Nashville earned a major home win against the Boys from the District. Can NSC repeat the feat with a trip to Buzzard’s Point?
Opponent: DC United (12-12-4)
Time, Location: Saturday, Oct. 16, 6:30 p.m. CDT • Washington, D.C.
Weather: 63ºF, 21% chance of rain, 70% humidity, 11mph WNW wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30/NashvilleSC.com/stream (local) ESPN+ (national) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Recent form (most recent first – via): L-W-W-L-W
Non-nerd stats: 40 points, 1.43 PPG (5th East) • 1.23 GF/gm, 1.03 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.78 xG Power (3rd MLS), +0.22 G Power (8th MLS). -0.56 “Luck” (26th MLS) • +0.36 Offense (3rd MLS), -0.42 Defense (5th MLS). -0.19 home disadvantage (17th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +231, draw +221, NYCFC +129
Match officials: Referee: Ismail Elfath. Assistants: Jose da Silva, Gjovalin Bori. Fourth official: Matthew Thompson; Video Assistants: Ismir Pekmic, Jozef Batko.
OUT: D Brendan Hines-Ike (hip), M Paul Arriola (groin), M Edison Flores (calf), F Yordy Reyna (quad)
QUESTIONABLE: F Adrian Perez (groin), F Ramón Ábila (foot)
DC is not healthy! However, this is also a deep team: at over 1000 minutes, Hines-Ike is fifth on the CB depth chart. Around 1200 minutes, Arriola is the only one with more time on the pitch than that.
Of course, Arriola is also third on the team in Goals Added despite his limited time on the pitch – he was with the US in the Gold Cup and both World Cup Qualifying windows thus far – he’s third on the team in total Goals Added (+0.78). Hines-Ike is second among CBs in G+ (+0.28). The rest of the guys out with injury, however, are comfortably below average in the metric.
This should be a team looking for a bit of revenge after Nashville’s 5-2 drubbing in Music City.
“It was a very, very good win at home against them,” NSC head coach Gary Smith said. “I think we saw all of the qualities and the abilities that they have. A team that plays with their heart on their sleeve, and they’ll be, I’m sure, very much up for this challenge against us, having been beaten at our place. The implications are massive. Their form has seen them go through the gears and put themselves in a very good spot.”
“I think everything was just clicking in that game,” said Nashville defender Taylor Washington, who was an unused substitute in it. “I remember watching it. DC is a very good opponent. They like to high-press, they like to get on the front foot, they have a lot of energy, almost similar to Red Bull. But I think the way that we play, I think the way that we try to replicate the things that we did before and stick to our gameplan. I think we just have to stick to our gameplan: it’s as simple as that.”
Any discussion of DC must start with the MLS Golden Boot leader, Ola Kamara. The Norwegian veteran has 17 goals, and while his 13.33 xG on the year indicates he’s slightly overachieving expectations, that number is good for fourth in MLS, so he’s elite either way. Behind him… Arriola (5), Ábila (4) and Reyna (4) are, as we’ve established, out or limited with injury. It’s gonna be Kamara’s show this evening, if anyone.
The guy providing most of the service is probably not going to come as a surprise to folks who’ve been watching MLS since before the Nashville SC days: winger/fullback Julian Gressel was a huge part of the success of the early days of Atlanta United, and his ability to serve balls in with a cultured right foot persists at his new stop. The 3-4-3 under DC head coach Hernán Losada has been a good fit, and the German-American has been productive (albeit unlucky: he’s nearing 9.0 xG and has only seven assists to show for it) in the role.
Arriola, Reyna, and Flores have played most of the true winger/supporting forward roles, and given that all three are out, Gressel’s service will be even more important than usual. The likes of, uh, Drew Skundrich? an out-of-position Kevin Paredes? will have to fill in. If Paredes isn’t drawn into that slightly out-of-position role, he’s a lock to start at the LWB spot. The US Youth International has impressive potential at the spot, though his athleticism can sometimes be mitigated with physical play.
Juniór Moreno and Russell Canouse are the minutes leaders in central midfield. I’ve never been a huge Canouse guy, but G+ loves him so far this year, particularly as a defense-first player in the fouling and interrupting metrics. Moreno’s the more consistent distributor, with far less defensive bite. However, even with that “no defense” status and passing acumen, he does not get hyper-involved offensively. That’s generally fine when you have the other pieces around that DC does, and the results speak for themselves offensively. Moses Nyeman, another US Youth International, is one of the top backups here, and at home it might not surprise to see him replace one or the other in the lineup.
The three-man backline has been consistent enough lately, albeit with a healthy rotation. Tony Alfaro, Steve Birnbaum, Andy Najar, and Donovan Pines are the most-used lately, with Frederic Brillant (whom you may recall as the early hero and then major goal in the game at Nissan Stadium, with a goal and a goal-line clearance… followed by a penalty conceded and a red card) out for the past few games. Given that Najar will probably be pulled into duty at LWB with Paredes shifted forward, Alfaro-Birnbaum-Pines from left to right seems most likely. Najar is borderline elite, per G+ (albeit in part because he gets into dangerous positions playing LWB that trick the formula a bit, since it thinks he’s strictly a CB), the rest are mostly interchangeable and about league-average.
