Nashville SC

Nashville SC game preview 2021: @ Toronto FC (round two)

Nashville SC already has a win against TFC this season. But it was closer-than-expected, and the Reds got a small measure of revenge in NSC’s first trip to Toronto. Can the Boys in Gold get the job done in their final trip North of the Border this year?

The essentials

Opponent: Toronto FC (3-15-6)
Time, Location: Saturday, Sept. 18, 6:30 p.m. CDT (7:30 local) • Toronto, Ont.
Weather: 69ºF, 1% chance of rain, 55% humidity, 10 mph NNW winds.
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30/NashvilleSC.com (local), ESPN+ (national stream) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)

Recent form (most recent first): L-L-L-L-L
Non-nerd stats: 15 points, 0.63 PPG (14th East) • 1.08 GF/gm, 2.08 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.74 xG Power (27th MLS), -0.68 G Power (27th MLS). +0.06 “Luck” (15th MLS) • -0.29 Offense (24th MLS), +0.45 Defense (25th MLS). +0.08 home disadvantage (10th MLS)*
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +129, draw +243, Toronto FC +208

Match officials: Referee: Pierre-Luc Lauziere. Assistants: Michael Barwegen, Lyes Arfa. Fourth official: David Gantar. Video assistants: Carol Anne Chenard, Philippe Briere

Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe, and listen to Nashville’s own Torontoan, Alistair Johnston. Coverage from the home game and the previous match in Ontario. Get hype with this week’s edition of The Playlist.

* It’s worth noting that TFC was one of the worst home teams in the league prior to the return to BMO Field. The results there have dragged the team up to better-than-average (and are probably more indicative of the homefield advantage)

Toronto FC

Injury/availability report:
OUT: F Ayo Akinola (ACL), F Jozy Altidore, M Ralph Priso, M Alejandro Pozuelo, F Tsubasa Endoh (all lower body), F Jayden Nelson, M Nick DeLeon (both Covid protocol).
SUSPENDED: D Kemar Lawrence (red card)

Toronto has played much better at home since the move to BMO Field (as noted above), but this team is still bad. They’re 0-7-2 since last I previewed them – with Nashville of course accounting for one of the draws – and the Reds are on a five-game losing streak as well. Adding insult to injury, they lost left back Kemar Lawrence to a red card on Tuesday evening, compounding seven injury absences with a disciplinary one, and defender Justin Morrow retired midweek, shorting the squad two left backs (Morrow is getting up in year and has been banged up, but it’s not like he hasn’t been a contributor this season – he started and made a bench appearance in the past two matches).

“Toronto have got their own issues and questions to answer on Saturday,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said. “And I’m sure with the group of players that they have, they’re very capable of answering some of those questions, from their run so far this year if we allow them to. We have to concentrate on the working and the challenging and it’s not an easy place to go as we found out but, what? a month? six weeks ago? When all’s said and done, cutting to the chase, they have an exceptionally talented group of players who are very, very capable.”

Let’s start with the defense, since that’s where TFC has been simply awful. The goalkeeping has not been good, with Alex Bono getting the majority of the time but only performing slightly better than Quentin Westberg. The latter missed the beginning of the season with injury – which provided some hope for the performance when he returned – but he was promptly so bad that Bono (allowing 113% of expected goals) made it right back to the top of the depth chart. Here’s what I wrote in the last preview.

Alex Bono has retaken his starting keeper job after Quentin Westberg’s awful return to the lineup (including the loss in Nashville) has seen him allow nearly double opponents’ xG in scoring. Bono isn’t stellar – allowing 10% over expected – but that’s way, way better, and we saw against Chicago Fire that he’s capable of single-handedly keeping his team in games.

Aug. 1

Of course, mediocre-minus goalkeeping isn’t the be-all end-all when you have a very solid defense, and Toronto has… one of the worst in MLS in terms of opponents’ chance creation. They’re about half a standard deviation worse than average, and that’s over the course of the entire year. Without Morrow (785 minutes on the year), Lawrence (1352 minutes), and defensive midfielder Ralph Priso (621 minutes), I would not suspect the situation improves.

The rotation in the backline is going to have similar principles but with different implications than the last time I previewed this team:

Omar Gonzalez and Chris Mavinga are the preferred central defenders, though they’ve been out of the lineup occasionally (due to rotation or minor injuries for Mavinga), which has put youngster Luke Singh in there. Singh also plays at left back in the absence of Kemar Lawrence – played for Jamaica Thursday – or Justin Morrow.

Aug. 1

Mavinga and Gonzalez will have to play in the center, and Singh is basically the only option on the left. TFC does have the option to go to a back-three with that crew (leaving no experienced backups, to be fair), putting Richie Laryea at left wingback – he’s a right back by trade who also plays as a left winger for both TFC and the Canadian national team – and Auro Jr. on the right. Toronto has avoided a back-three like the plague this season, even in other circumstances that may have called for it, so that seems like a mid-game changeup at most.

Marky Delgado (I guess it’s “Marco” now? I don’t know when we officially made that change) and Michael Bradley are your DMs, though you do wonder if the 34-year old Bradley can go just a few days after 90-plus minutes (the majority of those playing down a man) Tuesday night. A onetime famously-fit player, he doesn’t have the same stamina nor overall motor he once did. Despite that, he’s actually having a very good season per ASA‘s Goals Added, largely thanks to his passing and a fair amount of interrupting. Noble Okello would be the guy to step in if he needs some rest, but you have to think starting Bradley gives Toronto the best chance to win on the day.

