Nashville SC

Nashville SC game preview 2021: at Columbus Crew

Nashville SC played the defending champs reasonably close two times last year, but couldn’t pull off a victory. Can a change of venue – across town in the Crew’s new digs – change that?

The essentials

Opponent: Columbus Crew SC (5-3-5)
Time, Location: Wednesday, July 21, 6:30 p.m. CDT (7:30 local) • Columbus, Ohio
Weather: 74ºF, 1% chance of rain, 53% humidity, 10mph Northerly 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-D-D-D-L
Non-nerd stats: 20 points, 1.54 PPG (6th East) • 1.15 GF/gm, 0.92 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.55 xG Power (23rd MLS), +0.07 G Power (11th MLS). +0.62 “Luck” (3rd MLS) • -0.77 Offense (27th MLS(!)), -0.22 Defense (7th MLS). +0.14 away advantage (10th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +204, draw +223, Columbus Crew +141

Match officials: Referee: Rosendo Mendoza. Assistants: Brian Poeschel, Jeffrey Swartzel. Four official: Lukasz Szpala. Video Assistants: Hilario Grajeda, Claudiu Badea

Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe, and listen to the incredible insight of MLS Assist‘s Jordan Angeli, who also happens to be the broadcast analyst for the Crew’s television… crew. Some printed quotes from that chat in Q&A format. Coverage from last year’s regular-season and playoff losses to the Crew. Get hype with this (mid-)week’s edition of The Playlist.

Columbus Crew

Injury/availability report:
Out: M Artur (hip), M Aidan Morris (knee), D Milton Valenzuela (thigh), D Vito Wormgoor (thigh)
Questionable: D Josh Williams (ankle)
Int’l duty: D Liam Fraser (Canada), Gyasi Zardes (USA)

There are ways in which this Columbus team is the very opposite of Nashville SC: a stout defensive team with a questionable offense, and a pretty bad team in xG terms that has managed to massively overachieve the advanced stats so far this year.

Indeed, Columbus has been on the “positive luck” side of the ledger each of its three years under Caleb Porter. The squad barely inched in that direction in 2019, but was by far the luckiest team in MLS in 2020 (the reason I incorrectly picked against the Crew a couple times in the playoffs). This year, Columbus is among the worst in the league in opponent-adjusted expected goals… but keeping its head above the playoff line so far thanks to another apparent Porter finishing-coaching masterclass. Of course, some can be explained by having a truly great finisher or truly great goalkeeper on the roster, and lo and behold, Columbus has one of each.

“I think Gyasi Zardes probably has one of the best – if not the best – shots on-goal to goal percentage,” said Crew TV analyst and MLS Assist host Jordan Angeli. “He doesn’t take wild shots. The Crew are pretty stingy when it comes to how they are going to create an opportunity, can they figure out a way to utilize the players in attack to get the best chance on goal. They don’t have as many shots typically as the other team, but when they get in goal-scoring situations, it’s typically a better-looking shot opportunity, whatever it may be.

“And then I don’t know if you watched the game over the weekend, but Eloy Room is just ridiculous. Even though he’s not at the Gold Cup right now [Curaçao withdrew due to coronavirus protocols], he’s showing why he’s here, which was the Gold Cup a couple years ago, when he stood on his head. It was pretty cool to watch.”

Room is available after Curaçao was forced to leave the Gold Cup with coronavirus issues, but his country’s loss is Columbus’s gain. He’s allowing just 82% of expected goals this year, fourth among keepers who have notched at least 500 minutes. He’s also doing that despite playing behind a rotating cast of characters on the backline, which exposes him to a higher volume of dangerous shots than many other keepers in that realm.

Jonathan Mensah – my second-place vote for Defender of the Year in 2020 – has played the lion’s share of the minutes at one CB position, but Josh Williams, Vito Wormgoor, and Aboubacar Keita have rotated next to him. Wormgoor is the odd man out for sure tonight – he’s unavailable per the injury report – and with Williams questionable, it’s likely Keita as the No. 2 CB. He just so happens to be very good (and ASA‘s Goals Added metric agrees, naming him the top player on the team, and Mensah’s the only other guy in the positive).

At fullback, it’s been an even tougher time. Harrison Afful on the right and Waylon Francis on the left are the top guys, but neither of them has 1000 minutes yet on the year, while Milton Valenzuela (out for this contest) and Saad Abdul-Salaam have seen plenty of time. G+ actually likes Valenzuela the most (or dislikes him the least, in this context), while the top-choice guys grade out negatively in most components of the metric. Both are particularly bad interruptors, which is surprising given that Columbus does the vast majority of its work in that department in its own end.

In Columbus’s 4-2-3-1 formation, the interrupting work comes down to the CBs and defensive midfielders. I’ve already discussed the central defenders, but the CDMs are the engine that makes this team go. Darlington Nagbe is famously a No. 10 who doesn’t create goal-scoring chances, so putting him deeper on the field has allowed his ball retention to be a major asset while reducing the negative impact his lack of killer instinct can have on the offense. Artur generally plays next to him but is unavailable with a hip injury, which probably means the returning-to-health Perry Kitchen or more-recent starter Marlon Hairston gets the nod.