Nashville got somewhat lucky last time around because Bill Hamid was unavailable (particularly because Jon Kempin was not exactly fantastic in relief). Hamid is in the midst of the worst shot-stopping year of his career, allowing 112% of expected goals-against, and although that’s a stark upgrade from Kempin, who’s allowing nearly 40% more goals than you’d expect, you shouldn’t think of him as The Bill Hamid that he’s historically been. The catch is that in any individual game, you might get it out of him, and then you will be sad.
“Any of the buildup, the information and the preparation that I’ve tried to lay out for the guys is one of ‘toughest game of the season.’ It will be a real blood-and-thunder challenge,” Smith said. “There’ll be an awful lot on the line for both teams. We still have lots to prove. We certainly want to finish in the very best position we can, and if we can get a result against this talented group, then we’ve got a much better chance of finding ourselves in a terrific spot.”
The Boys in Gold
D Dan Lovitz (foot)
While Dan Lovitz is ruled out for the game, he did participate in training Thursday (albeit not with the full squad), so I wouldn’t anticipate his absence being a long-term thing. Nonetheless, Nashville will certainly rely upon Taylor Washington to fill in for him at the LWB spot in Nashville’s own take on the 3-4-3/3-5-2 formation.
The primary question lineup-wise beyond that will be precisely how much NSC can get out of the players returning from international duty. The rest of the squad has had a chance to recharge over the break.
“I felt as though the guys, No. 1, needed a break,” said Smith. “Secondly, I’d set a bit of a challenge for the group, and those guys, in fact all of the fellas, had done an incredible job of hitting those targets, points-wise, and maintaining a level and a standard of play to keep us in a very good position. So there was a bit of a reward thrown in there as well.
Aníbal Godoy played every minute he could for Panama (he was pulled from the game against the United States with cramps), so giving him a bit of rest seems likely. Randall Leal, on the other hand, was used extremely sparingly, and may actually need a couple days to get back into the groove, since the international call-ups didn’t get to train with NSC this week. Walker Zimmerman was rested for most of Wednesday and should be ready to man the middle, while Alistair Johnston played the vast majority of minutes for Canada, but is a young and energetic guy, so should be able to contribute to Nashville tonight, even if it means off the bench.
“It’s always difficult to try and work out physically where those guys are at,” Smith said. “The fact that Alistair’s played three games in a short space of time again is obviously to see. But it’s not until you get their actual data back that you can tell how much stress their bodies have been under in those games.
“I think the guys come back into town today [Thursday]. We’ll evaluate their mental and physical position, and then I’ll make some choices from there. But the guys that have been here worked hard, got some rest, they’re ready to go, they’re rearing to go, so there’s some exciting and some important decisions to make.”
So if I’m right about Leal not being quite ready, how does Smith construct his front three in the Costa Rican’s absence? Alex Muyl at right wing (with Hany Mukhtar on the left) or Daniel Ríos at striker alongside CJ Sapong (with Mukhtar sitting underneath them) seem the most likely options. Smith has been working to find ways to get Ríos onto the field, and this seems like a pretty good opportunity.
Of course, that leaves plenty of firepower on the bench, with Leal and Muyl on the wings, Aké Loba and Jhonder Cádiz at striker, and likely Johnston, Jalil Anibaba, and Godoy as the more defense-minded bench players along with backup keeper Bryan Meredith. That’s a solid group, and as support to… a really solid group as well.
Keys to the game
- Don’t fold under pressure. DC wants to run, and wants to either make you run as well or force you into mistakes. Nashville has been pretty good at avoiding those big mistakes, but without Lovitz and potentially with Johnston only available off the bench, it gets a little harder.
- Set pieces. They’ve remained a bit of a problem for Nashville even with Walker Zimmerman back in the lineup. That’s how Brillant got the opener at Nissan Stadium. Nashville needs to not only prevent concessions via set piece, but show some danger itself from dead-ball situations.
- Run with Gressel. Congrats to Taylor Washington on his presumptive start in the absence of Lovitz. As a reward, one of the most dangerous wide players in MLS is the defensive assignment!
- If the DC youth movement is on, play a physical game. Paredes is almost certain to start, and if Nyeman is in place of either Canouse or Moreno, he’s a nice player but a guy that you can physically overmatch (he’s like 120 pounds). Nashville’s got experience and physical dominance on its side in that battle.
- Don’t foul in the box. Man, I didn’t even really realize before looking just now, but nine of Kamara’s 17 goals this year have come via penalty (that’s three times as many regular-season penalties as Nashville has taken in its entire MLS history). He’s not out here creating, he’s just finishing. So don’t give him the chance.
I was expecting to pick a DC win, but I think a Nashville SC team that comes out and plays the game it intends to has every opportunity to at least leave Audi Field with a draw. If things go just right here or there, it could go even better than that.
The game ends in a 1-1 draw.