The first half of a two-match week comes to pass this evening. Nashville SC will show a little southern hospitality to some visitors from Canada. Will they end up with a reputation as rude hosts?
Opponent: Toronto FC (1-5-2)
Time, Location: Wednesday, June 23, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 76ºF, 1% chance of rain, 51% humidity, negligible wind
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: 5 points, 0.63 PPG (12th East) • 2.00 GF/gm, 3.00 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.03 xG Power (11th MLS), -0.27 G Power (19th MLS). -0.30 “Luck” (20th MLS) • +0.35 Offense (4th MLS), +0.32 Defense (20th MLS). +0.57 away advantage (6th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +104, draw +244, Toronto FC +268
Match officials: Referee: Ramy Touchan. Assistant referees: Andrew Bigelow, Ian McKay. Fourth official: Elton Garcia. Video assistants: Alejandro Mariscal, Jonathan Johnson
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe, and listen to our interview with Paul Vance. Gary Smith, Alistair Johnston, and Joe Willis pregame presser (video and full transcript!). Q&A with MLS Multiplex’s Connor Somerville. Get hype with this week’s edition of The Playlist. Game story from last year’s playoff win over the Reds.
Injury report: OUT F Achara (knee), D Julian Dunn (hip), F Yeferson Soteldo (thigh)
Things… are not going well for TFC. Despite years of success under head coach Greg Vanney, he was dismissed following Toronto’s playoff loss to this Nashville SC team. In came Chris Armas – himself a fired name, let go by RBNY – as Vanney moved along to Los Angeles Galaxy. Blending a Red Bull coach with an aging team is going to see some growing pains, and lo, Toronto is six points out of the playoff positions at this stage.
To add injury to insult: USMNT striker Jozy Altidore is not with the team (telling a 30-year old star to get lost is one way to make the team younger, I guess), while Venezuelan winger Yeferson Soteldo is out with a thigh issue. That’s two of three Designated Players out of the squad at the moment.
Of course, the third one is kind of a big name, and the primary reason that TFC has been able to put up borderline-elite offensive production. Alejandro Pozuelo was last year’s MLS MVP, and while his production is not at MVP levels, he’s still the most-important player on this team. The attacking midfielder has no goals (on just four shots) and one assist (on 1.45 xA, so the counting numbers are undervaluing his contributions a bit). Part of the reason for his struggle is supporting cast – and it’s worth contextualizing that struggle, as he’s still the highest goals added performer for a TFC attack that’s among the league’s best – without Altidore and with others still finding the game. They may well be coming around, though.
“The obvious one would be Canadian American striker Ayo Akinola,” MLS Multiplex‘s Connor Somerville told me. “He’s struggled a little bit this season, but he bagged one on Saturday against Orlando and has been pretty healthy of late. He had a real breakout season last year and can do a lot of damage with his physicality and athleticism.
“Another guy is Jonathon Osorio. The Canadian midfielder also scored on the weekend and is pretty creative with the ball at his feet. He’s someone who can be a bit of a dual-threat as both a scorer and as a setup guy. The final one I’ll go with is Richie Laryea. Another Canadian, Laryea loves to get involved in the attack from full-back and is very dynamic on the ball. He’s someone who’s going to challenge the Nashville backline and cause a lot of problems.”
Nashville SC defender Alistair Johnston is fresh off a multi-week Canadian Men’s National Team camp with Osorio and Laryea.
“I think what I would be looking for as a fan with those guys is: look how intense they are, and just how important every single touch of the ball is to them. They hold everyone to such a high standard, and that was one of the coolest parts about being down in Canada,” he said. “I think that’s something that you see throughout that Toronto group, as an older, really mature team that has had player that play at such a high level, and player in massive matches both internationally and domestically. I think that’s something I would look out for with TFC and those guys in particular.”
It’s the defense that’s been a bigger problem for TFC. The advanced numbers call it the No. 20 defense in MLS, and from a goals-against perspective, it’s even a little worse. That often comes down to goalkeeping, and it hasn’t been great for TFC! Alex Bono began the year as the starter and has allowed 12 goals on 10.83 expected goals. After joining the team’s training camp late, last year’s starter Quentin Westberg got his first start over the weekend against Orlando City. He allowed three goals on 0.34 xG (not great!), and obviously sample-size issues apply in a major way, but he was bang-average last year, so it’s unlikely that he’d be a game changer.
And lo, there is a goalkeeper controversy.
“Last Saturday was Westberg’s first competitive start since November of last year, so some of the errors he made can be written off as rust, but it was worrisome and he wasn’t good enough to start the game,” Somerville said. “The expectation going forward, however, is probably that we continue to see Bono start. He seems to be Armas’s go-to, especially considering Saturday was Westberg’s first game and the errors he made, despite most people preferring Westberg as TFC’s regular starter.”So it isn’t great, The defense in front of the keepers hasn’t been horrible, particularly given the transition pains of installing a press-first scheme with a 33-year old version of Michael Bradley among your key players. Taking into account his decreased mobility and the demands of pressing regularly, there’s been some onus on others to do some triage work. Midfield partner Marky Delgado has been largely a non-factor there, so at centerback, former US International Omar Gonzalez has done a ton of it.
