Nashville SC dominated the home opener, but couldn’t come all the way back from an early deficit. Will the Boys in Gold get their revenge? Or can a pseudo-rivalry mess with the mental state?
Opponent: FC Cincinnati (3-6-4)
Time, Location: Saturday, July 24, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Taillgate: 4:30 p.m., Lot R. The Assembly is hosting a wooden spoon decorating contest, which rules.
Weather: 87ºF, 7% chance of rain, 53% humidity, 4 mph SW 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): D-L-D-D-W
Non-nerd stats: 13 points, 1.00 PPG (13th East) • 1.31 GF/gm, 2.00 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.82 xG Power (27th MLS), -0.32 G Power (21st MLS). +0.51 “Luck” (4th MLS) • -0.12 Offense (19th MLS), +0.70 Defense (26th MLS). +0.51 away advantage (22nd MLS)*
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +204, draw +223, Columbus Crew +141
Match officials: Referee: Guido Gonzales Jr. Assistants: Matthew Nelson, Kevin Klinger. Foruth official: Baldomero Toledo. Video assistants: Daniel Radford, Joshua Patlak
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe, and listen to the incredible insight of MLS Assist‘s Jordan Angeli, who called the FCC match against Columbus just a couple weeks ago. Coverage from the season-opener. Get hype with this week’s edition of The Playlist.
* It is endlessly hilarious that a team whose motto may as well be “but we get a lot of fans!” performs particularly poorly in front of those fans.
OUT: D Zico Bailey (hip), F Calvin Harris (knee), D Maikel van der Werff (hernia)
Int’l: M Allan Cruz (Costa Rica), D Ronald Matarrita (Costa Rica)
The Lions don’t have a particularly lengthy list of dudes unavailable, but when you’re starting from a pretty low bar, every absence is notable. That’s particularly true given that left back Ronald Matarrita and central midfielder Allan Cruz have starter-level minutes (top-10 in field players) despite being away with Costa Rica for the Gold Cup and missing the past four contests for that reason. Matarrita also happens to be one of the very few good players for FCC, the leader in expected assists (1.69) and not doing much of that via the cross. Cruz is, like, fine as one of the attacking midfielders in the typical 4-3-3.
FC Cincinnati has actually had a bit of an offensive renaissance with former DC United attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta and MLS-record signing striker Brenner combining for seven goals and four assists already this season. You’ll recall that each of them scored against Nashville, and the old adage of Gary Smith not wanting the same team to beat him in the same way a second time applies. That’s easier said than done with a player like Acosta pulling the strings at the No. 10 – at 1.55 Goals Added on the season, he’s far and away the team’s top player, according to American Soccer Analysis, and of course Nashville is without some guys who play in the “don’t let the CAM produce” zone.
FCC’s No. 3 in expected goals this year is striker Jurgen Locadia, who it must be noted has not been on the team since June, having left for Brighton & Hove Albion in England. That likely leaves the pressure to create and score upon the wingers, and to FCC’s credit, they have a pretty good one in lefty RW Álvaro Barreal. The 20-year old Argentine has three goals (tied with Brenner for second on the team), and also has an assist on 1.46 xA. He doesn’t work his way into dangerous areas to receive passes, but he’s a very incisive passer himself, and isn’t afraid to rip it a little bit.
“They do have better looking attacks; Brenner is starting to find his way,” said analyst Jordan Angeli of MLS Assist and the Columbus Crew TV team. “With Lucho Acosta, that’s exactly who you want: have that 1-2 punch with the creativity and the goal-scorer up front. If those two can find a real good combination, that’s what Cincinnati is hopeful for.
“Barreal has been a really good player for them. Both defensively, but also going forward: creative, can get at players. The pieces are there, it’s just so interesting how it’s not resulting in much.”
Moving back in the formation, the absence of Allan Cruz has either put Yuya Kubo and Haris Medunjanin on the pitch together as more defensive-positioned (Medunjanin is famously… uh… not going to be called “defensive-minded” ever in his life, but he’s a deep-lying playmaker) midfielders. When Kubo was suspended for yellow-card accumulation over the midweek, Caleb Stanko stepped in.
“I think both those players have really good qualities,” Angeli said. “I think Haris Medunjanin is better as a single holding midfielder than he is with someone next to him. But then, Medunjaninn has been around the league for a long time. He’s not as quick, and his ability to close space is not what it once was – and even that was not high-high speed.”
The backline was bolstered this Spring with the addition of Geoff Cameron*, who has been legitimately great in a bad situation. His fouling and interrupting breakout Goals Added metrics are outstanding. Of course, he’s had to do a lot of interrupting because of the deficiencies in defensive midfield described above, and a general low level in the rest of the backline (Matarrita gets a pass because he’s a rad offensive player) aside from right back Joe Gyau, who’s even more active in the interruption than Cameron is – but poor in possession, odd for a converted winger. Gustavo Vallecilla is good-not-great from a statistical perspective on defense (yes, it’s difficult to suss out the impact defensively with the stats at times), but a major liability on the ball.
In goal, an injury to Przemisław Tyton saw the club sign Kenneth Vermeer (who you may recall from last year’s LAFC team as probably the very worst keeper in Major League Soccer), and the Dunked-Upon Dutchman has been the locked-in starter since arriving in the Queen City. His shot-stopping numbers are slightly below average, so it’s a surprise he’s remained capital-T capital-G The Guy with Tyton back to health. Tyton’s shot-stopping numbers were excellent, albeit in limited sample size, and his other breakout statistics in the new keeper Goals Added metric are universally better than Vermeer’s corresponding numbers. I dunno, man.
