Nashville SC left it late, but got the job done against Toronto FC in the midweek contest. Can the Boys in Gold make it a double-dip against Canada by knocking off CF Montreal?
Opponent: CF Montreal (3-3-3)
Time, Location: Saturday, June 26, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 84ºF, 1% chance of rain, 51% humidity, 10 MPH Southerly 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: 12 points, 1.33 PPG (9th East) • 2.00 GF/gm, 1.00 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.48 xG Power (28th MLS), -0.31 G Power (20th MLS). +0.17 “Luck” (8th MLS) • -0.23 Offense (20th MLS), +0.25 Defense (18th MLS). +0.34 away advantage (11th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +104, draw +244, CF Montreal +540
Match officials: Referee: Jon Freemon. Assistants: Ian Anderson, Eric Boria.
Fourth official: Ted Unkel. Video assistants: David Gantar, Walt Heatherly
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!), and a little bit of relevance from Wednesday’s postgame, as well. Get hype with this week’s edition of The Playlist. Preview and pregame Q&A from the previous Montreal game. Coverage from that game.
Injury report: OUT: F Erik Hurtado (hip), M Romell Quioto (hip), M Ballou Tabla (groin), D Joel Waterman (hip)
Suspensions: D Zorhan Bassong (red), M Victor Wanyama (yellow accumulation).
That’s a fairly healthy list (no pun intended) of unavailable players for the Impact*. Hurtado played over 30 minutes last time these teams met in Nissan Stadium, Quioto got over 75, Bassong closed things out with the final 10, and Wanyama went the distance. That’s over two full 90s that will have to be accounted for this time around (Wanyama are also second and seventh on the team in minutes played this season to date).
There’s also plenty of production to replace: Montreal has scored just four goals (against Miami (x2), Cincinnati, and Chicago, whom you may note are three of the worst teams in MLS) since the last time these squads played, and Quito assisted two of them, while Zorhan and Bassong provided the assists on another. A lot of the responsibility of offensive creation is going to fall on attacking midfielder Djordje Mihailovic, while strikers Bjørn Maars Johnsen and Mason Toye may very well be asked to do plenty themselves.
Here’s what I wrote about the tactical setup last time:
New head coach Wilfried Nancy prefers a 3-5-2 setup with CAM Djordje Mihailovic sitting behind strike duo Mason Toye and Romell Quioto. It’s worth noting that one of those guys (Quioto, who joined in advance of the 2020 season) was on this team last year – the other two joined on trades from Chicago Fire and Minnesota United, respectively. Each scored, and it’s worth noting that each has been a reasonably consisted xG overachiever, so there may be some replicability to the offensive output from a week ago, even with meager expected goals.April 23
Toye and Johnsen are like-for-like guys who haven’t played together a ton – it’s usually a like-for-like substitution, with Wilfried Nancy preferring to play them alongside a more creation-oriented striker in Hurtado or Quioto – but with both those guys unavailable, we may very well see both big strikers together, with the onus of creating from the 3-5-2 falling on Mihailovic (a disappointing 1.62 xA, second on the team) and the wingbacks.
Of course, we saw in the previous game in Nashville that one of those wingbacks, right-sided player Zachary Brault-Guillard, can be a goal-scoring threat (albeit with a little bit of luck), and as you might expect from a back-three formation, he and his counterpart on the left are responsible for getting involved in the offense. That doesn’t typically mean a ton of crosses (though one of those players on the left, Mustafa Kizza, is in the top 25 in the league in completed crosses despite being a part-time player), but look for them to get forward. The other player on the left is Lassi Lappalainen, who’s less offensively-dangerous than Kizza but also less a defensive liability at times.
Here’s what Alex Muyl had to say about playing against a 3-5-2 last time out:
“There’s going to be different areas where we’re vulnerable, and different areas where they’re vulnerable,” said Nashville’s Alex Muyl. “With wingbacks, you always have to be ready to see whether they’re pressing on and whether they’re sitting back, and that’s really going to affect you as a winger. Ultimately you have to find the space and find the soft spots in the other team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Montreal comes and we see a completely different setup to how they set up against Toronto. I think that for us, it’s gonna be about preparing as much as we can, but when you get out there, you just have to basically play what’s been given to you.”April 23
With Wanyama unavailable, the midfield partner to Samuel Piette is likely to be Ahmed Hamdi, who has backed up both Wanyama and Piette over the course of the season. Like both of those guys, he’s mostly a stay-at home guy, but unlike them, he’s not good at defense when he does it.
Montreal wants to possess in midfield, but there really aren’t the pieces to both do that and create offense. I’ll be interested to see if Hamdi can provide a little bit more forward play in the place of Wanyama. He’s not gong to defend as well, so you might as well get something out of him.
By crowding the midfield, they can try to tiki-taka their way down the field, certainly. But Samuel Piette and Victor Wanyama are not forward-playing CDMs, for the most part, so fast-break offense is not going to necessarily be initiated by that duo. Despite being a converted winger, Mihailovic isn’t much of a dribbler for the CAM position, either.April 23
Progressing the ball from back to front looks like a problem for the Impact regularly… and more so with the short-handed nature of today’s available players.