The attacking lines are also getting pretty thin. Ayo Akinola has been out long-term, while Jozy Altidore’s return to the lineup is temporarily cut short due to injury. Attacking midfielders Alejandro Pozuelo (the reining MLS MVP) and Nick DeLeon are unavailable, as are wingers Tsbuasa Endoh and Jayden Nelson.

“They’re without two of their – what I would suspect they class as – first-choice strikers through injury, which can’t be very helpful,” Smith said. “And I’m sure that the coach is looking at it and thinking to himself, ‘ok, how do I put myself in position as a team where we can see some more confidence in the group? Where we can turn a result our way?’”

DP winger Yeferson Soteldo will be the key to this attack if only because he and fellow winger are the only productive attackers available (Delgado – a holding No. 6 – is right behind them on the charts). Take all that and contextualize it through a lens of Toronto’s attacking being among the worst in MLS even when reasonably healthy, and it gets dicey real fast for interim manager Javier Pérez. Forward Dom Dwyer does have a track record in this league, albeit in the semi-distant past, and even though he has only 406 minutes this year, he basically has to play.

“I know [Tsubasa] Endoh went out with an injury midweek, I don’t know if we’ll see maybe a Dom Dwyer come in with his energy, his ability to just be a nuisance up top and cause havoc,” NSC defender Walker Zimmerman said.. Different types of players, but certainly not having Jozy is a big loss for them as he’s a proven goal-scorer in this league.

If TFC is going to score, it’s largely going to come from set-pieces, with Soteldo providing the service (he assisted Omar Gonzalez’s tally in the last matchup between these teams, too). The question then becomes whether Walker Zimmerman’s first appearance against TFC this year can be a difference-maker from dead-ball situations.

The Boys in Gold

Injury/availability report:
Out: None.

Nashville is fully healthy, and pending the difficulty of getting some guys over the border in the covid era (an issue in the last game between these teams, and potentially one that went largely unnoticed against Montreal last weekend, because the team won despite the absence of some regular bench players), should have just about everyone you could possibly want.

This is a Nashville team clicking on all cylinders right now, with three straight wins (two of those on the road) and a five-match unbeaten streak that includes knocking off some teams close to the top of the table.

A lot of that may read “trap game,” and certainly some fans responded in that manner when I published the injury report Friday afternoon. A Nashville SC team that started out better than Toronto FC is at full strength while the Reds are struggling and also short-handed.

“I think they’re certainly better than the results they’ve had,” Zimmerman said. “Even just watching the game on Tuesday, they probably deserved more. It’s an experienced group, and yeah they’re struggling for sure, but any time that you take a team lightly, that’s when you get bit in this league.”

I do think the way the previous game played out is going to be important, though: Gary Smith’s teams certainly seem to put on their best show when they feel like there’s a revenge opportunity after a previous result that belied the underlying performance. Put together the same type of performance, get a bit better luck – and oh yeah, have the reigning lLeague Defender of the Year for the first time in three matches against Toronto FC this year – and you may very well be cookin’ with gas.

“I do think that you’ve got look back on the games that we had against Toronto last year as well,” Smith said. “I think we’re beyond that now, Tim, in terms of what we might be able to achieve through consequential circumstances.”

My contentions would be that 1) Gary Smith’s track record in game three against the same team still applies, and 2) even if you aren’t a believer in that, the other factors at play in this game are strong advantage Boys in Gold.

Projected lineups

As you can see, it’s essentially a Best-XI for Nashville SC, with Alistair Johnston in the RCB role that he’s become so comfortable playing on this very field. I do have Randall Leal as the attacking midfielder under Hany Mukhtar and CJ Sapong, since it makes more sense to me to have finishers on the bench to run out as subs, rather than creative players who have to feel their way into the game (it also provides more flexibility with how that attacking three is deployed).

Keys to the game

Many of these are the same as last time around!

  • Set pieces. The vast majority of the goals in the 2021 (including both in the most recent matchup) have come from dead balls. Get the upper hand in the set-piece game, and you feel a lot more comfortable about emerging victorious.
  • Attack Bradley and Delgado specifically. They’re each a single yellow card away from a suspension, so they may very well be timid to make those tough foul choices. Alternatively, if they do foul – as they’re prone to do – you’re setting up Hany Mukhtar in dangerous positions, as well.
  • Be smart. The reason trap games exist is because teams let emotion (particularly overconfidence) outweigh what they know is the right play in a given moment. If that doesn’t happen, the gap between these teams is large.
  • Test the keeper. With Randall Leal on the field (and reasonably rested with just 15 minutes in the past two weeks), this shouldn’t be an issue. Don’t be afraid to fire away.

Prediction

I simply do not believe the Gary Smith magic pixie dust third game principle (GSMPDTGP) dries up this time around. Nashville SC was satisfied with the previous game in Toronto, but the final score was disappointing vis-a-vis how the run of play went. Get Walker Zimmerman going on set pieces and continue the Mukhtar-to-Sapong magic of the 2021 season, and you have a solid victory.

Nashville SC wins, 2-0.

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