen… since the Portland game last season? Atlanta is a famously difficult place to play because of those fans. Also because of the realities of playing indoors.
“We certainly encountered one of our own terrific atmospheres this past weekend, and that will serve us well going to Mercedes Benz,” said Gary Smith. “But it is a unique place, you know they do get a fantastic following, and if it doesn’t inspire the guys to drag another five or 10% out of themselves, then I’m not sure anything will. So it’s a game on the schedule that I think everyone licks their lips and looks forward to. If you’re a top, top player, these are the ones that you want to be involved in.”
For Nashville, getting that first road win in the rivalry might just hit a lil different.
Keys to the game
- Don’t let Josef beat you. Easier said than done, right? But if Nashville isn’t providing opportunities for Martinez to get in-behind, or leaving him unmarked on incoming crosses, life gets a lot easier. Simply put, he’s the best player on the team, and over-devoting a bit of attention to him is probably worth the downsides.
- Absorb the pressure. Atlanta’s got huge possession advantages on the year, and Nashville would be unwise to try to change that by relying heavily on a press. If you defend high up the field 1) you’re doing something that’s less comfortable for yourselves, and 2) you’re leaving openings for Martinez and the talented attackers around him to find openings. Joe Willis mentioned after last weekend’s match that the Boys in Gold are very comfortable hanging back and absorbing, and there may not be a game in which it’s a better idea than this one.
- Be precise on the break. Nashville’s attack this year has been stymied for multiple reasons (many of them relating to the final shot itself). One of them has been a heavy touch here, an inaccurate pass there, and spoiled chances to find transition offense. Given that I expect NSC to draw Atlanta forward, opening up that counter-attack, making the most of the resulting opportunities is important.
- Set pieces. Nashville hasn’t scored directly from a set piece this year (Hany Mukhtar’s goal against Montreal and CJ Sapong’s against New England were second-phase balls immediately after a set piece). A Nashville team that thrived on dead-ball opportunities last year could really take advantage of one against an Atlanta team that’s always tough to crack at home.
Dirty South Soccer previews the game. Last Word on Sports looks at how Atlanta uses possession to win games. Josef’s success in MLS has helped other Venezuelans – including Nashville’s own Jhonder Cádiz – see the value in moving to the league. SportsMole preview. Mainstreet Nashville preview. Drake Hills writes in the Tennessean about Nashville’s view that Atlanta is still one of the big boys. Doug Roberson previews the match in the AJC. El Ribereño. Pharma.
Atlanta may not be the better team in an absolute sense, but for Nashville’s second road trip to a very intimidating venue, it’s a tough ask to beat a team with the weapons Atlanta does. If the Boys in Gold had found their scoring boots by this time? Sure. But I would guess Atlanta scores somewhere around 20 minutes into the game, though Nashville finds one on the counter when ATL is pushing forward to put the insurance goal on. However, an NSC team then just trying to hold on for the draw can’t keep Atlanta from finding a winner.
Atlanta wins, 2-1.