The Boys in Gold got four points out of last week’s Canadian double-dip. It doesn’t get any easier with the reigning Supporters Shield winner coming to town.
Opponent: Philadelphia Union (5-2-4)
Time, Location: Saturday, July 3, 7:00 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 80ºF, 1% chance of rain, 51% humidity, 5 MPH Northerly 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: 19 points, 1.73 PPG (3rd East) • 1.36 GF/gm, 0.91 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.16 xG Power (7th MLS), +0.41 G Power (6th MLS). +0.25 “Luck” (8th MLS) • +0.13 Offense (10th MLS), -0.04 Defense (11th MLS). +1.48 away advantage (!!, 1st MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +100, draw +233, Philadelphia Union +296
Match officials: Referee: Robert Sibiga. Asisstants: Jason White, Gjovalin Bori. Fourth official: Alyssa Nichols. Video assistants: Ismir Pekmic, Eric Weisbrod
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe, and listen to our interview with Jonathan Tannenwald. Gary Smith and Dan Lovitz pregame presser (video and full transcript!). Get hype with this week’s edition of The Playlist.
OUT: M Jack DeVries (concussion), M Ilsinho (groin), M Anthony Fontana (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: M Alejandro Bedoya (calf)
This looks like – and in some ways is – a pretty significant injury report for the Union: while DeVries hasn’t seen the field this season (and only got sparing time with the senior team last year), Ilsinho is meme-level in terms of his ability to be a late-game super-sub, Fontana is expected to be one of the candidates to step in and replace the departed Brenden Aaronson as a creative midfielder, and Bedoya is a former US International who plays a key role as one of the shuttlers in Philly’s 4-diamond-2 scheme. However, Ilsinho’s famously unable to play big minutes anyway, and Fontana has been in and out of the lineup this season. If Bedoya is healthy enough to go, Philly isn’t missing much.
The diamond midfield allows the Union to press and possess. They won’t be quite as aggressive in the former as NSC saw against New York Red Bulls a couple weeks ago. But the possession part is also an important piece that Red bull couldn’t bring.
“The broader strokes of the situation is just that they’re a team that’s consistent in how they defend and how they attack,” said Nashville SC defender Dan Lovitz. “They’re basically one in the same, and they’ve had a consistent continuity about the group whether that’s personnel, but more stylistically that makes it a little bit easier to pick up on. Again, they do it incredibly well.
“But it’ll be a different look. We don’t expect it to be the diamond midfield that you see against Red Bull, which is incredibly high-octane. I think Philadelphia – no disrespect to Red Bull – has a little bit more soccer-playing ability and can be a bit more methodical in how they go about and be effective. Just to be aware of those areas that they look to accomplish a lot of that.”
We’ll start at the back, since keeper Andre Blake and both members of the CB pairing in front of him – Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes – have all played every minute of the year so far. Blake is performing at an elite level so far this year (allowing goals only to 66% of xG against), and is routinely one of the top goalies in the league. When the shots you face are generally low-value (0.248 xG per shot on-target), goalkeeping is a little easier. That’s not to take credit away from Blake, but rather to note that Elliott and Glesnes are performing extremely well.
Glesnes is perhaps best-known for his rocket shots from distance, but he’s an elite interruptor, according to ASA‘s goals added, and the rest of his component scores are just fine. Elliott is the best G+ player on the squad (Glesnes is No. 3 with Bedoya between them), and is a near-elite interruptor who’s also extremely solid in all the other pieces of the score, including passing and dribbling – which are going to be a little more relevant for the position than shooting items, though he is a set-piece threat. It’s obviously not idea to lose Mark McKenzie to Europe. The timing was right for Philly to not miss a beat.
Kai Wagner (left) and Olivier Mbaizo (right) have been the preferred fullbacks lately, though there’s decent depth with Alvas Powell and Matt Real among those who will cycle through. Both Wagner and Mbaizo are solid defensive players who are ball-secure, but not particularly involved in the offense (though as is often the case with a diamond midfield, they need to provide wide cover in defensive postures, and get some opportunities out of the press).
German-American midfielder Leon Flach – who was left of the US Gold Cup roster, to his vocal frustration – has been groomed as the holding midfielder at the base of the diamond. He’s actually graded out as the team’s worst G+ performer by a wide margin, but I think that’s an area where the metric can’t quite tell the whole story. He’s about average in dribbling, fouling, and receiving (i.e. getting into good spots for teammates to pass him the ball), below-average in interrupting and shooting, and waaaaaay below average in passing. Some of that is the nature of playing a really difficult role in a system that asks a lot of the lone holder. He’s still completing just 75.4% of his passes on the year, and the difficulty of those he’s being asked to execute would anticipate a 76.3% rate: he’s getting a tough ask given the position, and not performing well in it.
