Nashville SC

Nashville SC game preview 2021: @ Philadelphia Union

NSC couldn’t take full advantage of the midweek game, but there’s everything to play for in a top-of-table clash this evening on the banks of the Delaware.

The essentials

Opponent: Philadelphia Union (12-8-10)
Time, Location: Saturday, Oct. 23, 6:30 p.m. CDT (7:30 local) • Chester, Pa.
Weather: 59ºF, 7% chance of rain, 71% humidity, 6mph WNW wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30/ (local) ESPN+ (national) • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)

Recent form (most recent first – via): L-D-W-W-D
Non-nerd stats: 46 points, 1.53 PPG (3rd East) • 1.40 GF/gm, 1.07 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.05 xG Power (12th MLS), +0.30 G Power (6th MLS). +0.25 “Luck” (8th MLS) • +0.00 Offense (11th MLS), -0.05 Defense (11th MLS). -0.39 home disadvantage (26th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +267, draw +227, Philadelphia Union +112

Match officials: Referee: Armando Villarreal. Assistants: Kyle Atkins, Diego Blas. Fourth official: Kevin Broadley. Video assistants: Jorge Gonzalez, Matthew Nelson.

Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe to the podcast, wherein we spoke to Gary Smith about plenty of topics of interest … Some pretty informative quotes from Gary Smith from Wednesday’s postgame presserThe playlist … Content from the previous game against Philly … Q&A with Brotherly GamePlayoff implications of this one.

Philadelphia Union

Injury/availability report:
OUT: M/ F Ilsinho (hamstring), F Cory Burke (ankle), D Alvas Powell (hamstring)
QUEST.: F Sergio Santos (quad), GK Andre Blake (adductor)

The “luck” factor in the top section often comes down to good goalkeeping, and you could definitely say that the Union has gotten that. Andre Blake is allowing just 77% of expected goals against, a healthy 7% better than the league’s second-best keeper this season, Matt Turner. While the Jamaica International is listed on the injury report, he was questionable Wednesday and went 90 minutes against Minnesota United, so I’d expect him to play, and approximately as well as his season-long performance.

“Curtin has cleared Andre Blake to play, and said that the team feels much more comfortable with giving him the workload of goal kicks again,” Brotherly Game‘s Joe Lister told me. “Were Blake injury to flame up on the pitch, you’d see Matt Freese come on, however, he’s one of the better backups in the league so the team will be comfortable will him in net.”

We’ll have to agree to disagree on Freese – at 166% of expected goals allowed, he’s the worst keeper in the league to play at least 400 minutes so far – but certainly I would expect Blake, and expect him to be mostly himself.

In front of him, CBs Jack Elliot and Jakob Glesnes have played nearly every minute this year, and ASA‘s Goals Added has them each playing at an elite level. They both interrupt at an elite level, and are solid on the balll dribbling, too (keep in mind this is often a stylistic choice, and they do a lot of it because that’s the job in head coach Jim Curtin’s system), and Elliott is also contributing on offensive set pieces – he’s downright brobdingnagian at 6-6 – to give him a G+ of 3.43.

Left back Kai Wagner and right back Olivier Mbaizo are both ball-secure guys who do a lot less interrupting – again, because the style is to let the CBs do a lot of the cleaning up in the 4-diamond-2 that Philly has preferred this year, though we’ll talk formation in a minute. They tend to provide width in that diamond, as is necessary with pinched-in midfielders. Playing between them in a semi-defensive posture is a lone holding mid, with German-American US Youth International Leon Flach emerging into a major role there. He’s a semi-extreme stay-at-home guy (some of that is a product of the responsibilities of the position he’s asked to play), and Goals Added is not super-high on him as a result. Oddly, he doesn’t do much interrupting, which you’d expect to be the counterbalance to not passing or getting forward at a high level.

“I wouldn’t expect anything less than a wholehearted competitive effort from their group,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith about this evening’s opponent. “Why wouldn’t I? Secondly, their style of play and the dynamics of their group is something that they work on tirelessly, constantly. They’re exceptionally good at it. The one thing that is hurting a lot of teams right now as you look around the league is omissions from the group. And it puts a lot of stress on the guys that are playing and working.”

Jose Martínez and former US International Alejandro Bedoya will probably be the wide midfielders, and I actually expect them to get a bit more width than usual, since Philly is down to one healthy and proven striker. That means a couple more-advanced midfielders – Jamiro Monteiro and one of Daniel Gazdag or US Youth Internationals Paxten Aarson and Quinn Sullivan – slot in those holes in a 4-5-1, and let striker Kacper Przybylko have a little less workload defensively so he can focus on the scoring part of the game.

