Nashville SC

Nashville SC game preview 2021: Atlanta United

Nashville SC clawed back a draw on the road in Mercedes Benz Stadium. Can the Boys in Gold find an even better result in Nissan Stadium with a depleted Atlanta United coming to town?

The essentials

Opponent: Atlanta United (2-3-6)
Time, Location: Thursday, July 8, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 87ºF, 24% chance of rain, 60% humidity, 7mph WSW winds.
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, 1.09 PPG (10th East) • 1.00 GF/gm, 1.18 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.00 xG Power (10th MLS), -0.18 G Power (16th MLS). -0.18 “Luck” (17th MLS) • +0.08 Offense (11th MLS), +0.08 Defense (15th MLS). -0.07 away disadvantage (15th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC -179, draw +305, Atlanta United +507

Match officials: Referee: Joseph Dickerson. Assistants: Jeremy Hanson, Chantal Boudreau. Fourth official: Silviu Petrescu. Video Assistants: Younes Marrakchi, Jeff Muschik.

Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe, and listen to Braden Gall and me as we discuss the rivalry, Atlanta’s injury situation, and how NSC can take advantage of a Soccer City atmosphere. All the content from postgame of the contest in Atlanta, all the content from last year’s Atlanta games: (one, two, three), and the previous Atlanta preview. Gary Smith, Jack Maher, and Brian Anunga pregame presser. Q&A with Sydney Hunte of Dirty South Soccer (and various other outlets). A little tactics talk with guest poster Reid Murray. Get hype with this week’s edition of The Playlist.

Atlanta United

Injury/availability report:
OUT: M Emerson Hyndman (ACL), M Franco Ibarra (lower body)
QUESTIONABLE: F Jurgen Damm (lower body), D Alan Franco (lower body), M Matheus Rossetto (lower body), D/M Santiago Sosa (lower body), F Josef Martinez (fitness).
Int’l duty: M Ezequiel Barco, D George Bello, GK Brad Guzan, D Miles Robinson

Atlanta has gone 0-2-2 since last meeting (0-2-3 if you include the Nashville draw), and this is as roughed-up as the roster has been. Brad Guzan (1), George Bello (2), Miles Robinson (5), Ezequiel Barco (8), Emerson Hyndman (9, despite missing the past four games entirely with his season-ending injury), and Franco Ibarra (12) are among the team’s leaders in minutes played, and that’s just the dudes who are out completely – before even dipping into the “questionable” ranks.

It doesn’t sound like many of the guys who are questionable are expected to see the field, and certainly not in major roles. I have to think Santiago Sosa is the exception to that because of the importance of the role he plays for this team – though he missed last wekeend’s game, ceding to Mo Adams – but it sounds like Josef Martínez can get super-sub minutes at most (the rest are up in the air… but also less crucial to the team’s fortunes). Incoming midfielder Amar Sejdic, who has already played against Nashville twice this season with CF Montreal (six minutes back in April, 77 minutes just last week) could be important.

“Midfield will be an area to watch as well with Barco heading to Tokyo with the Argentina U-23s for the Olympics, Emerson Hyndman out with an ACL, and both Franco Ibarra and Santiago Sosa questionable,” Dirty South Soccer‘s Sydney Hunte told me. “Atlanta have just acquired Amar Sejdic from CF Montréal so he should be ready to help be part of a midfield unit that is extremely thin.”

Of course, the absences are mostly-curse for Atlanta. There may be a blessing in that Nashville doesn’t have a ton of film available on the replacements. It’s the thinnest of silver linings nonetheless.

That’s especially true because basically nobody expects Atlanta to change a whole lot philosophically, no matter who’s available. Gabriel Heinze wants to run his 4-3-3 with the holding midfielder dropping into the backline in the buildup – and the settled offense – and if it’s not Sosa in that role… well, it could be Amar Sejdic with just a couple training sessions? There are truly not a ton of options.

“I think we’re moving into a phase of the season where a lot of teams are going to be utilizing their roster and their squad,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “Lots and lots of players in each group that are off to Gold Cup or otherwise. Yeah, it’s going to be very difficult to determine who’s going to be out on the field. But what I do know is: there’s a style and a vein that runs through that Atlanta group that Gabriel’s developing more and more over a period of time: their possession stats are huge, they’ve got some very good technicians, they’ve still got some really talented players available to step out on the field.”