Given that this team is all-defense, no-offense, it’s wild to consider that its best player (perhaps aside from Room and I’m willing to entertain Mensah arguments, as well) is an incredible attacking piece.

Central attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan has five goals on just 1.29 xG, with four of those coming on free kicks. As much as “don’t foul in dangerous areas” was a key against Chicago, it’s an even bigger one tonight. He’s not much of a creator or even a shooter beyond that: 1.01 of his 1.29 xA has come from the run of play, along with a single goal and 0.50 of his expected goals. He’s most often flanked by Spaniard Pedro Santos on the left wing and Luis Diaz on the right (Diaz is not listed on Columbus’s Gold Cup absences list, though he’s been playing for the Ticos – or more accurately, riding the bench – so I don’t imagine he’s back with the Crew).

Without USMNT striker Gyasi Zardes, Columbus’s “how to outscore your xG” code on the offensive end of the pitch, it’s been a bit of a rotating cast at striker. Former Red Bulls star Bradley Wright-Phillips has been limited with injury, Miguel Berry spent much of the early portion of the year as Jack Maher’s San Diego Loyal teammate before getting his first start over the weekend, and Columbus recently signed Erik Hurtado, who couldn’t remain with Montreal because InfoWars told him the Covid vaccine will give him microchips or whatever.

Hurtado’s two appearances thus far for the Crew saw him play on the wing, so you’re likely lookin’ at Berry with a BWP appearance off the bench (and of course some positional flexibility depending on needs throughout that unit). He’s scored a goal on two shots – a sample size from which we can’t draw a ton of conclusions.

So how does a diminished Columbus team take down a similarly-diminished Nashville side?

“The possession, talking about those wingbacks, can you pull those wingbacks out a little bit to a holding midfielder who’s dragged outside for the Crew?” Angeli said. “Use possession to pull one of those players out, and then utilize that space in-behind to stretch the back-three for Nashville defensively from side-to-side. From there, there’s going to be gaps, and utilizing the gaps between the lines.”

The Boys in Gold

Injury/availability report:
OUT: F Dom Badji (ankle), M Aníbal Godoy (hamstring), D Dan Lovitz/D Jack Maher (health protocols), D Walker Zimmerman (hamstring)
Int’l duty: D Alistair Johnston (Canada)

With Walker Zimmerman’s injury suffered on international duty, he’ll return to the Boys in Gold a little earlier than expected, but certainly not for this match. Compounding his absence? Fellow defenders Dan Lovitz and Jack Maher will also be unavailable, so a real makeshift backline is in the works. Iron man Dave Romney is the only starter available with Alistair Johnston out on international duty.

So: Does Gary Smith go with a back five to protect a weaker unit, giving more help to the individuals on defense? Or does Nashville SC’s tactical approach slide to a more 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 ideal… so that there are enough players to fill all the positions in defense? I lean toward the latter, which Smith used to solid effect at Real Salt Lake. It also provides an opportunity to play a couple strikers, helping to sort through what is suddenly a very crowded depth chart.

No, I don’t think that means Aké Loba gets his first start for Nashville. But I do think it means that he plays as a substitute. However the game plays out – whether Nashville’s looking to make a comeback or hold on for a draw (or even win) – it makes sense to give him a run-out and try to ice the game or get back into it.

Projected lineups

Yep, I’m thinkin’ 4-4-2 for Nashville.

Keys to the game

  • Lo más importante no es ganar, sino empatar. Mentioned it above: given Nashville’s personnel situation, a victory on the road is going to be a tough ask. It’s totally reasonable to play to escape with a point in the standings on the road against the reigning MLS Cup champion, imo.
  • No free kicks in dangerous areas. The Zelarayáning beckons.
  • Draw Columbus in, and hit on the counter. I mentioned last year that it seemed Columbus wanted to play a possession game, but was at its best when hitting quickly in transition. The Crew is sort of the same way this year (a lot of that has to do with the talent/style combination of Darlington Nagbe, an incredible possession player who tends to be a little timid in the final third). Certainly, Nashville’s more likely to find success by playing without the ball than by trying to pass it around the park short-handed.
  • No positive tests today, pls. Nashville’s already short-handed, including two players in health and safety protocols. Hopefully there’s no team spread here.
  • Unleash the Wolf. This one’s both selfish and practical: if Nashville can get Aké Loba some playing time, it would, as the kids say “feel nice.” If he’s implemented to try to nick a late winner, more power to NSC.

Prediction

I could see this one playing out in a couple different ways. I do believe Nashville will compete by staying relatively conservative and hoping to counter. But Columbus’s overall quality won out in the end on two occasions last year, and that was with much healthier Nashville sides.

I do think the Boys in Gold get on the board first, either through a transition strike from CJ Sapong or a headed opportunity on a set piece from Dave Romney. However, it doesn’t take Columbus long to answer. The Crew then finds a winner with – sigh – a Zelarayán free kick early in the second half. Does Nashville have the bite to come back? It wouldn’t surprise me, but…

Columbus wins 2-1.

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