“The Union will probably run one striker up top with Przybylko,” Lister said. “Obviously, it isn’t the Union’s number one plan, but Przybylko hasn’t looked bad as the lone striker. It’s also worth noting that Matheus Davo will be sitting on the bench, so Curtin can bring him on if need be (he won’t), and Santos has been cleared to play, though Curtin added he may be coming off the bench.”

Monteiro and Bedoya do a lot of the creating for this team (especially with Santos out, but Wagner can whip in some crosses himself, and when employed as a defensive midfielder, has much more offensive game than Flach has shown), and Przybylko is your No. 1 finisher. He has 10 goals on 7.89 xG, and has taken just one penalty on the year (Gazdag has also hit one). Wagner serves as the free-kick specialist, with two goals and an assist from dead balls.

Philly plays something of a modern style – though the 4-diamond-2 is a bit of a niche formation, the Union will press high up the field and try to win the ball back in dangerous areas. More importantly, there’s an awkward marriage this year between a possession-oriented game and a Red Bull-style “get it up the field” philosophy, with more of a tilt to the latter than in most recent seasons.

“The Union’s kryptonite is the way that they start matches,” Lister told me. “Their record is terrible when they give up the first goal of the match, which often happens in the first fifteen minutes when they’re getting warmed up. On the few occasions that the team has come out quickly, they’ve looked just about unstoppable. I don’t necessarily expect this to become the Union’s focus over the next few weeks, it is something to look for in their final matches of the season.”

Nashville scored two minutes in and held on for the whole time in Nissan. May they replicate that in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

“They’ll be delighted to go back home, I’m sure,” Smith said. “But it doesn’t alter the fact that we’re all going into our third game in a week. There’ll be some choices that are made that on players for both teams, i’m sure, that can have a big impact on the game. Lots of rotation and too much can lose some continuity and some core foundational pieces. Not enough rotation and you get those lethargic performances. 

The Boys in Gold

Injury/availability report:
QUESTIONABLE: D Dan Lovitz (foot)

Nashville’s best-choice XI is almost entirely available, assuming Dan Lovitz returns in his hometown. The lone exception is an important one, though: MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar is one of two players (the other is reserve winger Luke Haakenson) serving a yellow-card suspension this evening. How Smith intends to compensate for that is an interesting question, though what he told us on the C&C podcast this week – that Aké Loba has turned out to have skills that are more redundant with a No. 10 like Mukhtar than a pure striker – could mean there’s a like-for-like replacement right in the wings.

“With Hany out, yes, I’ve got to tell you – you might think I’m just saying it now – but at some point he’s got to take a break,” Smith explained. “He’s had two games on the spin. We’ve got games coming up mid-week again. So there might have been a little bit of rotation anyway. I’d have loved him to have been there, of course: that’s not to be the case. One door closes, another one opens. Somebody else gets the chance. We’ve got Aké – come on tonight, who’s done really well.”

From there, the 3-4-3/3-5-2 hybrid that has been so common in recent weeks has basically a perfect fit: Randall Leal as the wing/creator, Loba as the wing/10/second forward, and CJ Sapong as the striker. Sapong’s recent dry spell in scoring doesn’t concern me largely because 1) he seems to relish playing against his former teams, and the Union is one he seems to have a particular desire to do well against, and 2) the reasons he hasn’t been scoring are independent of whether or not he’s playing well.

Beyond that front line, the best-available group is here. The stakes are here.

Projected lineups

Keys to the game

  • Strike first. Beyond “duh,” it seems to be a particularly important factor against this Philly team, and it also prevents the Union from playing its preferred style.
  • Set pieces. Philly isn’t hugely set-piece-dependent, but Wagner is a major threat, Glesnes has a rocket so impressive is went viral last year, and there are a number of bigger guys to defense from dead balls. Not getting into those situations is choice No. 1, but Nashville needs to be able to lock down in them.
  • Be ready to get out of trouble and live to fight another day. In football, the concept of throwing the ball out of bounds rather than risking an interception or sack is an important factor in the development of a quarterback. In soccer – and particularly in this game – it means being willing to kick the ball upfield under pressure, and making Philly build from the back. Nashville hasn’t been dogmatic about playing out of the press, of course, but discretion will be the greater part of valor on this day.
  • Be ready to ride out some tense moments. I’d be lying if I said I expected Gary Smith to enact a gameplan other than “play to guarantee a 0-0 or 1-1 draw, and hope to nick a winner at some point.” So: so a good job with it.


Philly is very good, but not quite last year’s edition of the team. Meanwhile, Nashville has frustrated fans by developing a particular talent for drawing road games (and unfortunately a recent home game, too) – but that’s the pragmatic approach in this game.

The game ends in a 1-1 draw.

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