Flach has also played a bit of the left-sided “wide” midfielder opposite Bedoya, with Jack McGlynn and Jamiro Monteiro the other Union players getting significant time over there. McGlynn is extremely ball-secure, while Monteiro’s numbers are hard to parse because his other primary position is the No. 10 at the tip of the diamond, which has a very different ask than being a shuttler on the sides. With Fontana out, I would imagine it’s Monteiro at the top and McGlynn on the left. A wildcard in the midfielder is José Martinez: he’s been away with Venezuela, but is back after La Vinotinto crashed out of Copa América (same thing bringing Jhonder Cádiz back to Nashville). He generally plays as the holder, and if he’s ready to go, could put Flach or McGlynn on the left and leave the other on the bench. There’s also a new starlet in town, as is tradition…
Up top, Kacper Przybyłko has been the go-to guy, earning the plurality of the minutes, with Sergio Santos and Cory Burke rotating at the other spot (and rotating in for Przybyłko, as well). He leads the team with 3.17 xG and had three goals to show for it, and also has an assist on 0.93 xA. Burke has four goals on 2.53 xG – a small sample size, but a quick check shows he’s a career above-average finisher, which is something to watch – and Santos has just one goal, but is producing xA at the highest per-minute rate of the three (though he gets the least playing time).
Philly is one of the MLS teams getting it right in terms of developing and purchasing talent, and finding the balance between selling and winning.
“I do think it goes without saying this is one of the top teams in MLS,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said. “I have to say that over a period of time, Jim [Curtin]’s done a terrific job with this group. I’ve got to say, it can’t have always been easy. I think we’re seeing the reward for an organization that have supported their coach incredibly well. They’re getting young players through a wonderfully talented youth system, Jim’s integrating those players at the right times with very good experienced players, and the reward for that is a consistently-successful team that play a style of football that is incredibly competitive but also very exciting.”
There are some cracks inherent in the 4-diamond-2 formation (epic throwback here), though obviously Philadelphia has designed its program around developing talent for that system in recent years. Philly is the third-most interrupting-happy team in MLS, and despite the pressing reputation, only fifth when you restrict it to the opponent’s end of the field. If Nashville can get the ball out of its own end, there may not be a ton of offensive opportunity… but the Boys in Gold won’t be shipping chances to the Union, either.
The Boys in Gold
OUT: F Dom Badji (ankle)
Aside from the injury suffered by Dom Badji in the Atlanta United game, Nashville SC is healthy as can be, and more importantly, has its full complement of international players for the first and last time in a while (Jhonder Cádiz is back from Venezuela duty, while this will be the final game for Aníbal Godoy, Alistair Johnston, and Walker Zimmerman before they join Panama, Canada, and the USMNT, respectively, for the Gold Cup). It would behoove the team to take advantage of that situation while they can.
While some teams try to shift their tactical approach to handle the Union’s diamond, it doesn’t sound like Nashville – though it does have options – will do that.
“I’m comfortable – and so are the group – with the way that they’ve been playing,” Smith said. “We’ve had two very good performances in the last two home games. The players have been positive and energetic and really upbeat in their outlook, but it’s always nice to have that added string to your bow.”
Look for a full-strength team in the typical 4-2-3-1. It’s the finishing (NSC has scored 4.25 goals fewer than expected) that has been the problem. Obviously, there’s not a ton that the team can specifically do other than finish better and continue creating chances.
As I’ve noted numerous times in the past, the guys finishing poorly are not below-average finishers for their careers in MLS. Coincidentally, CJ Sapong had his two best and two worst seasons finishing-wise during alternating years with Philly, but even the worst one to-date was a 43.4% “finishing rate” (G/xG), and he’s mired at 30.3% right now – sample size effects are having their way with him at this point. Sample sizes cut both ways with Cádiz, since he got limited time last year, as well, but he was great in 2020 and bleh so far in 2021. You can go on and on down the list.
“As always, [we need] to be aware of where we can implement what makes us very good offensively,” Lovitz said. “And look to be a little bit more – I don’t want to say aggressive, but I think just to have some teeth in the final third I think would do us a whole lot of good in a game like this.”
If some of the finishing issues are down to luck, rather than something inherent to the talent (as I’ve just shown I don’t believe is the case) or the system (a little more unknowable, but also seems unlikely), NSC could be poised for an offensive breakout. By nature, that’ll be unpredictable.
Keys to the game
- Harass non-Bedoya midfielders. Obviously much easier if Bedoya does not play (though as you can see above, I expect him to)! While this team is a heck of a lot more skilled in the passing game than were Red Bulls, there are plenty of folks in the midfield who can be forced into mistakes by taking away passing options and giving them a little something to think about.
- Set pieces. Obviously, these have been massive in the past couple games. With the expectation that Walker Zimmerman is fully back, Nashville should be a little more dangerous offensively, and a little more sound defensively. Against elite teams, those can be equalizers.
- Smart passes. This… was a problem last time Nashville faced a true pressing team in NYRB (though Toronto’s half-in approach didn’t give the Boys in Gold too much trouble). That largely comes down to the presence of Aníbal Godoy versus one of his backups, so this could be an area that goes well!
- Make life easy on Willis. There have been three Joe Willises this year: the one that almost literally (or in the case of the RSL game, literally) does not have anything to do in terms of shot-stopping, the one that makes an epic goof to give up a goal in an otherwise-solid performance, and the one that gets worldie put on his face with not much he can do about it. At the very least, NSC should make Philly earn the goals with world-class strikes.
Nashville has settled into a rhythm of playing fun, up-and-down games. That is… for better or for worse. The finishing on either end determines if that’s good or bad on the final table.
The game ends in a 2-2 draw.