“I got to play a lot with either Miles Robinson or whoever was loaned down in Charleston,” said NSC midfielder Brian Anunga, who played for Charleston Battery in a time it was Atlanta’s USL affiliate reserve team. “You know, Atlanta United plays the same way, and they have a style of play which is playing out of the back and possession: it’s a possession team. You all have seen it, I don’t think there’s anything that I’ve said that you guys haven’t seen. They just play the same way and they try to bring that up with the academy and all the guys they try to develop that in that system, and that’s just how they play.”

Let’s think defense first, since Anunga brought up Robinson. With Sosa, Robinson, and Bello – none of whom American Soccer Analysis‘s G+ really likes, but I think some of that is due to factors out of their control – the backline (including that hybrid CB) will be… makeshift. For an Atlanta defense that I have slightly below league-average (and if you only look since the slump started in mid-May or so, worse), that’s not good. You’re lookin’ at

“It’d ideally be Alan Franco as the second option behind the usual pairing of Robinson and Anton Walkes, but he’s questionable,” Hunte said. “I’m interested in seeing what Heinze does here: a possibility is a Homegrown Player George Campbell, who looked strong with Atlanta’s reserves en route to a professional contract but hasn’t played since coming on as an injury substitute in the 2nd half of Atlanta’s match against FC Cincinnati last year. But I think the most likely option beside Walkes at CB is Alex De John, who has a wealth of professional experience outside MLS.”

Guzan is bang-average so far this season, so his absence won’t necessarily harm Atlanta, it’s a question of how good the replacement is.

Backup Alec Kann hasn’t played since 2018 – sources indicate that this is less-than-ideal – but has been approximately league average when he has seen the field. His most-extensive playing time came as Atlanta’s starter in 2017 before Guzan arrived, and he allowed 92% of expected goals in that season. Not bad, as long as he’s not rusty.

And now, the big question: what happens up front? I mean, another big question. Because there are many big questions with the version of Atlanta we’ll see tonight.

Winger Marcelino Moreno leads the team in expected goals+assists with just 3.16 (Nashville has four different players eclipsing that number, and a fifth who’s basically right at it), but Josef Martínez sits in third (2.18 xG, 0.08 xA for the ruthless finisher) despite playing well under a third of the season and not looking like himself when he has been on it. The recovery from his ACL tear suffered in Nissan Stadium last year was always going to take time… but Atlanta has not performed at a level that gives the team the luxury to bring him along slowly.

In his absence, it’s been mostly Chivas USA legend Erick “Cubo” Torres up top. While his scoring productivity isn’t impressive (1.69 xG+xA in nearly 500 minutes), he’s, uh, what they’ve got up there after the retirement of Argentina Lisandro López in the wake of his father’s passing.

The most important player for this team right now could very well be right back Brooks Lennon. He’s the team’s leader in Goals Added by a wide margin (Moreno, who’s probably the team’s top offensive threat right now despite verging into the “disappointment” category, is behind him), and thanks to 35(!) key passes, he has more xA than anyone on the team outside of Moreno has combined xG+xA.

If Nashville can scheme to slow that duo down, there will be plenty of opportunity to strike back on Atlanta’s end of the pitch.

The Boys in Gold

Injury/availability report:
OUT: F Dom Badji
Int’l duty: M Aníbal Godoy, D Alistair Johnston, D Walker Zimmerman

While Aníbal Godoy’s journey with Panama won’t continue into the Gold Cup, it’s for reasons that won’t see him able to return to Nashville’s lineup anyway, so his return to Music City isn’t relevant for tonight’s game, and nor is the signing of new DP Ake Loba, given that his single training session will leave him unprepared to make his Boys in Gold debut until next weekend.

