The Boys in Gold are back in town. It showed over the weekend, with a vintage home performance and a rousing win over DC United. Can the Nissan Stadium magic keep pace against Orlando City?
Opponent: Orlando City SC (8-4-6)
Time, Location: Wednesday, Aug. 18, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 81ºF, 41% chance of rain, 76% humidity, 4 MPH WSW 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: 30 points, 1.67 PPG (4th East) • 1.56 GF/gm, 1.28 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.08 xG Power (12th MLS), +0.12 G Power (9th MLS). +0.04 “Luck” (16th MLS) • -0.01 Offense (12th MLS), -0.08 Defense (11th MLS). -0.13 away disadvantage
Vegas odds: Nashville SC -123, draw +268, Orlando City +330
Match officials: Referee: Fotis Bazakos. Assistants: Corey Parker, Jeffrey Swartzel. Fourth: Alyssa Nichols. Video assistants: Guido Gonzales Jr., Jeff Muschik
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe. Some of the most notable quotes from my conversation with Julia Poe transcribed. Sunday’s post-match press conference with head coach Gary Smith and two players only tangentially relevant to tonight’s game. The Playlist.
Orlando City SC
OUT: M Jhegson, F Alexandre Pato, M Uri Rosell (lower body)
QUESTIONABLE: GK Pedro Gallese, F Luis Nani, M Mauricio Pereyra (lower body)
Daryl Dike has still not trained with the first team since returning from the Gold Cup with a shoulder injury, and hasn’t been in any matchday squads even though he hasn’t been listed on Orlando’s official injury reports. Keep in mind that he may as well have “out” status even though he’s not listed there. Those actually on the injury report include five of the team’s top eight players in terms of compensation, plus the major offseason signing, Pato.
Let’s go back-to-front – in a marked contrast to most weeks! – for a handful of reasons, including that this OCSC team is better defensively than on offense, and dealing with the absence of Gallese is, perhaps improbably, the most significant personnel question to answer.
“Mason Stadjuhar has been the main player who has been getting the only minutes since then,” the Orlando Sentinel‘s Julia Poe said. “He’s a homegrown player that was signed six years ago, and just got his first games in-goal for the first team with Pedro’s injury. He’s had some tough games to face. Had some bangers scored against him right off the bat, one of those courtesy of [Atlanta’s] Josef Martinez. So it’s always tough to be thrown in like that.”
Gallese has been going through athletic-movement training (e.g. ladder drills), so he’s getting closer physically, and it’s not out of the question that he’s back. But by Julia’s account, the “questionable” status may be overstating things. That’s a bummer because Gallese allows 82% of xG-against. That’s good goalkeepin’! Stadjuhar? Two hundred and fourteen percent, which is not good goalkeepin’. Sample size caveats apply – it’s only been three league games – but this is a guy that Nashville should probably be peppering with shots, just to see what happens. (Brandon Austin was the initial backup to Gallese, but the Tottenham Hotspur player is back in England with the start of the Premier League season).
Only three CBs have seen the starting lineup this season, in a fairly even rotation even though two of them are really good and one is not. That’s been because the two good ones, Robin Jansson (broken nose) and Antônio Carlos (concussion) have dealt with injuries, giving Rodrigo Schlegel right around a third of the minutes. He’s been a below-average interruptor – the other two are very good in that phase – foul-prone, and a bad passer where they other two are solid. At fullback, Kyle Smith can play on either side, and has had to with backs on the left (Joao Moutinho, new signing Emmanuel Más) and right (Ruan, academy product Michael Halliday) rotating somewhat. Ruan and Más are your offense-first guys, though it’s worth noting that Smith – who is a good passer, but far less in the attacking end than his compatriots – is basically the only stay-at-home guy.
The defensive midfield in Orlando’s 4-2-3-1 sees Andrés Perea and Júnior Urso get the lion’s share of minutes, and with the next two players on the depth chart (Jhegson and Uri Rosell) on the injury report, it’s a safe bet that they’re the combo. They’re both kinda horrible on the ball, but can work their way into dangerous areas offensively. Perea (you may recognize the name as a US U-23, after he switched form Colombia) is the more-mobile midfield destroyer, and Urso has a bit more shooting bite.
The attack, as you’ll note at the top, is probably the most-affected group by the injury report. Pato has been out basically the whole year, but Pereyra is over 1000 minutes at the No. 10, and Nani over 1200 at a small variety of positions (wing, 10, striker). So what’s the likelihood that guys listed as ‘questionable’ will actually not play? Load-management has been a famous issue for Nani in particular, and Pareja appears to be very conscious of that when looking at road trips this year.
“The timing of some of their road games is that it’s come at an interval when they decided to go into a rotation lineup, and to travel some of their backup players and maybe leave Nani or Mauricia [Pereyra] or somebody like that at home,” Poe said. “I think that timing has been a little bit odd, but we have noticed that they’re not always traveling their strongest lineup to the longer games.
“When you’re looking at trying to keep guys healthy, it’s, ‘look, are we going to try to take them on a plane and do that if we’re still trying to recover them.’”
Orlando didn’t play over the weekend, but the cup game did come on Thursday last week, and the squad has another game in Orlando Saturday. This looks like a perfect opportunity to not travel the questionable guys to take some mileage off their legs and/or wings. Nani himself is a different question – he’s in the All-Star game Sunday in Los Angeles, so he’s missing Saturday’s game either way, and hopping on a plane either way, so this is probably an opportunity to squeeze one more performance out of him, hope he gets sparing minutes against the Liga MX All-Stars, and is back for the next OCSC game a week from Friday.
