The reigning champs. But, uh, very much not the same team as the one that won MLS Cup a year ago. What should Nashville SC expect from the Crew?
Opponent: Columbus Crew (10-12-7)
Time, Location: Wednesday, Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 69ºF, 3% chance of rain, 54% humidity, 5mph SSW 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): W-L-W-D-W
Non-nerd stats: 37 points, 1.28 PPG (10th East) • 1.24 GF/gm, 1.34 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.35 xG Power (21st MLS), -0.05 G Power (15th MLS). +0.29 “Luck” (6th MLS) • -0.28 Offense (26th MLS), +0.07 Defense (15th MLS). +0.17 away advantage (10th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC -133, draw +252, Columbus Crew +408
Match officials: Referee: Alex Chilowicz. Assistants: Eric Weisbrod, Chris Elliott. Fourth official: Silviu Petrescu. Video assistants: Sorin Stoica, TJ Zablocki.
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe to the podcast, wherein we spoke to Gary Smith about plenty of topics of interest … Just a little Crew talk in last weekend’s postgame presser … The playlist … Content from the previous game against Columbus.
OUT: M Artur (hip), M Luis Diaz (health protocols), D/M Perry Kitchen (back), M Kevin Molino (knee), M Aidan Morris (knee – season)
QUESTIONABLE: D Jonathan Mensah (health protocols)
I usually start with the injury report because it 1) tends to be important, and 2) comes right before the prose section. This week, there’s a non-injury report Health and Safety Protocols impact: Crew head coach Caleb Porter will not travel to Nashville. It is unclear whether the Caleb Porter Curse (as discussed on yesterday’s podcast – he’s never made the playoffs twice in a row) gets a temporary reprieve in his absence.
The other absences are fairly significant ones: Luis Díaz plays the third-most minutes among Columbus wingers (though that means less than half the playing time of the position’s minutes leader, Pedro Santos) and is second most-productive at the spot in xG and third in xA, and Kevin Molino is one of the key backups there. The absence of both means that it’s Santos and Derrick Etienne, unless interim coach Ezra Hendrickson wants to think outside the bun a bit. Centerback Jonathan Mensah was on the shortlist for MLS Defensive Player of the Year in 2020 (though a step back from him has played a role in the Crew’s overall step back).
Defensive midfielders Artur (missed most of the season with a hip injury before having hernia surgery), Perry Kitchen (because he wasn’t playing much even before having back surgery), and Aidan Morris (because his unfortunate injury happened in preseason so the Crew has been used to playing without him anyway) are less significant.
So with that out of the way, what’s going on with the Crew in the big picture? It’s worth noting that during the regular season, this was a mediocre team riding a ton of luck to finish near the top of the Eastern Conference. They played legitimately better soccer en route to MLS Cup, but in getting there, the quality of the season writ large got overrated a bit. This is still a lucky team, but the positive delta from “actually pretty bad” only gets them to the fringes of the playoffs this time around.
“They’ve got a really good team,” said Nashville SC defender Jack Maher. “I think we’re going to really have to be ready for all of the guys they have. Whether it’s [Darlington] Nagbe, [Gyasi] Zardes, [Lucas] Zelarayán: all these guys are just really, really good players. They’re going to be a tall task for us, but I think we’re going to be ready.”
Centerbacks Aboubacar Keita and Vito Wormgoor are the only players scraping into the positive ranges of American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added metric (Mensah is right behind them at -0.02 – and an swful dribbling number is the only thing that prevents him from having great numbers overall), and in fact right behind them come a few fullbacks: legitimately rad RB Harrison Afful, Argentine LB Milton Valenzuela, and little-used RB Steven Moreira. Costa Rican vet Waylon Francis is the most-used LB, and while he hasn’t excelled at much of anything this year, low receiving (i.e. getting into dangerous areas before getting a pass) and shooting numbers are probably more a stylistic choice for the team than anything you could say he’s bad at, per se. The primary defenders tend to be good interruptors with limited offensive effectiveness.
Behind them, Eloy Room is having just an OK year – right about average at GA/xGA – after his strong play last year was part of what allowed the Crew to outperform expectations. He’s been poor in ASA‘s “handling” and “sweeping” breakout categories of G+ as well – a major step back for the Dutch-Curaçaoan.
