Nashville SC

Nashville SC game preview 2021: @ Atlanta United (round two)

A pair of draws against Atlanta United – one satisfying, and the other disappointing – and now Nashville closes the season series against a rival. The Five Stripes are in the best form they’ve seen this season. What shall we see?

The essentials

Opponent: Atlanta United (6-6-9)
Time, Location: Saturday, Aug. 28, 2:30 p.m. CDT (3:30 local) • Atlanta
Weather: 86ºF, 15% chance of rain (so the dome will be open)
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: Univision/TUDN (nacionál)/Twitter (national stream) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)

Recent form (most recent first – via): W-W-W-W-D
Non-nerd stats: 27 points, 1.29 PPG (9th East) • 0.93 GF/gm, 0.96 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.40 xG Power (20th MLS), +0.05 G Power (12th MLS). +0.45 “Luck” (2nd MLS) • -0.11 Offense (17th MLS), +0.29 Defense (23rd MLS). -0.63 home disadvantage (24th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +239, draw +242, Atlanta United +114

Match officials: Referee: Rosendo Mendoza. Assistants: Kyle Atkins, Jeremy Hanson. Fourth: Luis Guardia. Video assistants: Younes Marrakchi, Jeff Muschik

Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe. All the content from postgame of the first contest in Atlanta, postgame stuff from the matchup in Nashville, all the content from last year’s Atlanta games: (one, two, three), and the previous Atlanta previews. Gary Smith and Randall Leal pregame presser. Get hype with this week’s edition of The Playlist.

Atlanta United

Injury/availability report:
OUT: M Mo Adams (quad), M Emerson Hyndman (ACL), M Franco Ibarra, D Jake Mulraney, M/D Santiago Sosa (all lower body)

This Atlanta team is in a very different place than it was last Nashville saw it: then on an 0-2-3 run, Atlanta has won four straight, and is unbeaten in five. It’d be easy to say “dump Heinze, get better,” but it’s also worth noting that interim Rob Valentino started with a draw against Cincinnati and two losses before finding his footing, and permanent headman Gonzalo Pineda has been in charge for one game.

“We’ve had two games already against Atlanta,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said. “I know there’ve been one or two personnel changes: maybe players coming back from injury that weren’t around in our last game, and of course a head-coaching change. But to that degree, we’re not going to know what changes tactically within that group. I would suspect with four wins on the spin that there’ll be a lot of confidence in the group, and there’ll be some similarities from their last three or four games.”

The personnel absences are of moderate significance here: Hyndman has been out long-term, Mulraney’s absence is exceeding a month by this point, and Ibarra’s is at two. Atlanta has excelled without those guys. However, Adams (another long-term absence) is the primary backup to Sosa, who left the Toronto game with injury and missed last weekend’s game.

The bright side for Atlanta is they’ve switched to a pure back three since Heinze’s dismissal, no longer using Sosa as a hybrid player who drops from midfield, so his importance to the scheme is far less crucial.

Since that shift, the backline has been Anton Walkes, Alan Franco, and Miles Robinson when all are available. George Campbell can step in for any of the three if necessary. American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added (G+) really likes Walkes, but is fairly sour on any other CB options – with Robinson being the best of the bunch at -0.21 on the year, a below-average mark. Atlanta has been a solid defensive team in the current run of success – and particularly so at home – so I wouldn’t sweat that Franco and Robinson’s main failing is that they don’t disrupt much: that seems as much a matter of style as anything.

Behind them, Brad Guzan is rounding into form (90% of xG-conversion allowed) just a bit after starting the year approximately average. For what it’s worth, he’s been below average each year since his first in MLS – he’s only 36, so not hyper-old for a keeper, but Father Time catches everyone, I guess. Whether he bounces back (down) to his career averages or is truly raising his game can only be a guess, but I lean toward the former. The issue is that bounces back are inherently unpredictable timing-wise.

Guzan’s better shot-stopping numbers (and Alec Kann’s far-superior numbers – 77% of xG conversion allowed – during Guzan’s absence for the Gold Cup) have combined with much better finishing – hello, Josef Martinez, and thank you for finally joining us in MLS, Ezequiel Barco – to produce better results for Atlanta. That’s notable because the expected goal performance has actually been inconsistent-to-poor in that time. If you’re an xG believer, and particularly if you’re not a believer in Guzan and Barco’s respective abilities to outperform, the hot run for Atlanta may be unsustainable.

Since Heinze’s dismissal, Atlanta is scoring 1.50 goals per game on 1.47 xG for. That’s only slight overachievement, with the xG number good for eighth in the league and the raw number sixth. Defensively, an xG-against of 1.50 (22nd in the league) has resulted in only 1.25 goals-against (14th). The difference between experimental and observed becomes truly stark during the five-game unbeaten streak, though: the raw numbers see the team rise to fourth (1.80 goals) from eighth in expectations (1.63 xG), while the defensive numbers remain mostly static in ranking (though Atlanta has allowed 1.7 goals fewer than expected).

That’s all to say that the offensive creation has improved incrementally at-most. Central midfielder Marcelino Moreno has been one of the players to actually amp up output, with nearly half of his goals (three out of seven on the year) and half his assists (one of a pair) coming in the past five outings – which represent about a quarter of his minutes played. The big winner, though, has been previously-disappointing attacker Ezequiel Barco. Three of his four goals and all three of his assists on the year have come during this stretch. He’s overachieving the expected numbers (1.57 xG, 1.36 xA) in that stretch, but playing as part of a quick-striking attack pairing up top with Martinez has certainly helped him, one way or another. Fewer opportunities to waste possession on the dribble (weirdly, he’s a famously-bad decision-maker on the dribble, but G+ hasn’t really had problems with him, even before this stretch).

