Nashville welcomes a talented-yet-star-crossed team to Nissan Stadium this evening. There’s an argument Chicago Fire has turned the corner though… here’s what to expect.
Opponent: Chicago Fire FC (3-7-2)
Time, Location: Saturday, July 17, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Tailgate: From 4:30 p.m. in Lot R with the Backline
Weather: 81ºF, 42% chance of rain, 68% 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)
Recent form (most recent first): W-W-D-L-L
Non-nerd stats: 11 points, 0.92 PPG (12th East) • 1.00 GF/gm, 1.67 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.15 xG Power (16th MLS), -0.48 G Power (24th MLS). -0.32 “Luck” (20th MLS) • +0.00 Offense (13th MLS), +0.15 Defense (17th MLS). +0.31 away advantage (9th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC -141, draw +295, Chicago Fire +370
Match officials: Referee: Lukasz Szpala. Assistant referees: Ian Anderson, Cameron Blanchard.
Fourth official: Tori Penso; Video Asisstants: Kevin Stott, Matthew Nelson
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe, and listen to Wes Boling and me ruminate on all things NSC. Last year’s Fire postgame story. Gary Smith and Michael Dax “Dax” McCarty pregame press conference. Q&A with Patrick McCraney of Hot Time in Old Town. Plenty of analysis of a player we expect to see for the first time. Get hype with this week’s edition of The Playlist.
OUT: M Stanislav Ivanov (knee), GK Kenneth Kronholm (knee), D Carlos Terán (shin)
International duty: D Francisco Calvo (Costa Rica)
A piece of day-of news here: head coach Raphael Wicky had to leave the country somewhat urgently due to a family health situation back in Sweden. He will not coach the team – whether they fall apart without his leadership or band together to stay strong for him can be nothing other than guesswork.
Chicago started the year horribly – 0-4-1 in the first five games, and 1-7-1 just a couple weeks ago. However, there’s been a new spark (pun entirely intended) for the Fire recently: two wins and a draw in the last three – nearly two-thirds of the team’s points in the table in a week and a half.
“Preparing for a team that I think is dangerous, a team that’s been on a little bit of a resurgent run,” said Nashville SC captain Dax McCarty. “They have, I think, four games [in a row] at home, and they picked up quite a few points, and so I think they’re confident.”
Even more impressive for Chicago? The draw and one of the wins came against Philadelphia Union and Orlando City, respectively. It’s early enough in the year that maybe we don’t know precisely how good those teams are. But at Nos. 3 and 2 in the Eastern Conference, I’m willing to give full-throated confirmation that they don’t suck by any stretch of the imagination.
The Fire’s resurgence has coincided with a switch to a 3-5-2 formation (and despite the absence of one of the squad’s top centerbacks, Francisco Calvo, who is at the Gold Cup with Costa Rica).
“A couple of veteran defenders, Jonathan Bornstein and Johan Kappelhof, have seen a lot more time as the two outside central defenders in the system,” Hot Time in Old Town‘s Patrick McCraney told me. “Bornstein is in for Francisco Calvo, and has been so good during that stretch that a lot of Fire fans are calling for him to keep the starting job – and the armband – after Calvo returns. Kappelhof was hurt most of last season, and had struggled to find a place in Wicky’s lineups prior to the tactical switch. This change really seems to suit his style, too. Both guys have been excellent.”
Of course, the defense has only been OK in that stretch – Philadelphia and Atlanta’s xG creation numbers weren’t so far off their averages, while Orlando created a ton and just couldn’t finish – and instead it’s been the offense that has been opened up by the 3-5-2. Central midfielder Álvaro Medrán has 1.53 expected assists in that time, but Chicago has flipped it into five goals.
Meanwhile, striker Robert Beric has not necessarily begun to snap out of his early-season scoring slump with 0.93 xG and a goal (he had just over times the xG but just a single goal in the stretch before that – about the same creation on a per-minute basis, just worse conversion). His strike partner, Ignacio Aliseda, has been the beneficiary, scoring a pair of goals on his only two shots this stretch as opponents have focused on Beric. Aliseda’s return to the lineup after getting healthy is nice. If Chicago is to keep up the scoring pace, though, it’s going to be the Slovenian doing more of the heavy lifting in terms of putting the ball in the back of the net himself.
“After a 12-goal debut season, DP striker Robert Beric has just two goals this season – one in the very first game, and one in the most recent game,” McCraney said. “He, obviously, will need to start scoring on a more regular basis. Ignacio Aliseda, the team’s young DP forward, won MLS Player of the Week after a two goal, one assist performance against Atlanta United. Outside of that one great week, he’s been out injured quite a bit this season. Aliseda will need to stay healthy and keep contributing for the Fire to keep this up.