Darlington Nagbe plays as one of the “2” in Porter’s standard 4-2-3-1 formation, though those familiar with the onetime USMNT midfielder’s game understand that means he’s the more rangy box-to-box guy (albeit with limited offensive incisiveness), while his partner is going to maintain more-conservative positioning, whether that’s as a big-diagonal distributor or a pure holding/defensive mid. The two other options there are Liam Fraser (though mostly a winger for Toronto FC, he’s been the stay-home-and-distribute guy on loan at Columbus) and Marlon Hairston (who has a little more versatility to his game, but alongside Nagbe plays as the defense-first CDM).
As noted at the top, Santos and Etienne are the only starter-caliber wingers available for Columbus (though they have reasonable depth here). Santos be shootin’: second-most shot attempts and second-highest xG – though not to the same guy! Etienne be passin’: he has just 17 shots and 24 key passes on the season, and comes in second on the team in xA while barely sneaking into the top 10 in xG.
The straw that stirs the drink and the, uh? drink itself? or something are the keys to the offense. Lucas Zelarayan conveniently wears the No. 10 and plays the position. He’s a huge-volume player: his 70 shots are more than half-again the number that Santos has taken (with less total aggregate xG!) and his 60 key passes are more than double Santos’s, with the Portuguese winger coming second in both categories. Some of that is set-piece-oriented: from the run of play, Zelarayan has just 43 shots and 26 key passes.
Gyasi Zardes is the ‘drink’ in the tortured metaphor above, and though his absence for a couple different minor injuries (a shoulder early in the year, a hamstring more recently) and the Gold Cup have kept his minutes down, he’s his usual self: on just 26 shots and 3.47 expected goals, he has scored eight times. He’s strong as a defensive forward in the attacking half, and gets in spots to dunk the ball home. G+ actually questions his effectiveness in the latter to this point, but that’s the sort of situation where you wouldn’t be surprised if he simply breaks out at some point.
The Boys in Gold
D Dan Lovitz (foot)
Lovitz remains out, but Nashville should be able to go with the “on steroids” version of the lineup used against DC United. Plug in international absences Aníbal Godoy, Alistair Johnston, and Randall Leal (Walker Zimmerman was rested enough after just a three-minute cameo against Costa RIca to start in the District), and you’re only Lovitz short of a best-XI lineup.
So that’s what I think happens!
“We have the champions coming to our home ground on Wednesday,” Gary Smith said. “At home, we’ve been purposeful, we’ve been difficult to play against, and we’ve a good home crowd. They give us an energy and a shot in the harm that all home teams need. Maybe there’ll be a different look to the team.”
That certainly implies a best-choice – or at least very different group in comparison to Saturday. The typical “how rested are they?” questions may not apply, given the DC game was the end of a 13-day break, and three presumptive starters all last played a week ago anyway. Gary Smith has hinted many times (most recently in our exclusive chat with him on this week’s podcast) that he likes to go after wins at home, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t tonight.
“We’re going to have crowds like [at DC] for, honestly, the rest of the playoff run and playoff push that we have going forward,” Maher said. “So I’m looking forward to it, I know the rest of the guys are, and we just seem to keep getting good results regardless of who’s in the crowd, and whether home or away.”
The more intriguing storylines relate to the stakes: a Nashville win would ensure a finish ahead of Columbus Crew, and almost certainly lock in a playoff spot (pending the results of the other Eastern Conference games, most of which start an hour earlier than Nashville’s, anyway). So that would be nice. A draw would mean we go another few days before getting the preferred level of clarity about the future.
Keys to the game
- No free kicks in dangerous areas. The Zelarayáning beckons.
- Let them waste their time with possession. Columbus likes to knock it around a little bit. However, it’s not really what the team is best at. So while we’d like to see the Boys in Gold open it up… that actually encourages Columbus to do what it’s better at and hit on the counter.
- Find the connections offensively. So if we’re not looking at a team that wants to throw numbers forward (as I don’t think we should be), the three attacking players have to be precise in their connections. There hasn’t been a ton of practice time for Leal, Mukhtar, and Sapong together thanks to Leal’s international call-up. So hopefully that works out.
- Get an early lead. It would be nice to get a relative cruise to victory (or batten down the hatches to ride out a single-goal win, as the team is used to doing) and rest some guys in advance of a trip to Philly this week, as long as “season-long Columbus” is in the house, rather than “playing to potential Columbus.”
Home Nashville is very different from Away Nashville. While Columbus is slightly stronger on the road than at home (in comparison to average home/road performances, not in an absolute sense), it feels like Nashville will be hungry after an annoying draw in its lone home match in the past month and a half. Paying it off is the key.
Nashville SC wins, 3-1.