The back three has been fairly consistent this season: Kamal Miller, Rudy Camacho, and Kiki Struna left-to-right. However, Miller has been struggling with a hip injury at times – even missing Canada’s World Cup Qualifiers – which had placed Waterman into the starting lineup. With Waterman unavailable (worth noting that the French prose on the report lists him as day-to-day, so he may not be out-out), there’s no telling what the backup plan is if Miller’s hip acts up at all.
Clement Diop has been a very good keeper this year, allowing just 88% of expected goals. Some of that is the team setup: a ton of opposing shots have come from headers, which is at times a natural consequence of the 3-5-2 setup (more bodies in the middle inspires teams to whip in crosses rather than pass through a thicket). Headers are inherently more difficult to score than shots with the ol’ footpieces.
Overall, this is a struggling team that’s without two lock starters, and three or four other guys who would start in other circumstances. Given the way Nashville’s last game against CF Montreal played out, anything other than a win would be a massive disappointment.
* Yes I’m gong to keep calling them that. Take a lesson from the Crew, y’all.
The Boys in Gold
Injury report: OUT: F Dom Badji (ankle). QUESTIONABLE: M Luke Haakenson (hip)
International duty: Jhonder Cádiz (Venezuela)
I’m not expecting Walker Zimmerman back in the lineup just yet after the Tuesday birth (a couple months premature) of his son, Tucker. That provides another opportunity for second-year CB Jack Maher, whose comments after Wednesday’s game provided a bit if insight into what he can and can’t replicate out of Zimmerman’s game.
“Walker is an absolute beast in the air,” Maher said. “I think that was something that we were missing today. Knew that I could step up on a set piece, and found a way to help out whatever way I could.”
Given the nature of Montreal’s formational choice and available personnel, this may very well be a game where “absolute beast in the air” is something Nashville needs. I don’t know that anyone available can provide it in place of Zimmerman (on the assumption he’s out for this one), but Maher may be the best bet. Another option? Responding to a back-three with a back-three of Nashville’s own, putting Jalil Anibaba, Dylan Nealis, or Eric Miller at a RCB position.
It would lead to a boring game – and Gary Smith certainly views this one as an opportunity to excel, not a case for pragmatism, so I don’t see it happening. I still do worry about how NSC will handle the aerial and rebound ability of Johnsen, mixed with a goal-getter type (who is 6-3 himself) in Mason Toye.
With Daniel Ríos and Tah Brian Anunga off the injury report, this is some of the best depth Nashville has had since the season kicked off. Here’s what Smith said about them Monday.
“I think one or two of them are going to run it close for Wednesday. Brian Anunga and Daniel Ríos probably being the two closest to Wednesday’s game. And then I would suspect all three of them [Badji, who is out, was the third] are not going to be far away from being in contention for the Montreal game.”
I would anticipate Ríos is brought along somewhat slowly, since he’s had persistent injury issues in his USL and MLS careers so far. But an appearance off the bench to prepare him for future contests is probably wise. Nashville does have just a couple games before the international transfer window officially opens (July 7), so it might behoove him to try to put his stamp on the forward position before the competition for playing time gets even more fierce.
All told, the absence of Zimmerman is such a wrench in the works that it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from Nashville SC. That’s the consequence of missing out on the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. However, there are options for Gary Smith when it comes to like-for-like replacements and tactical adjustments, and outside of his and Jhonder Cádiz’s absences, this is as close to full availability for first-choice (and top-backup) players as we’ve seen in some time.
Keys to the game
- Win in the air. This is going to be a major task with Zimmerman unavailable and Bjørn Johnsen patrolling for the opposition. Indeed, it’s going to be the way that Montreal is most-able to spring an upset: get something funky in the air (whether run-of-play or set-piece) and hold on for dear life.
- Make Mihailovic a shooter. I generally tend to shy away from “give the opponent’s attacking midfielder more space than usual”-type gameplans, but he’s not a great dribbler, and would much rather distribute than shoot for himself. If it means you have the opportunity to shut down other areas of the game (and prevent him from creating dangerous chances for his teammates), you go for it.
- Hit in transition. Montreal is generally a kinda weak team in transition, because they have to throw a few numbers forward to make up for lack of offensive ability. With a defensive midfielder and the best creative strikers out, they both will be less-able to recover, and less-able to generate the offense without getting forward.
- Test the backline. One reason I like starting CJ Sapong over Daniel Ríos? Even without taking into consideration the ease-back from injury, Sapong is a physical battler (and maybe a little less clinical), and can work hard in hold-up play and even run in-behind. Let him work those guys for 65 minutes or so, and decide from there what sort of substitution you do (or don’t) need offensively.
- Set pieces. I say it most weeks, and after a couple key ones Wednesday, I’d be remiss not to include it this weekend.
I mentioned on this week’s edition of the podcast that Gary Smith doesn’t like to lose to the same team twice, and doesn’t like to lose the same way twice. Given that this Montreal team was already lucky to get a result in Nissan Stadium once, and is significantly weakened this time around, it should go better for Nashville.
Montreal gets on the board first, however, with a Johnsen hold-up header to Toye over Maher giving the US Youth International a chance to shoot from range. Just as he did last time, he curls one home. From there, it’s all Nashville. Sapong gets fed in-behind and lays off for Randall Leal to dunk home in transition and Dave Romney gets a set-piece header before halftime.
After the break, Alex Muyl adds his second goal in Gold by cleaning up a rebound after a dangerous moment in the box, and Nashville SC cruises from there.
Nashville SC wins, 3-1.