“I think now, it’s completely different,” said Nashville SC’s Randall Leal. “They are very good, very sharp. The players are very motivated. So I think it’s going to be different to last time. But always, we play against them, the opportunity that we play against them, we play very good. So I think Saturday is going to be different, but you know, we have a good team, we are good, we are in a good position, so it’s just to make, to do the same: to try to get the points there and keep doing the good work that we are doing.”

Linking the front and back is a midfield line of five that includes wingbacks George Bello and Brooks Lennon. Both of them have been surprisingly quiet on offense during this stretch, given their reputations (particularly for Lennon). My primary hypothesis is that the defend-and-counter, quick-strike nature of the 3-5-2 means they aren’t required to get forward and send in service (also it’s the only style of play under which Josef Martinez has ever been anything other than miserable). Moreno and new signing Luiz Araújo have been the offense-minded midfielders, while Sosa’s absence means it’s likely down to mid-season trade Amar Sejdic to man the middle – the fourth time Nashville has seen the former CF Montreal standout.

All told, your opinion of this Atlanta team boils down to whether it’s the same team it has been all year (perhaps even slightly worse!), or if the rise from below-average in team luck the last time these sides played to the second-luckiest team in the league is sustainable. That largely comes down to your faith in Josef Martinez (strong!), Brad Guzan (less so!), and Ezequiel Barco (not really any at all! but willing to be wrong if moving to a strike pairing really has just opened up his potential!). Notably, Atlanta has been a pretty poor home team in recent weeks from an xG perspective, with even the scoreboard – a pair of 1-0 wins – not entirely convinced.

The Boys in Gold

Injury/availability report:
OUT: M Matt LaGrassa, M Dax McCarty (health & safety protocols)
SUSPENDED: Also Dax McCarty (yellow accumulation)

Nashville will be extremely close to a full-strength lineup with Walker Zimmerman and Alistair Johnston in the second game of their brief return to the squad before international duty calls once more. Aníbal Godoy and Randall Leal, who were not in the Gold Cup for injury and personal (birth of son) reasons, respectively, will also represent their countries in next week’s World Cup Qualifiers. It would behoove Nashville to get the most out of those guys while they’re available.

Throwing a wrench into the works is central midfield depth. Dax McCarty would be unavailable due to yellow card accumulation anyway, but both he and Matt LaGrassa are out due to the league’s coronavirus health and safety protocols, leaving Godoy and Brian Anunga as the lone regularly-used players in those roles. Alex Muyl – who could otherwise participate as a winger or a wingback, depending on tactical philosophy – may need to sit on the bench as the emergency option for either of them.

That raises a question of the broader tactical philosophy Nashville intends to implement. While the 3-4-3/3-5-2 that we’ve seen in recent weeks has had its successes, it also hasn’t been failproof: Nashville has been shut out twice, and scored just a single goal three times in the past seven – none of those contests resulting in a win. (It’s also worth noting that the other two games saw the team score three in a game they could have scored seven or eight, and five in a game they probably should have had “only” three or four). The attacking front three is still creating, but the blips of success are more about CJ Sapong outperforming his xG (six goals on 2.01 expected), while the shift has led to an offensive slump for Randall Leal (one goal on 0.33 xG, one assist on 1.20 xA in a seven-game sample is a slump for him).

A bit of rest may serve the team well, at least.

“I think sometimes we need this [break],” Leal said. “We need this because we played a lot of games in a row: like three games before the break. I think it’s very good for us to get that rest, and to be clear of the mind, to do something with the family also, and to be ready for this game.”

While playing him centrally has often led to some of Leal’s best work – despite his specialty as a winger – he’s also happier with more players to interchange with. Yes, I’m going to call for a return to 4-2-3-1 principles, but with a shift: the freedom of Hany Mukhtar to push into the forward line with Sapong for a bit of an unbalanced (and Nashville’s 3-4-3/3-5-2 principles have had similar bits of unbalanced formation, albeit with an additional centerback rather than another attacker for Leal to interplay with) 4-2-2-2.

Probably I should just go full Scuffed with separate Greg/Gregg lineups. Because it’l remain the 3-5-2 setup.

Projected lineups

Keys to the game

  • Pepper Guzan. I’m a believer that his recent uptick in form is mostly statistical noise (especially since Toronto and Columbus have had trouble scoring on anyone this year, while LAFC’s ability to underperform its offensive expected goals is truly a sight to behold) on a low sample size. Make him prove that he’s the keeper the numbers say he is now, not the one he’s been for the better portion of the past four years.
  • Unleash Leal. Directly related to the above.
  • Force Barco to make decisions. The Argentine Disappointment® has been at his best in these past few weeks when a lot of the decision-making has been taken off his plate. He hits on the counter, and benefits from being surrounded by Marcelino Moreno behind him and Josef Martinez on his forward line. Sitting off him and requiring a little more thinking, rather than just being able to flow with the game, makes sense.
  • Set pieces. Nashville should have had a win in Nissan Stadium against the Five Stripes but for two of ’em conceded. Of course, both NSC goals were also from dead-ball situations. So I guess I’m only further pointing out how important they are.

Prediction

Atlanta was disappointed to suffer a draw last time in Mercedes Benz Stadium, while Nashville was devastated to return the favor in Nissan Stadium. This time, I honestly believe a draw of a certain nature is satisfying – not elating – to both sides.

The game ends in a 1-1 draw.

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