Nashville SC

Nashville SC game preview 2021: @ Toronto FC

The Boys in Gold got a heroic performance from sophomores Luke Haakenson and Jack Maher to beat TFC in Nissan Stadium. Will the Reds be an easier task in the Great North?

The essentials

Opponent: Toronto FC (3-8-4)
Time, Location: Sunday, Aug. 1, 6:30 p.m. CDT (7:30 local) • Toronto, Ont.
Weather: 67ºF, 28% chance of rain, 72% humidity, 11 mph NNW 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-W-L
Non-nerd stats: 13 points, 0.87 PPG (12th East) • 1.54 GF/gm, 2.46 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.67 xG Power (26th MLS), -0.36 G Power (22nd MLS). +0.31 “Luck” (5th MLS) • -0.26 Offense (23rd MLS), +0.41 Defense (24th MLS). -0.42 home disadvantage (20th MLS)*
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +204, draw +223, Columbus Crew +141

Match officials: Referee: Fotris Bazakos. Assistants: Oscar Mitchell-Carvalho, Gianni Facchini. Fourth official: Robert Sibiga. Video Assistants: Geoff Gamble, Robert Schaap.

Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe, and listen to the incredible insight of TSN‘s Luke Wileman. Coverage from the home game. Get hype with this week’s edition of The Playlist.

* The majority of TFC’s “home” games to-date have been played at not-home, so take the stats with a grain of salt for now. Their two true home games haven’t been any better than the rest, though.

Toronto FC

Injury/availability report:
Out: F Ayo Akinola (ACL)
Questionable: D Achara (ACL), M Auro Jr. (Lower body)

That Toronto has been playing much better (two wins and two draws in the last four) actually obscures that… well, actually that hasn’t been the case. In xG terms, these four most-recent games have actually been as-bad or worse in comparison to the rest of the season. There’s been quite a bit more good luck – well over a full standard deviation in each of the contests in terms of finishing offensively and defensively – and if you attribute a temporary rise in finishing to vibez, the coaching change from Chris Armas to interim Javier Pérez may very well be paying exactly the dividends TFC needs.

“Having been in that position myself, you walk into the locker room as a new coach or with a new challenge, with an energy and an invigoration that the players latched onto,” NSC head coach Gary Smith said. “And I’ve also been in a changing room or locker room where things are not going well: that lack of energy and that negativity can sometimes emanate towards the team without even knowing. And it’s just a consequence of the sport and the way that it shifts and moves, that we’re in.

There hasn’t been too much change tactically: Pérez has stuck with the base 4-2-3-1 (an MLS standard, of course), and the personnel is close to best-available.

Up top, that does mean no Ayo Akinola, who tore his ACL on international duty with Canada. Ephemeral USMNT player Dom Dwyer signed in May and has taken over as the No. 1 striker, while Jozy Altidore’s tiff with Armas is obviously no longer relevant, and he’s back to getting important substitute minutes (even playing the entire second half last weekend). The overachievement in finishing is largely spread across the roster, though, with winger Tsubasa Endoh (a goal on just 0.06 xG) the primary overachiever with a grand total of one goal in the recent stretch: the n-values are too low to draw any sort of conclusions about what the long-term on that finishing is.

That also happened against Chicago, which is on like a half-decade streak of being the worst xG underperformer in the league. If you take that in context, the recent positive streak for the Reds includes solid over-performances to win in an upset over New England, draws in the first two games back in Canada, and then doing what basically everyone does against the Fire. They’re in stronger form than at any previous point in the season. They’re still not world-beaters.

They should also be getting some personnel back soon, with Richie Laryea and Jonathan Osorio seeing their Gold Cup runs end with Canada… though I don’t know if they’ll be ready to turn around after playing in Texas late on Thursday evening. A travel day and a training day might not see them ready to return (and for Nashville’s Alistair Johnston, travel and no training with his team makes the return even tougher).

Here’s what I wrote about Toronto’s attack last time, with a specific focus on No. 10 (literally and positionally) Alejandro Pozuelo:

Alejandro Pozuelo was last year’s MLS MVP, and while his production is not at MVP levels, he’s still the most-important player on this team. The attacking midfielder has no goals (on just four shots) and one assist (on 1.45 xA, so the counting numbers are undervaluing his contributions a bit). Part of the reason for his struggle is supporting cast – and it’s worth contextualizing that struggle, as he’s still the highest goals added performer for a TFC attack that’s among the league’s best – without Altidore and with others still finding the game. They may well be coming around, though.

June 23

Toronto was also without winger Yeferson Soteldo at the time (he suffered a hip injury on international duty with Venezuela), but when he’s been on the pitch, he’s been a top-flight performer.

On the other end of the pitch, Alex Bono has retaken his starting keeper job after Quentin Westberg’s awful return to the lineup (including the loss in Nashville) has seen him allow nearly double opponents’ xG in scoring. Bono isn’t stellar – allowing 10% over expected – but that’s way, way better, and we saw against Chicago Fire that he’s capable of single-handedly keeping his team in games.

The defense has seen some rotation, and I would imagine when Laryea comes back, he’s more comfortably slotted back into the right back spot rather than at a wing, with Soteldo and Endoh in fine form. Omar Gonzalez and Chris Mavinga are the preferred central defenders, though they’ve been out of the lineup occasionally (due to rotation or minor injuries for Mavinga), which has put youngster Luke Singh in there. Singh also plays at left back in the absence of Kemar Lawrence – played for Jamaica Thursday – or Justin Morrow.