Given the names you see there, it’s easy to foresee a bit of defensive upside if the goalkeeper situation gets a little more settled. Still, for the time being, this is an attack-driven squad.
“They’re a good team: they have a lot of attacking pieces that can hurt you,” said Nashville SC goalkeeper Joe Willis. “So defensively, we’re going to have to get back to what we’re used to, and keeping clean sheets and staying organized. They’ve had an up-and-down year, but teams like that are especially dangerous because they’ve got to go for it at this point, and they’ve got to start throwing caution to the wind and trying to score goals.”
Shut down the attack, and you have to feel pretty good about finding a crack or two in the back.
The Boys in Gold
Injury report: OUT: F Dom Badji (ankle), F Daniel Ríos (adductor)
International duty: Jhonder Cádiz (Venezuela)
Friday’s loss to New York Red Bulls revealed a couple cracks in Nashville SC’s team that maybe weren’t previously apparent: while we already knew the defensive unit wasn’t as stout as last years, the inability to retain possession through midfield is always difficult against Red Bull, and it was borderline nightmarish without Aníbal Godoy available.
He’s expected to be back, and top CDM backup Tah Brian Anunga is also off the injury report for the first time since Week One, so NSC is coming into quite a bit more available quality there than previously. Indeed, there’s more health generally, when you also take into account that Walker Zimmerman was pulled precautionarily.
“Walker’s in a really good place,” NSC head coach Gary Smith said. “Delighted that he didn’t have any reaction to the game on Friday. There was some concern when he went into the game as to how he would a) cope with the rigors of matchplay, given his difficulty, and then of course the reaction to it. But he’s in a really good spot – he’s trained today, no issues, so that’s great news.”
The other major crack we saw was the inability to consistently have any sort of hold-up play in a game where it was needed. The help there may be a little farther off. While we mentioned on this week’s podcast that an attacking signing is on the way, Nashville won’t get Dom Badji or Daniel Ríos back from injury, and Jhonder Cádiz is still away on international duty with Venezuela.
How that applies against a Toronto FC team that hopes to be a bit of a Red Bull-light (you don’t hire Chris Armas if that’s not at least in your medium-term plans) should tell a lot about Nashville SC’s upside this season. If the team can make some adjustments to the aspects that didn’t work five days ago, and look a lot smoother with Godoy and/or Anunga on the pitch, I’d have to expect that expectations swing from a trough after the first loss of the year to a high of seeing the Boys in Gold right back in the playoff race.
Keys to the game
- Move Bradley side-to-side. Toronto is going to leave him exposed a bit, because that’s what happens when you press bodies upfield. He’s always going to be a high-motor guy, but the pure footspeed to recover if he’s pulled wide (or needs to cover wide) is not what it was a half-decade ago. One way to get good looks against this TFC team is to clear the midfield a bit.
- Make Gonzalez make tough decisions. He’s sort of foul-prone – just two yellow cards away from a suspension for accumulation – and if you can get in-behind or otherwise make him spooked that he has a foul-or-goal decision to make , there’s either going to be an opportunity to get him in trouble, or a chance that he tries to avoid caution because he’s aware of how important it is to not get more.
- Get physical with Pozuelo. Toronto FC knows from important mighty-mite creators (Sebastian Giovinco served in essentially the same role before Pozuelo did), and knows that opponents are going to do what they can to shut him down personally. Nonetheless, Nashville has the right type of central midfield to try to at least slow him down a bit – the physicality of Godoy and energy of Dax McCarty, for example – and if they can do that, it makes life tougher for the attack to connect.
- Don’t let attackers in-behind. The way in which RBNY was able to go over the top (a weird set piece) was not something that’s necessarily replicable. But from Toronto FC’s perspective, if Pozuelo is unable to pull the strings to the degree that they traditionally need, getting Akinola in-behind, or Laryea overlapping along the wings, etc. Don’t let that happen.
- Test the keeper. I think the advanced numbers are a little less kind to the keepers than they should be – some of what they’re facing has perhaps been under-valued by expected goals – but they say this group is OK at best. Bono is a slightly below-average career guy, while Westberg is right on average. A Nashville SC team whose production has faded a bit could use the jolt of a big goal.
This Toronto FC team isn’t very good, but as implied in the bullets above, the confidence in this Nashville SC team has similarly waned recently. If the RBNY result can be a roadbump, rather than a slump-starter, this squad is in position for a nice run here.
CJ Sapon gets the team off the mark early, finishing a nice cross from Randall Leal with a header. Leal adds one of his own from outside the box before halftime. While TFC responds with an Akinola finish midway through the second frame, Nashville seals it with Zimmerman’s first of the season on a set-piece header.
Nashville SC takes a 3-1 win.