Nashville SC stumbled to a close win against a bad DC United team last season in Nissan Stadium. Both teams are much better in 2021, and it should be an exciting contest.
Opponent: DC United (8-7-3)
Time, Location: Sunday, Aug. 15, 6 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 78ºF, 69% chance of rain, 83% humidity, neligible 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: 27 points, 1.50 PPG (6th East) • 1.50 GF/gm, 1.17 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.69 xG Power (4th MLS), +0.25 G Power (6th MLS). -0.44 “Luck” (25th MLS) • +0.07 Offense (7th MLS), -0.62 Defense (2nd MLS). +0.75 away advantage
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +112, draw +224, DC United + 265
Match officials: Referee: Drew Fischer. Assistants: Cameron Blanchard, Chris Elliott. Fourth official: Ted Unkel. Video Assistants: Kevin Terry Jr., Craig Lowry
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe. Coverage from last year’s DC game. Learning about United by checking in with Sarah Kallassy of Switch the Pitch. Pre-match press conference with head coach Gary Smith and defender Dan Lovitz. The Playlist.
OUT: D Brendan Hines-Ike (hip), F Adrien Perez (foot), F Nigel Rigobertha (groin), M Russell Canouse (ankle), GK Bull Hamid (hamstring), D Donovan Pines (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: M Edison Flores
That is a hefty injury report! You have your starting keeper, two of your top four centerbacks, a starting central midfielder, and two of your top three pure strikers out, with another attacking player questionable!
Before you begin to throw a party about a meager DC attack, though, it’s best to take stock of what’s still available, which is Golden Boot contender Ola Kamara (10 goals on 6.02 xG), and one of the league’s top assist threats in fullback Julian Gressel (three assists on 5.49 xA). Even a shorthanded DC attack has extremely potent piece.
“Any front line that’s productive have normally got a combination of a couple of qualities, and this front line have: they’re capable of getting beyond, there’s a bit of pace, there’s some nice ability, and there’s certainly a good amount of strength and competitive nature,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said. “But I think just as importantly is the understanding and connection that those guys have. I’m sure Kamara’s benefitting from this group, this team, and the type of run that they’re in, with the goals that he’s scoring. He’s very much reliant – as most forwards are – on service, and with the likes of Gressel in this side, you’re always going to get good supply lines. And he’s taken advantage of those right now: he’s in a good run.”
“Kamara has been supported by Losada’s system in a way that has really left him unfettered to score those goals,” said Switch the Pitch‘s Sarah Kallassy. “He’s now the most-scoring player in terms of goals to minutes played in the league. I think he’s scoring a goal about every 62 minutes? If we look back to Kamara’s first seasons in MLS with Columbus, he was scoring 16, 18 goals per season. He’s on track to match or exceed his best goal scoring record during this 2021 season, and I’m here for it!
While certainly new head coach Hernán Losada wishes he had more of his depth available, that’s a heck of a one-two-punch. Complement it with guys like Yamil Asad and Paul Arriola on the wing, and you have plenty to like in terms of potential. Arriola in particular is a player who – perhaps because he’s considered a filler piece for the US Men’s National Team when the Christian Pulisics of the world aren’t called in – never seems to be fully appreciated. He’s having an outstanding year on the dribble (+0.35 in American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added), and has been above-average in passing, receiving (getting into dangerous areas to get passes), and shooting.
“Paul’s one of my favorite people and players in the league,” said Nashville left back Dan Lovitz. “I think he’s very underrated at the national team level and in MLS, for sure. Obviously he’s a star, everyone knows that. But he does so many things well that people don’t realize, and he works his butt off. He’s a great guy, honest player, very talented. He’s been electric in this league for a long time now.”
US Youth International Kevin Paredes is probably a fullback in the long-term, but has also been drawn into action on the left wing because his dribbling ability can create issues for opponents out wide. He has two goals on the year, though his ability to provide service hasn’t shown just yet on the field.
Moving backward in the formation, Canouse’s absence is less-than-ideal, but there’s plenty of depth in central midfield – and that’s another spot where a promising US Youth International, Moses Nyeman, has stepped up. The diminutive youngster is not a G+ favorite (third-worst on the team, though that still puts him ahead of one of the other options for a CM spot, Felipe Martins), though he was the co-star of one of my favorite GIFs from the USL days:
The willingness to stand up to guys twice his age (and probably close to twice his mass!) is a nice microcosm of his attitude on the pitch, as well. Whether it’s he or Martins next to preferred starter Junior Moreno, it’ll be Moreno doing a lot of the heavy lifting, as an extreme stay-at-home holding mid with good ability to distribute all over the field.
I was very much not expecting the defensive stats to be part of the “DC is extremely good in xG terms, but suffering from a bit of bad luck occasionally.” However, that’s the case, with the second-best defense (adjusted for opponents’ averages) so far this season. Injury has forced Losada to be a little creative – DC has gone with traditional back-four formations, but has been apt to run out 3-4-3 or 5-4-1s, as well – with some players capable of being flexible positionally. Former LAFC (and in the more distant past DC) defender Andy Najar is one such player: a right back by trade, he plays on the left or as one of the CBs in the current setup.