While Michael Bradley is maybe at an age where too much was being asked of him in Armas’s press-happy system, he’s been one of TFC’s top performers according to ASA‘s Goals Added, and the vast majority of that has been in defensive actions as he protects that backline a bit. He’s also elite in the passing breakout metric, which is in line with the career arc of his skillset, too.

All told, this is a Toronto team that is playing a bit better, but has received some luck and maybe that new-coach bump in the process. It wasn’t as bad as the table-bottom moments earlier in the Summer, but may not be as good as the four most recent results say, either.

The Boys in Gold

Injury/availability report:
Out: D Walker Zimmerman (hamstring)
Questionable: M Aníbal Godoy (hamstring)

With Nashville’s roster almost as healthy/available as it’s been in a long while – with the trade of Dom Badji, the long-term-ish injuries are behind this club, with Walker Zimmerman and Aníbal Godoy still working their way back – Zimmerman got medical treatment instead of training on Wednesday, while Godoy was practicing but not with the top group. Jack Maher and Dan Lovitz’s respective returns from health and safety protocols should mean Gary Smith can run whatever scheme he wants – whether the back-five or back-four.

“Lovitz and Jack Maher are now back in training, and ready to go – which is really good news,” he said. “Aníbal is very, very close. He’ll be a last-minute decision; he’s progressed extremely well, and has been involved in pretty much everything up to now, so I’m really pleased about that. Walker will be out. He’s still trying to nurse his way through this hamstring, although he’s making good progress.”

…and some form of getting the big three recent successful attackers on the field together is a good idea. For me, preferably with Aké Loba getting a big runout. A 4-2-2-2 has been one of Gary Smith’s options this year in a tactically-flexible NSC setup, and the 4-3-3/5-3-2 hybrid system (with Dax McCarty in the deep-lying midfield/pseudo-CB role) can both help with that. There was not-so-subtle implication that the Boys in Gold would prefer to rotate with a heavy matchweek, as well.

“Recovery is enormous,” said defender Dave Romney. “The tough one’s definitely going to be the two road games coming up [Toronto and New England without returning to Nashville in between]. The Sunday-Wednesday’s never easy, just having those two days in-between. Just doing everything you can, hydrating-wise, recovery boots-wise, treatment-wise, rest-wise, sleep-wise, to just make sure you can be as close to 100% for that Wednesday game, even though it’s pretty near-impossible. You’re always going to start kind of feeling it like 60th minute onwards.

“And then just a rotation of bodies throughout the team: as many guys as we can get minutes on Sunday and Wednesday, kind of switching out, then the fresher we’re going to be, and we’re going to look a lot more lively than the team we play on Wednesday.”

That this al happens away from home – and with NSC not returning to Music City in between the first two games.

“Now that we have to go back – and playing in Canada as well – it’s a different mindset,” midfielder Brian Anunga said. “We haven’t done that in a while. Going to another country, getting everything right to be able to travel: we’re doing our best on and off the field to get ready to prepare for this game, especially in Toronto, which is the first game. I think the team is in a good place, and in good spirits, good confidence, and we’re just doing our best ot be able to go into Toronto and get the result.”

Queme los barcos and all that.

Projected lineups

Keys to the game

Many of these are the same as last time around!

  • Set pieces. Gulp. These basically decided the game in Nissan! Ultimately for the best but very scary in between!
  • Attack Bradley and Gonzalez specifically. They’re each a single yellow card away from a suspension, so they may very well be timid to make those tough foul choices. Alternatively, if they do foul – as they’re prone to do – you’re setting up Hany Mukhtar in dangerous positions, as well.
  • Loba runout longer. I have him starting – more hopeful than predictive, if we’re being honest – but if he can get a good 60 minutes, that’s right in line with both his upward taper in minutes and Gary Smith’s typical preferences for timing to make that attacking substitution.
  • Get physical with Pozuelo. Toronto FC knows from important mighty-mite creators (Sebastian Giovinco served in essentially the same role before Pozuelo did), and knows that opponents are going to do what they can to shut him down personally. Nonetheless, Nashville has the right type of central midfield to try to at least slow him down a bit – the physicality of Godoy and energy of Dax McCarty, for example – and if they can do that, it makes life tougher for the attack to connect.

Prediction

I said on the pod and continue to believe that whoever scores first won’t take long to score again, and it’s just a matter of whether the other team can come all the way back, etc. This is a Toronto team that is on an emotional high (and more-generally emotional rollercoaster of a year), and the first sign of success will compound that, while the first sign of struggle may crack it after the four game run.

  • It’s Toronto scoring first, on – you guessed it – a set piece. It’s Pozuelo putting it in directly, though, with his free kick not needing any assistance to find the back of the net.
  • Dwyer gets sprung in-behind shortly thereafter, winning a physical battle against Jack Maher to set up a shooting opportunity on Willis and making the lead 2-0.
  • As we’ve seen so many times this season, though, Nashville fights back. Mukhtar slips a throughball to Sapong to cut the lead to 2-1 at halftime, and then it’s a Lovitz-to-Cádiz corner kick header to bring the game back level.

The contest ends in a 2-2 draw.

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