Overall, this is a Cincinnati team that has spent big to get back to respectability, and inasmuch as “not setting new records for futility for the third year in a row” actually is a step in the right direction, FCC’s on the path. The offensive production is unquestionably improved, and signing Cameron is at least a statement of intent (even though the advanced numbers have not improved – despite finally playing home games – upon his arrival) to do better on defense.
* That Nashville SC has to face prominent anti-vax players in back-to-back games with fully vaccinated players forced to sit out for health and safety protocols is both an insult to Nashville SC and an embarrassment to the league, for whatever it’s worth. Maybe not much, idk.
The Boys in Gold
OUT: F Dom Badji (ankle) M Aníbal Godoy (hamstring), D Dan Lovitz (protocols), D Jack Maher (protocols), D Walker Zimmerman (hamstring)
Int’l: D Alistair Johnston (Canada)
Nashville is without a bunch of its top players once more. Given the 10-day isolation period required under the league’s health and safety protocols, the absences of defenders Dan Lovitz and Jack Maher were predictable. Given each suffered muscle injuries that were expected to keep them out four-ish weeks, we’re still a ways from the returns of midfielder Aníbal Godoy and reigning MLS Defensive Player of the Year Walker Zimmerman. There’s a distinct possibility all four of those guys could be back sooner rather than later, but it does not help Nashville tonight. Dominique Badji’s injury is less damaging with Nashville’s striker depth at this point, so best for club and player is to let him get to full health rather than rushing him back onto the field.
Meanwhile, Alistair Johnston has survived thus far in the Gold Cup, unlike his teammates (knock on wood), so is gone at least through tomorrow, and more likely until a semifinal matchup with Mexico – I don’t imagine this iteration of Costa Rica troubles the Canucks too much.
So the million-dollar question: Does Gary Smith continue the 3-4-3/3-5-2/4-1-3-2 philosophy we’ve seen lately, or go back to his more-standard 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 base? I think against a team that’s generally inept defensively, and has one obvious start you want to shut down in the middle on the other end (Acosta), playing with Wednesday’s principles – a single holding midfielder who drops into the backline, with a flat-three in midfield ahead of him – doesn’t make a ton of sense. Either McCarty is in the backline, opening all sorts of space centrally for Acosta to cook, or McCarty is the lone pure defensive midfielder against Acosta.
The more-standard 3-4-3/3-5-2 (really the only difference in the way Smith runs these two is how much a Leal/Mukhtar creator floats underneath a striker pair that includes the other one, or how much those two stick wide while flanking a center forward) allows for a central midfield pair plus a back three. My personal preference is for the standard 4-2-3-1, but given the personnel deficiencies (and the ability of Nashville’s backup wingbacks to get forward), I could see the back three being the plan.
Smith was not-so-subtle that Leal would be starting – “I changed Randall out for Alex to find some fresh legs and maybe think about rotations at the weekend” – which obviously isn’t a surprise anyway. Playing him as the floater under Mukhtar and a striker feels right to me.
So who’s that striker? CJ Sapong has his strengths (effort level, literal physical strength, and maybe a little bit of speed), even if the clinical finishing and ball-retention in hold-up play aren’t there. With Jhonder Cádiz’s minutes tapering upward, and suddenly an even bigger game-changing striker sub available off the bench in Aké Loba, is it time for the Venezuelan to get his chance to start? Worth remembering that he scored in the opener – and he also has an assist (against Austin) from a wide channel this season, and that’s a space that Cincinnati can be vulnerable.
Keys to the game
- Don’t let Acosta beat you. Without Matarrita available, Acosta is the primary dangerman for FC Cincinnati. They may very well be able to score even if Acosta isn’t involved. But not a lot.
- Test Vermeer. This man, he is not good at the goalkeeping. If Tyton gets the start instead (you may recall his heroics largely saving the point for Cincinnati last time in Nissan Stadium), it may be a different story. Either way, the opportunity cost of even a speculative shot is not high, because you should be able to generate tons of possessions and shots against this team, so fire away, boys.
- Set pieces. Gulp.
- Make Medunjanin and Kubo move. Medunjanin is just a dude who does not like to exhibit any sort of mobility. Kubo is an OK athlete, but is relatively new in the holding midfield (he’s a winger by trade!), so if he gets stretched, the recoveries and rotations aren’t quite clean. If Nashville can force both these guys to shift and cover, there should be major openings for Leal and Mukhtar to eat.
- Loba runout longer. He’s certainly still not match-fit for the starting lineup. But like 25-30 minutes and a better chance to evaluate his fit and upside in the system? Yeah, I’d like that.
I don’t think Nashville is going to shut out FC Cincinnati, but this FCC squad is bad defensively. (I actually wonder if a decent defensive performance in the Kubo-less midweek game might open Stam’s eyes to playing the former Japan international in his actual position, rather than one he appears to be a liability in. That might help a bit).
If Nashville plays as well as its has for much of the year – maybe with a little better finishing touch – this should not be a close one. While we’ve seen the Boys in Gold play down to their competition a little too regularly, a little bit of revenge from the season opener could have them clicking on all cylinders.
Nashville SC wins 5-1.