Frédéric Brillant and Antonio Alfaro – both well-below-average in G+’s “interrupting” metric, which generally encompasses much of what you can glean from event data for defenders – are the locked-in guys at CB with Hines-Ike and Pines out. Gressel is a lock at RB (though he’s obviously much more attacking threat than pure defender).
“Gressel is one of the most productive players on the pitch for D.C. United, his work rate is absolutely incredible. He seems to be absolutely everywhere and is near the top of the league in assists. Gressel’s fitness makes him able to press and really run down players on defense too.”
That’s borne out in the numbers, too: he’s a top interruptor, but it’s worth noting that he’s doing it all over the pitch, rather than just in the defensive third. A lot of that is because of the major changes instituted with the first new coach DC had seen in over a decade. Former DC defender Ben Olsen was dismissed toward the end of last year, and his… at-times pragmatic approach meant United knew the floor, but there wasn’t much of a high ceiling, either.
“They’ve had really great years when they’ve been at the top of the East and they had an identity, and then with the same sort of group of players and coach, definitely for a long time, they had a horrible record but then won the Open Cup that year,” said NSC defender Dan Lovitz, who played DC regularly at previous stops in the Eastern Conference. “So they’ve always been an interesting team to figure out, but the most exciting thing about them is sort of how this new stadium and new energy around the club has sort of galvanized this group. They’ve made a lot of good additions all over the field, and they have their identity.”
Losada has inserted a fitness-obsessed, high-press philosophy. DC is middle-of-the-pack in the league in terms of interrupting, but when you restrict to the attacking half of the field, they jump into the top five in the league. There was an adjustment period – getting blasted at San Jose and Columbus in the first month of the season, and only squeaking by in home matches – but the advanced numbers have really come around, and if the counting numbers catch up, this team should continue to rise.
“Early part of the season, it looked very much like the team were getting used to some of the ideas and maybe some of the tactical shifts to the group, but they’ve rounded into form,” Smith said. “They are a very energetic, high-pressing, high-energy group. Slowly-but-surely some of the connections and some of the creativity has started to be added to the group.”
That high press, as it so often does, means big interrupting numbers for covering defenders. It also means goalkeepers can be asked to carry a bit of the load, and with Bill Hamid out… the backups are a major part in why an elite DC defense in expected goals terms looks pretty bad in the absolute. Jon Kempin is the primary choice, while Chris Seitz (183% of xG allowed!) was a nightmare in his opportunities.
“Kempin has really been a standout these past few matches, his save percentage is sitting at about 60% and we can expect that to improve over the coming matches,” Kallasy said. “In the beginning of the season we had a brief look at what he was capable of between the sticks and his performance was very promising. I’m personally excited to see him develop and come into his own under Losada’s system.”
The advanced numbers aren’t so sold, though it’s worth noting that allowing 106% of expected goals, while below the league average, is just 3% worse than Hamid, who is not having a career year.
All told, this is a DC team that’s performing extremely well, but not always taking full advantage of its performances. That’s… pretty similar to Nashville, though DC’s gap between process and results is even larger (and the ceiling even higher) – and of course the teams are doing it in very different ways.
The Boys in Gold
Walker Zimmerman and Alistair Johnston are BACK, baby.
“Walker will be part of the group at the weekend,” Smith said. “He’ll be ready to be part of any selection that I decide upon towards the weekend. He’s moved forward very well, he’s worked extremely hard, and got himself in a very, very good place. Of course, we’re all delighted that he’s back in the fold.
“[Johnston]’s another body that’s done a very good job of getting through his work and recovering quicker, maybe, than we thought he would, and he’ll be available for selection as well. Again, it gives me plenty of options, having seen what could be classed as a squad group, or a squad that’s very much competed to a very high level.”
That gives plenty of tactical flexibility – basically any sort of flexibility that Nashville can dream up, it has the full roster to execute. My preferred formation remains the 4-2-3-1, because that’s your best combination of defending and attacking prowess. It also provides the ability to ease Zimmerman and Johnston back in. Smith has shown a tendency to not start guys in their first game back to full health, and playing with just two centerbacks means you can bring Zimmerman and Johnston off the bench in natural roles, while not taxing the guys you plan to sub them in for too much.
After a really disappointing outing last weekend for the “big three” attackers, getting Randall Leal, Hany Mukhtar, and CJ Sapong back onto the pitch in natural positions – perhaps with Aké Loba as a member of a fluid front four? – would be quite great. I don’t necessarily think it’ll happen, but it’s an intimidating look.
A simple bounceback is fully expected, of course.
“If you look at the fact that we played three games in a short period of time and plenty of travel, it was a really tough weekend for us and one of course that we can dissect and look at and try and improve from,” Smith said. “But I just don’t think there’s any similarity between what you’re going to see out of the group at the end of a tough travel week and getting back at home in an arena that the guys have looked confident and positive in all season so far.”
Keys to the game
- Set pieces. Ever has it been, ever shall it be.
- Be willing to take some risks. This DC team is going to get its opportunities in attack. If you’re more willing to just live with those because you know you’re ready to answer on the other end, it’s certainly a more exciting game, and potentially a more effective one.
- Test the keeper. DC’s keepers have been a weak point making the results look worse than the performances on several occasions. Make this be another of those./
Nashville SC 3, DC United 2