“Álvaro Medrán, the Fire’s central midfielder, has been reborn under the new formation. Medran has five assists over the last three matches, and has made the MLS Team of the Week three straight times.”
Moving backward in the formation, wingback Boris Sekulic has been a beneficiary in a statistical sense, with a pair of goals – like Aliseda, on very limited trials with just three shots – since the formation switch. In contrast to what you might expect from the 3-5-2 system, he hasn’t added a ton of assisting (wingbacks tend to be crossy guys who whip balls in from wide, particularly when you have a big heady striker like Beric). Both of his goals have been headers from set-piece situations, so from the run of play, he’s not doing a whole lot. Obviously, set-piece situations… are a thing for Nashville right now.
In goal, Bobby Shuttleworth has played for the injured Kenneth Kronholm and been slightly better than average (allowing 94% of xG). That’s actually a pretty significant upgrade on Kronholm, who has been a well below-average player in 2019 and the portion of 2020 before he tore his ACL. Given he’s 35 and it’s been nearly a year since his knee surgery… may be getting late for Kronholm to have a shot to take back the gig.
Either way, as noted throughout here, this is a Fire team that looks very different in the table than it did just a couple weeks ago. Gary Smith has noted the improvement.
“The last three games for Chicago have been, I would think, their most effective,” he said. “Nine goals in three outings, and they seem to have found a much more comfortable and effective format or shape to the group. You know, it would be a conundrum to me from a distance as to why they started off so slowly, because I do think they’re one of the most talented groups.”
However… Chicago doesn’t appear to be that different of a team according to the underlying numbers. Their conversion rate has obviously been much better in the brief unbeaten streak. But that can come down to luck (in the literal sense), rather than just doing a better job putting the ball in the back of the net (“luck” in the non-literal sense). Prior to the start of this run, I had them at -0.16 xG power, and -0.67 luck. That luck number was second-worst in the league to Nashville. Now, they’re -0.15 xG Power – basically unchanged – but they’ve cut their bad luck number in half (-0.32).
The twist? All of that improvement came at home, where it’s a little easier to imagine mechanisms through which a team captures the spirit of the crowd and capitalizes on that momentum. Indeed, three of the four Chicago goals prior to this explosion had come at Soldier Field (yes, they’d only scored four goals through nine game) – the lone exception a consolation tally in a 3-1 pasting at Atlanta – so taking the show on the road may very well be difficult to translate.
The advanced numbers actually think that Chicago is a better team on the road than at home. But the conversion rates have been nothing short of pitiful outside of the South Loop (and for the most part, in it, too).
The Boys in Gold
OUT: F Dom Badji (ankle), Aníbal Godoy (hamstring)
Int’l duty: D Alistair Johnston (Canada), D Walker Zimmerman (United States)
It’s worth noting off the top that Nashville SC has a couple players who were part of the Fire franchise within the past couple years. Midfielder Dax McCarty was the team’s captain 2017-19 (you’ll note he is Nashville’s now!), while CJ Sapong scored 15 goals for Chicago over the past two years before joining Nashville this offseason. As you may expect with two guys who are extremely popular everywhere they go, Chicagoans still have a soft spot for them.
“In addition to being good players and solid teammates, CJ and Dax are both great guys (and they both always come through with fantastic quotes for reporters!),” McCraney said. “We got to see Dax wearing yellow last season, so that should make it a little easier to stomach. As for CJ, after the season he endured last year having to spend time away from the team because of the premature birth of his daughter, I’m just happy he seems to be thriving as a new dad and as a player in Nashville.”
We saw Sapong’s… mixed emotions… for one of his other previous clubs shine through when he scored against Philadelphia Union. He has a far more positive overall view of his time in Chicago, I’d say. The emotional factor may still play a role here.
At club country usa dot com, we’re more interested in tangible items than feelingsball, of course. That gives us something to worry about! Chicago Fire is No. 2 in the league in set-piece reliance when it comes to generating expected goals (26% of total expected goals coming from set-piece and corner-kick situations – only Philly is higher). Nashville has been pretty good in those situations defensively over the course of the year. That’s been extremely not the case since Walker Zimmerman has been out of the lineup with personal and then international duty.