So we basically know what we’re getting, and while the injury report is as clean as it’s been in ages (last time Dom Badji played was the trip to Atlanta, when he suffered the bad ankle twist in the first place), with no new additions and guys coming off it. Of course, with Alistair Johnston and Walker Zimmerman remaining with Canada and the United States, respectively, that’s still three regular starters (including Godoy) that need to be replaced. Jack Maher is certain to be the stand-in for Zimmerman, and he’ll also be next to a new face as Johnston is one of his typical passing outlets, as well.

“I think the chemistry’s been going really well,” Maher said. “I think whoever ends up getting the opportunity to play in the back with us, I know will step in and do a really good job. That’s going back to the camaraderie and sheer talent level of this group. Regardless of who ends up making the start with us, I know they’re going to be ready, and I know that, at the end of the day, they’re going to get the job done.”

Anunga will most likely be the replacement for Godoy, though he played it coy at the team’s pregame media availability, mentioning that there are plenty of other midfielders on the squad.

Aside from the international replacements, the lone major question mark for Nashville is a positive one: with as healthy a striker pool as we’ve seen all year – Daniel Ríos off the injury list, Jhonder Cádiz back from Venezuela duty, and CJ Sapong coming off a game-winning goal against Philadelphia – which guy’s going to win the competition to start? Is there a possibility that we see a return of either 3-5-2 of 4-4-2 to get more than one of them on the field at a time.

I would anticipate Gary Smith is most interested in going 4-2-3-1, but there are options, particularly when it comes to papering over some of the holes provided by needing backups for Johnston (I would guess Dylan Nealis gets first crack, though Eric Miller is an option, as well) and Zimmerman.

“As you can imagine, the guys are in a buoyant and confident mood: good victory at the weekend, good performance,” Smith said. “And as you say, a slightly shorter turnaround, and hopefully those emotions are fresh in everyone’s mind, and we can attack this rivalry game against Atlanta in the right physical and emotional shape.”

Projected lineups

Keys to the game

  • Don’t let Lennon and Moreno beat you. Is it a little too harsh to say they’re the only good players available? Probably. But they’re certainly the best two players available.
  • Test the keeper. Even if it’s regular backup Ben Lundgaard rather than former starter Alec Kann, you’re getting a guy who’s fairly rusty, and probably not particularly good anyway. Put a bunch of shots on that guy, and even if only a few truly test him, you’re at-worst getting a rebound or two out of it.
  • Compete physically. A lot of the players Atlanta will have available are talented but young (or otherwise inexperienced). If Nashville shows that they can’t get by on pure physical intensity – because the Boys in Gold are matching it – you stand a really good chance of seeing them wilt.
  • Set pieces. I mean I always say it, right? They’ll be important on both ends without set piece ace Walker Zimmerman on the pitch, though.
  • Send waves of pressure. This is similar to the above point about goalkeeping, but with a different reasoning. Atlanta doesn’t have a ton to push back with (though they do have individuals capable of moments of brilliance), so the opportunity cost of pushing numbers forward is not as high as it might otherwise be. As long as you keep an eye on Lennon and Moreno to avoid the counter from those two specifically, there’s some margin for error.

Elsewhere

Dirty South Soccer previews the game and a story on the arrival of Sejdic. Sydney’s lineup preview. Will passion and confidence bring the Five Stripes back where they expect to be? Broadway preview. Preview material from Coming up Golden. Paradise Pod. Pharma.

Prediction

This is an incredibly weakened Atlanta team, but I think there’s some legitimate reason to fear Nashville SC playing down to an opponent. Nonetheless, that means a strike from the blue for the Five Stripes (screw it, I’ll just say Lennon-to-Moreno connection since I’ve shouted them out a few times), and probably not a ton of competitiveness as long as Nashville is ready to play.

There’s an interesting “hunger” situation with NSC too, given the sudden logjam at striker that guys will want to prove their place in, as well as a few backups needing to step into the lineup. Bigtime “vibes,” uh, vibes with the positive feelings around a major win last weekend, a new signing, etc. I see a goal for Randall Leal in the first half, one for Jhonder Cádiz shortly after halftime – Atlanta’s goal cutting the lead to 2-1 here – and then finishing it on a set piece with Dan Lovitz serving it to the head of Dave Romney.

Nashville SC takes the 3-1 victory.

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