Nashville SC

Nashville SC game preview 2021: at Inter Miami CF (part 1)

The Boys in Gold felt ok about their home draw against Inter Miami CF. But as the Herons’ season has gone sideways, Nashville SC will want to take all three points in Fort Lauderdale this afternoon.

The essentials

Opponent: Inter Miami CF (3-8-4)
Time, Location: Sunday, Aug. 8, 5 p.m. CDT (6 local) • Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Weather: 86ºF, 22% chance of rain, 63% humidity, 10 MPH Easterly wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30 (local TV), ESPN+ (national stream), NashvilleSC.com (local stream) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)

Non-nerd stats: 13 points, 0.87 PPG (14th East) • 1.00 GF/gm, 1.92 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.38 xG Power (19th MLS), -0.61 G Power (27th MLS). -0.23 “Luck” (21st MLS) • -0.37 Offense (26th MLS), +0.01 Defense (14th MLS). -0.46 home disadvantage
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +169, draw +220, Inter Miami CF +168

Match officials: Referee: Nima Saghafi. Assistants: Adam Garner, Brian Poeschel. Fourth: Matthew Corrigan. Video assistants: Sorin Stoica, Gjovalin Bori

Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe. The preview and postview of the previous Miami game. Checking in with Andrea Yanez of Deporte Total USA. I squeezed in one Miami-related question for Gary Smith at Wednesday’s postgame presser. The Playlist.

Inter Miami CF

Injury/availability report:
OUT: D Ventura Alvarado, D Ian Fray, D Joevin Jones
QUESTIONABLE: F Robbie Robinson, D Ryan Shawcross

Miami fired coach Diego Alonso at the conclusion of the 2020 season, but the team has been a lot worse under new headman Phil Neville. This was entirely predictable when the hands-on owner of the team hires one of his buddies and former teammates despite a pretty poor managerial reputation with the England Women’s National Team.

Neville hasn’t exactly made wholesale changes to the philosophy – IMCF still bases out of a 4-2-3-1 with the tactical flexibility to make variations on that theme or play with a back-five – but the offense has fallen off a cliff, while the defense has declined from above-average to simply mediocre. To paraphrase one of Miami’s own, Pitbull, the club is not Having A Real Good Time.

“I’m sure that everyone down in Miami would like to be in a slightly better position than they are,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “But when you look around their group, you can’t help but focus in on the fact that they still have some very, very good players. I suspect that time will be the necessity for Phil [Neville] to get the job done the way he wants to, and we’ll go down there knowing that we will be in for a very challenging game.”

Let us look at some of that personnel, starting from the back. Dutch keeper Nick Marsman joined during the summer transfer window, and has played every minute since, planting former start John McCarthy on the bench. He has been a comfortably below-average keeper in that time, allowing 123% expected goals, although it’s worth noting that five of the eight he’s conceded came in his first appearance for the club 1) when his team was doing him no favors (ugly chart at right), 2) when he was still getting acclimated after not playing since early May, and 3) in one of those games where the bad vibes just sort of snowball.

Of course, if you excise that game… he performs even worse to the advanced numbers (147%), even though he’s allowed just one goal in the past three games. For what it’s worth, McCarthy has also been bad, so the opportunity cost is not high to play the guy with more upside.

The defense has gone through its share of ups and downs this season – the chart can do a lot of heavy lifting to make that point, as well – but has been fairly solid in the three games since that meltdown. Former Atlanta United star Leandro Gonzalez-Pírez has not had the reintroduction to the league he may have expected, but is a stalwart in the backline. He’s typically joined by Nico Figal or Ryan Shawcross in the middle (and sometimes both in back-five formations). Given Shawcross’s injury status, I would expect either Figal or a five-man line with both. It’s worth noting that ASA‘s Goals Added finds LGP and Figal to be the best and third-best players on this team, while Shawcross is very bad. But, he’s English and a Man U Youth product, so Beckham and Neville gonna do their thing. Both LGP and Figal are big interruptors, without providing much else, aside from a bit of a set-piece threat from the former. Oddly, he’s not been very successful on the dribble, even though that was one of his defining characteristics in his time with Atlanta.

On the edges, Christian Makoun (left) and Kelvin Leerdam (right) are the top options, though Figal fills in on the right and new signing Kieran Gibbs is looking locked in on the left in recent games (even though – surely this will shock you – the former England international has been worse than the players he’s replacing, albeit to a lesser degree than Shawcross). Again, this is an interrupting-focused group.

Neville’s top options in defensive midfield are offseason signing Gregore and last year’s top signing, Blaise Matuidi. The Brazilian and French internationals, respectively, get some depth rest from former FC Dallas homegrown Victor Ulloa (who also fills in at wingback). Gregore appears to be a very good signing, though it takes a lot to make up for Matuidi’s inability to cover basically any ground.

Where Miami is much worse than last year is in the attack. This was an above-average unit last year, and it’s now one of MLS’s most anemic groups, despite the fact that DP Gonzalo Higuaín looks much better than last year – and has even rounded into form lately, with three goals in the past six matches. Some of that issue, of course, is a simple matter of fool’s gold. The counting numbers look OK (it’d have been tough to be any worse than his zero goals from the run of play last year), but given that he’s largely being asked to do it himself, 5.39 xG in over 1000 minutes isn’t cutting it. His fitness also remains an issue!