It would very much behoove Nashville to avoid giving up set-piece opportunities and corner kicks. That may be a little more difficult given the continued absence of Aníbal Godoy, who can defend extremely well without fouling (+0.03 goals added in the foul category on the year). It’s also difficult because Chicago is a possession-heavy team with some really good technicians. The Fire’s possession number is 51.3%, good for ninth in the league (Nashville’s No. 14 at 50.0%). But since the formation change, they’re down to 45.6%. Small sample size, yes, but that’d be bottom four in the league over the course of the season.
In the positive end, Nashville – you probably haven’t heard yet – has a new DP striker. I would anticipate Aké Loba gets limited playing time, though I’d be surprised to not see him run out there at all.
“I’ve seen a reasonable amount now of Aké in training,” Smith said. “He looks in a good place, he’s fitting in brilliantly with the group: fluent in Spanish and French, he’s a real good character, got great personality, which goes a long, long way when you’re trying to make these big moves in the transition he has done from Mexico to here. But of course, the most important thing is the language of football in general. When you’re on the field, your talent and your quality speak for themselves. And he’s been able to show what he’s capable of in quite an abundance. So really pleased with him. He’s on-track and he’s in a good place, and he’s in the reckoning for everything that we’re talking about right now.”
“When you add a player of Aké’s quality, it’s always going to be – questions are always going to be asked about – how quickly can he adapt? How quickly can he adjust? How quickly can he contribute?” added McCarty. “Some of the answer to that question falls on him to be able to come in and perform and prove that he’s fit. But a lot of that also falls on the team, and how that environment helps get the best out of him. I think that for him coming into a new environment, I think it’ll take a little bit of time, but certainly there’s not going to be a lack of confidence given to him from the rest of the guys on the team, so he can hopefully hit the ground running.”
If the Boys in Gold get a solid does of quality from the striker – whoever it may be on the day – they should be able to prevent Chicago from living in the attacking zone and trying to generate the set-piece chances that they need in order to find the back of the net.
Keys to the game
- Don’t give up set-piece opportunities. This one should be self-evident, given what I’ve written above. This Chicago team still isn’t generating a whole lot, but is getting the job done by over-achieving on set pieces. Nashville isn’t giving up a lot, but without Zimmerman is allowing opponents to find success with set-pieces. So don’t even crack pandora’s box here.
- Pin the wingbacks back. As you can see, I have Nashville’s 4-2-3-1 formation expected here. That’s because NSC’s wingers can prevent Chicago’s wingbacks from getting forward. Certainly, those guys haven’t directly generated to much offense this year, but preventing the Fire from flooding the attacking zone is preferred.
- Unleash the beast(s). We’ve gotten only small snippets of Jhonder Cádiz since he returned from Copa América, and obviously have yet to see Loba suit up in gold. I’m a big Sapong Appreciator, but an upgrade in technical ability (and at least in Cádiz’s case, also speed) might be worth potential tradeoffs in workrate. Let’s get ’em both on the pitch tonight.
- Don’t be afraid to press. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it feels like Nashville is more likely to press when facing teams that want to possess. It makes sense I guess: if they’re going to be devoted to possession, you have more opportunities to disrupt that (and it’s worth the risk of their more-skilled approach beating said press). Gary Smith is never in a million years going to go Full Red Bull. But this may be the opportunity to do just that, particularly since Chicago hasn’t been a clean on the ball wafter the formation change.
What to watch for from the official NSC site, and a Nashville scouting report from the other direction. Vavel preview. Hot Time in Old Town takes a look at the Boys in Gold, and has a gameday guide. SportsKeeda preview. MLSSoccer.com’s weekend guide. AP game brief. MLS Multiplex preview. Main Street Nashville preview. A little preview from something called Winners and Whiners. Feature on the Fire’s odd backline situation with defender Johan Kappelhof. Field Level Media preview. WGN‘s look at the weekend in Chicago sports includes the game. Marca weekend preview in MLS.
Largely, this comes down to whether Nashville can avoid exposing the one achilles heel that has been apparent since Walker Zimmerman’s absence began: set pieces. Chicago makes hay with them on offense, while NSC has given up a bunch of softies without Thor in the lineup. Fire fans are understandably riding high after three good results, but all of those came at home, and the game immediately preceding them was a loss to Cincinnati (one of just 15 wins in that franchise’s short and sad history).
So: if Nashville can not even worry about having to defend set pieces by preventing the Fire from setting up camp in the NSC defensive third in the first place, that would be ideal. A bit of a long-clear, second-ball, medium-press philosophy probably plays out better for Nashville, and then you hope that the striker talent that has been limited (Cádiz/Ríos) or not even on the team yet (Loba) can come through.
Nashville wins 2-1.