A win in a tough environment. Can Nashville SC follow it up with a win against a top opponent?
Opponent: New York City FC (10-6-4)
Time, Location: Friday, Sept. 3, 6:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 83ºF, 2% chance of rain, 44% humidity, negligible wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: NashvilleSC.com/stream (not ideal to have this as the only coverage!) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Recent form (most recent first – via): W-L-W-D-D
Non-nerd stats: 34 points, 1.70 PPG (4th/2nd East) • 1.80 GF/gm, 0.95 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +1.09 xG Power (1st MLS), +0.72 G Power (1st MLS). -0.37 “Luck” (24th MLS) • +0.49 Offense (2nd MLS), -0.61 Defense (2nd MLS). -0.74 away disadvantage (2nd MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +170, draw +227, NYCFC +167
Match officials: Referee: Timothy Ford. Assistants: Claudiu Badea, Oscar Mitchell-Carvalho. Fourth: Silviu Petrescu. Video assistants: Fotis Bazakos, Matthew Nelson
OUT: F Heber (inj.)
Int’l duty: D Alex Callens (Peru), D Maxime Chanot (Luxembourg), D James Sands (USA), M Gudi Thórarinsson (Iceland)
NYCFC is elite. Presumably after smoking New England Revolution last week, the Pigeons have made the broader MLS landscape aware of this. The second-best offense (behind New England) and second-best defense (behind LAFC) in xG terms have been obscured by a little bit of bad luck, but there’s no question that this squad is bound for big things. There’s probably not enough runway to catch New England for the top spot in the East – even with three games in-hand – but it would not surprise to see NYCFC finish second.
Striker Valentín “Taty” Castellanos leads MLS in expected goals plus expected assists, Thanks to Carles Gil’s extended absence for New England, he’s probably earned his way into the thick of the MVP conversation. He’s underachieving his xG though (only 10 goals on 13.87 expected), which may partially explain some of that bad luck overall.
“Yes, they’ve got an extremely capable front line, a center forward who’s in wonderful form – if not the best form in the league at the moment – in Castellanos,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said. “He has terrific talent and technical ability, creative ability around him. They have multiple bodies that can fulfill those roles, they have strength coming off the bench.”
“We’ve faced a lot of good strikers in the league, so Castellanos is an all-around player,” Goalkeeper Joe Willis added. “He can finish really well, he’s got some speed, he’s good with his feet. He brings a lot to the table for sure. But like I said, we’ve faced a lot of good strikers in this league, so as far as preparation goes, no, it’s pretty much just business as usual.”
His primary setup man is fellow Argentine Maxi Moralez, a winger who, at 5-2, is considered diminutive even at a position that tends to have a lot of shorter guys play it. It should come as not surprise that Moralez’s passing is the thing that American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added loves about him (+1.54), but it does surprise me that his dribbling has been poor and that he’s a reasonable interruptor on defense. Moralez plays both wide and as more of a No. 10 in a typical 4-2-3-1, with a rotating cast of characters at the other two attacking positions. Jesús Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi are the top options to flank him when he’s in the middle, and Medina is the other primary No. 10, so the two can interchange responsibilities, as well.
After Castellanos and Moralez, the fullbacks – Gudi Thórarinsson on the left, Anton Tinnerholm on the right – produce plenty of expected assists (which may tell you a little bit about the style of play). Thórarinsson is away with Iceland this weekend, though, and that plus Malte Amundsen in over there. He’s less dangerous in attack, but I think you could fairly say that he’s a slightly better defensive defender.
Keaton Parks and Alfredo Morales are almost certain to be the holding midfielders, since the only other regularly-used option there is James Sands (who is also used regularly as a CB), and he’s away on international duty with the United States… which brings us to the defense, where the non-Sands options are Peruvian Alex Callens and Luxembourgish Maxime Chanot, both of whom are also engaged in World Cup Qualifying at this time.
That leaves Vuk Latinovich as a guy who’ll play since he’s literally the only other CB on the roster. Latinovich, a 23-year old rookie from UW-Milwaukee (via the SuperDraft) has 12 minutes all season. I do not know what NYCFC is going to do to paper over all their absences coming at the same position, because the defense is looking grim for this one. They also traded a centerback (Sebastien Ibeagha – who to be fair has been very poor this season) to LAFC last month. Maybe should’ve held onto him. I guess homegrown Tayvon Gray (who has played as a fullback this year, but is also capable of doing it centrally) steps in?
This may all make for a very busy day for goalkeeper Sean Johnson. The US International (third keeper on the roster for the Gold Cup) is a slightly better-than-average shot-stopper over the course of his career, though he’s having a tiny bit below an average year (102% of expected goals allowed). Nashville will presumably want to shell him a bit, and should have opportunities with fans probably being pulled out of the stands to play CB.
So. As we’ve seen at other times this season, this is a perfect game to catch NYCFC: this is an elite team that is without four of the players that make it so. Nashville hasn’t always taken advantage there.
The Boys in Gold
Int’l duty: Aníbal Godoy (Panama), Alistair Johnston (Canada), Randall Leal (Costa Rica), Walker Zimmerman (USA).