“I think he is still not where they want him to be,” Andrea Yanez of Deporte Total USA told me. “He is still struggling with his fitness and again, is missing the connection with key players like Rodolfo Pizarro. He has good stats but that hasn’t been enough for the team to have good results consistently. Therefore, he needs to find a way to make his team better.”

Pizarro returned from Gold Cup duty with Mexico for the midweek match against Orlando City, but he replaced Higuaín in the lineup so there hasn’t been much chance to re-build that chemistry. While Higuaín’s issues connecting to teammates are probably inherent to him – not a problem specific to Pizarro – it doesn’t help that a guy expected to be one of the top players in the league has just 0.70 xG and 0.57 xA so far on the year. Perhaps he snaps out of it… we also have more than a year of evidence that indicates he’s just not going to succeed in this league.

The biggest problem in comparison to last year’s attack, though, is a regression from winger Lewis Morgan. All the above struggles have carried over from 2020 into 2021, whereas Morgan has gone from extremely goal-dangerous to a liability for IMCF. The counting numbers aren’t much worse (tracking to 30% of the xG and 60% of the xA in about 60% of the minutes he had a year ago), but he’s gone from asset to liability in other ways. He was the sixth most-successful dribbler according to Goals Added last year. He’s in the bottom 50 of 1,230 field players this year (that Pizarro is only a few places ahead of him probably tells you a lot about the team overall), and is Miami’s worst G+ player by a wide margin. The recent emergence of sophomore Robbie Robinson as a threat on the wing makes up for some of that. But one of the best players in the league turning into one of the worst is not ideal, and given the broader picture for Miami, it’s probably an indictment on Neville.

This is also a bad home team, in part because it’s bad everywhere, and that looks worse in the place you’re supposed to be good. There’s something to be said for a bunch of guys used to a European season struggling in the Florida heat.

With all that said, Miami has three results in a row (draws against Philly and Orlando bookending a win over Montreal), so Nashville will not want to walk into a trap.

“Miami is looking better in the last three games but those are baby steps,” Yanez said. “If they are able to keep a clean sheet in the first half, they are capable of winning the game. Coming from behind is a tough task for this team.”

The Boys in Gold

Injury/availability report:
OUT: D Walker Zimmerman (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: D Alistair Johnston (ankle)

Walker Zimmerman’s injury absence continues to feel borderline-interminable, and he’s not joined by another right-sided defender in RB Alistair Johnston. Of course, Nashville has been used to playing without those guys, given that they played for the US and Canada, respectively, in the Gold Cup. It seems likely that Johnston is available, even if as a bench option. He came off in the 68th minute against Toronto and wasn’t in the squad for New England, but I think if “in home country for the first time in over a year” hadn’t been a factor, he’d have been available Wednesday evening.

So what does Gary Smith do tactically? He made no secret that some of the rotation in the New England match was in order to have the best-possible team ready to go tonight.

“There’s some rotation to be had, the guys who came on did a fabulous job; it’s not easy coming off the bench, especially with the conditions that we’d had,” he said. “And my hope is that some of those guys that have not gotten as many minutes are maybe going to be in a better spot for the weekend.”

That’s ‘run out the top squad for the more winnable game’ if ever I’ve heard it. The question is more about whether the top squad now means some variation on a 3-5-2, or the 4-2-3-1 that’s been the primary tactical approach for the majority of this club’s time in MLS.

Projected lineups

Back to the 4-2-3-1 for Nashville, with Muyl in a defense-first role and Leal likely slotting in as a pseudo-10 as Mukhtar pushes up with Sapong.

Keys to the game

  • Don’t give up a cheap one. This Miami team basically doesn’t score any other way. So if you play the solid defense that’s expected of a Nashville team under Gary Smith, there won’t be too many opportunities for Miami to steal goals.
  • Set pieces. Except those. Miami isn’t particularly dead-ball-reliant, but Nashville has been prone to giving up cheapies in Walker Zimmerman’s absence.
  • Don’t be afraid to fire away. I was practically jaw-on-floor seeing Randall Leal not crank a couple from just outside the penalty area Wednesday evening. When the opposing keeper is Not Matt Turner, it’s even more worth ripping those and seeing what happens.
  • Big three clickin’. The last time we saw the Leal, Mukhtar, Sapong trio start together (in Toronto), it was not the smoothest outing. Hopefully, a stronger unit behind them and the rest that they were able to get in the midweek has them dialed in.

Prediction

Miami is pretty bad, but that’s exactly what should be scary for a Nashville team that has had a frustrating tendency to play down to the opponent (and to give weak opponents a little too much respect on the road).

Nonetheless, I think a first-half goal from Mukhtar and an assist that Leal finishes the job on set the tone in this one. Even though Miami snags one back after the break, it doesn’t feel like they ever have the opportunity to come all the way back, and Aké Loba ices it with his first goal in Gold.

Nashville SC 3, Inter Miami CF 1

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