That probably leaves Benji Michel and Chris Mueller with a burden of creation from the wings, which is a role that they’ve been OK with – and if Nani’s in the middle, not only is he saving his legs just a bit, he can facilitate some of that. Mueller’s having a rough year (though perhaps the emotional burden of pushing for a post-season transfer – now settled for Hibernian in Scotland – is behind him), while Michel’s been… fine.
Up top, assuming the absences noted above, one must expect Tesho Akindele, who is the minutes leader at the position. He has three goals on 3.32 xG all year – not a huge tally for the No. 1 striker – but has been a good lay-off forward, tied for second on the team in assists with four, though he’s done that on 1.44 xA (so his teammates are pumping his numbers a bit).
All told, aside from the rotation choices on the road – which seem to be a specific and intentional method of dealing with fatigue/burnout – this is a lot like last year’s Orlando team, just dealing with a bunch of injuries. Those injuries have led to a lot of the offensive struggle – Orlando is barely above average there, so let’s not overstate things and act like they’re FC Cincy-level bad – but the defense has been solid to keep the head above water for now.
That’s a bit of a continuation of last season, and part of how Pareja turned a perennial laughingstock into a solid team.
“He’s really, really good at creating confidence in players, which is so important,” Poe said. “They feel like the have the freedom to work within what is actually a very disciplined system. He’s very, very hard, specifically on his midfielders, and I think because of that, Orlando City has been able to become one of those teams that maybe isn’t always flashy – Nani’s creating a lot of flash, but they have a really regimented idea of how they want to defend and how they want to lock things down. When you’ve got guys like Pedro Gallese and Antonio Carlos, it makes it that much easier to keep guys out of goal.”
Without Gallese (worth noting he wasn’t particularly outstanding last year, though some of that is statistical noise, and also “not particularly outstanding” is much better than what OCSC has had without him) and potentially some other key players, this Orlando team may very well be vulnerable.
The Boys in Gold
How much playing time is Walker Zimmerman ready to get? That may be the biggest question for Nashville SC after another semi-soft set-piece goal given up against DC United. I doubt he’s 90-minute fit, but if he’s tapering upward with, say, 60 minutes on his plated after 30-plus on Sunday, a start is not out of the question. With a trip to Los Angeles on his plate for the weekend, giving him a healthy run-out without running him down makes sense.
The rest of Nashville’s approach is largely unaffected. The Boys in Gold have their bye matchdate this weekend, so saving legs (aside from Zimmerman’s) doesn’t need to be a priority with nine days between games. The Big Three of Randall Leal, Hany Mukhtar, and CJ Sapong doesn’t need to be interrupted for rotation – if they are rotated, it’s as much to give guys like Aké Loba and Daniel Ríos a chance to get starters’ minutes as it is to keep the legs of the others fresh.
“There’s a lovely connection between that – what we would class as a – front three, Hany, Randall, and of course CJ,” Gary Smith said after Sunday’s win over DC United. “I think they’ve connected incredibly well, especially here. They look so bright, so confident. And I think that understanding leads to quick attacks, early crosses, areas that they start to understand and appreciate that their teammate may well be working into. And of course there’s got to be good quality between them. But I think they’re a great catalyst for each other. There’s such a nice energy about it, they feed off one another, they’ve been assisting each other, they’ve been scoring off of those, of course, and it’s looked really, really bright for the group.”
It’s worth noting that Nashville’s attack – one of the most prolific in MLS – didn’t get any recognition in the All-Star selections, and if players who were selected come up with “mystery” injuries in tonight’s round of games, it would make sense, given NSC’s bye this weekend, that a replacement could come from Music City, but that’s a pretty deep nest of hypotheticals, to the extent that it shouldn’t affect Gary Smith’s decision making.
So let’s see a full-strength Nashville lineup and see what happens.
Keys to the game
- Win aerials. Even beyond set pieces (which have been an issue during Zimmerman’s absence), headers were not in Nashville’s favor Sunday evening. They got a ton better when he returned. So that’s nice. It’s important to keep it up with a header-happy striker in Akindele.
- Test the keeper. I say this a lot and Nashville rarely follows through. That was very much not the case Sunday night – although Nashville did only test Jon Kempin eight times, two of the five goals were scored even though he got his hands on them. Anyway, Stadjuhar is both worse and less-proven, so go bombs away here.
- Catch Nani going through the motions. We’re a little early in the Summer for his hard fade to happen. But if Nani’s on the pitch (and he might not be! I sort of talked myself into it after initially suspecting he wouldn’t be!), he may very well be willing to make some Business Decisions when the other option is going to wear him out.
- Attack the non-Smith FB. Smith is a nice stay-at-home guy, but the rest of Orlando’s fullbacks are attack-minded and thus potential liabilities on the counter. Nashville… really likes to hit those windows, so let’s see it.
Preview from Julia Poe. Field Level Media preview. Orlando City’s official site wants you to get to know Nashville SC. NSC site matchday lineup. Mane Land catches up with the homie Jamie Watson for intel on the Boys in Gold.
The outcome here really depends on how rotated Orlando City is. If Nani and Pereyra both weren’t on that plane? Hard time predicting anything other than a comfortable Nashville win (which is not necessarily synonymous with “blowout,” though that’s been a welcome addition to the toolkit this year). Otherwise, there should be some tense moments that are natural when the opponent is as talented as it is.
Orlando gets the scoring going on a quick counter, but from there it’s all Nashville. Randall Leal gets a long bomb from outside the penalty area, and the Mukhtar-to-Sapong connection keeps humming.
Nashville wins 2-1.