Of course, Nashville is not only trying to prevent NYCFC from staking its claim for No. 2 in the East, but at the same time hoping to make its own case for same. A win here would keep NSC ahead of New York City FC no matter what happens in the Pigeons’ game in-hand, and probably give Nashville the inside track to second in the East at this point (with plenty of season to be played, of course).
“It’s our opportunity to challenge that,” Smith explained. “Our home form’s been decent, players are in a confident place. We’ve got some changes, of course, but as I’ve said, I’m confident in our group, and this is a wonderful challenge for us: we want to pit ourselves against the very best in the league. We’ve shown we’re capable of performing against those top teams, and this is just another one of those challenges.”
To win, though, Nashville will have to overcome some personnel absences of its own: defenders Walker Zimmerman and Alistair Johnston will see the Nissan Stadium field this weekend, but it will be Sunday with their national teams when the United States hosts Canada. Meanwhile, Aníbal Godoy and Randall Leal squared off in a scoreless draw between Panama and Costa Rica last night (Leal was stretchered off, in a scary moment, but friend of the blog – and Tico Claudio Villalobos reports it turned out to be cramping), and are unavailable, as well. NSC has been used to dealing with those absences, given all but Leal were absent through the Gold Cup, as well.
“I think you’ve seen already that there’ve been numerous players when we’ve had omissions – and it’s not just Walker, of course, with Alistair Johnston away, who would be classed as one of maybe our starting players – there’ve been numerous individuals who’ve come in and fulfilled a very, very efficient role for the team,” Smith said. “And in fact, when I look back at the Gold Cup and the fixtures that we had across that period of time: the point total for us with those players away – including, of course, Godoy – it couldn’t have been more competitive.
“So in terms of a dynamic of the team, what does the group look like? I mean, I don’t feel we skip a beat. Of course, we miss Walker’s aerial dominance and personality – every team would. There’s not too many Walkers out there. So you know, it’s difficult to replace that type of personality. But I have every confidence in the guys that we have in our group: we have a strong roster, we have players that’re experienced, they’ve seen these situations before, and in some cases, of course, have played against the teams that we’re running into.”
As far as tactical approach goes, I think the “ain’t broke, don’t fix” principle comes into play. The 3-4-3/3-5-2 hybrid that we’ve seen in recent weeks, with CJ Sapong and Daniel Ríos up top and Hany Mukhtar underneath creating is the move. Meanwhile, Nashville can plug a now-healthy, no-longer-suspended Dax McCarty into the hole left by Godoy’s absence.
What happens along the backline is the primary question here. Without Johnston, there’s not a flexible RB/RCB option. Do we see Dan Lovitz inverted on the right again? Do Jack Maher and Jalil Anibaba step in for Zimmerman and Johnston? There are plenty of different permutations that Gary Smith can tinker with.
Of course, he could also say, “let’s go back to the 4-2-3-1,” which would help paper over the defensive absences, and give opportunities to attacking players who have sought bigger roles. There’s one in particular that everyone’s thinking about, of course: striker Aké Loba.
“As we move along the line here, I would expect to see more and more of Aké, more and more minutes,” Smith said. “And my hope is – of course – by the time we enter into this final quarter of the season, we’re starting to see an individual that can play a much bigger role and a much bigger part in what we’re able to achieve this year.”
The last detail to keep in mind is home-field advantage. These are the two teams in MLS with the biggest split in favor of their home games (which is to say NYCFC has not been particularly good on the road). Friday-afternoon timing is a little less exciting, perhaps, but Nashville SC’s fans will want to do their part in one of just four home games remaining on the schedule.
“I mean, we just need to take full advantage of it,” Willis said. “We know that we don’t have a lot of home games left. We’ve been really good at home. Probably dropped more points than we would have liked, but because of that, we need to take full advantage. We understand that we have a road-heavy remainder of the schedule, so we need to take advantage of it while we can. We need to win these games. It’s three points or nothing for us at this point, as far as home games go.”
Keys to the game
- Test the inexperienced defenders. For obvious reasons.
- Make Castellanos earn it. You aren’t going to shut down a guy like Taty Castellanos; your best hope is to make life difficult and annoying for him. Disrupting his connection with Moralez will be a key.
- Get an early lead. The absence of first-choice defenders for both teams probably lends itself to an open, up-and-down game. To be honest, you probably trust NYCFC’s attack more than Nashville’s in such an instance (though you trust NSC’s defense a ton more). Getting an early lead allows Smith’s side to worry less about keeping pace in that open style, and just focus on locking things down.
- Set pieces. As usual, though it’s also worth noting that there’s not a ton of height in New York City’s backup defensive corps. Could be an opportunity for one of Nashville’s to rise up and head one home.
New York City FC is an elite MLS team, but it’s impossible to know just how these absences will knock the Pigeons off that mark. Certainly they don’t help, but is the team good enough to succeed despite being short-handed? I think Nashville gets a 2-0 first-half lead, NYCFC pulls one back in the second half, and then a set-piece goal sets the final margin.
Should that happen, the result will look really good on the scoreboard, and even though it would be facilitated by rough circumstances for NYCFC, the perception of NSC around the league will be much more result-oriented than loaded with these obvious caveats.
Nashville SC wins, 3-1.