Nashville SC has (almost) everything to play for: anything but a loss locks up the No. 3 seed, while a win provides a strong chance to finish as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference (and homefield advantage through two rounds of playoffs)
Opponent: New York Red Bulls (13-12-8)
Time, Location: Sunday, Nov. 7, 2:30 p.m. CDT • Nissan Stadium
Weather: 62ºF, 1% chance of rain, 39% humidity, negligible wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: ESPN (national TV)/ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 (English), 96.7 El Jefe (Español)
Recent form (most recent first – via): D-W-L-W-W
Non-nerd stats: 47 points, 1.42 PPG (7th East) • 1.15 GF/gm, 0.97 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.45 xG Power (5th(!) MLS), +0.15 G Power (9th MLS). -0.30 “Luck” (23rd MLS) • +0.08 Offense (8th MLS), -0.37 Defense (5th MLS). +0.57 away advantage(!) (3rd MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +142, draw +196, New York Red Bulls +235
Match officials: Referee: Drew Fischer. Assistants: Kathryn Nesbitt, Cameron Blanchard. Fourth official: Joshua Encarnacion. Video assistants: Jorge Gonzalez, Jeff Muschik
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe to the podcast, and hear from NSC captain and former Red Bull Dax McCarty … The playlist … Content from the previous game against Orlando … Playoff implications of this one.
New York Red Bulls
OUT: D Aaron Long (achilles)
QUESTIONABLE: M Omir Fernandez (hamstring)
SUSPENDED: F Patryk Klimala (yellow accumulation)
The Red Bulls were poor for large swathes of the season, but have gone on a nice run – 7-1-3 in the last 11 – to get themselves into playoff position (of course, an additional point anywhere along the way, for example in a home loss to a DC United team that’s spiraled downward to close the season, would have realistically sealed their playoff fate by now). A draw guarantees playoffs: only one of Orlando City (which loses tiebreakers to RBNY) and Montreal would be able to stay ahead as long as there’s one point on offer in Nissan Stadium.
Another important factor to keep in mind with this Red Bull team? It’s borderline elite defensively, and even pretty solid in creating offensively. The problem has been finishing: just 38 goals on 46.12 expected, which is a big gap that even good goalkeeping (32 goals on 35.84 xGA) hasn’t been able to completely make up for.
Let’s start with that goalkeeping, where Carlos Coronel has allowed just 91% of on-target expected goals against. NSC old-heads might remember him as the recipient of a four-goal output in the infamous “your locker room is just some folding chairs next to the bleachers” game in USL against Bethlehem Steel. But the RB Salzburg loanee is… better than that game would imply.
He’s also been tested somewhat infrequently, with the Red Bulls’ defense putting up solid expected goals numbers, as well. CBs Sean Nealis (whom you may recognize as the older brother of NSC’s Dylan) and Thomas Edwards have played the vast majority of the minutes, though Andrés Reyes has largely been first-choice over Edwards when healthy – he missed big portions of July and August with injury. Weirdly, given Red Bulls’ style, all CBs other than Nealis are well below-average in ASA‘s Goals Added breakout for interrupting – I would imagine that’s largely because the philosophy is to win the ball higher up the field before the CBs even really get involved.
Head coach Gerhard Struber has screwed around with the formation inn recent weeks, which affects the rest of the back line. In a four-man backline, homegrowns John Tolkin (left) and Kyle Duncan (right) man the fullback spots, but there’s been something of a hybrid 3-4-3 lately, with Tolkin maintaining a pseudo-LCB position while Duncan is a wingback. That’s put US starlet Caden Clark in the LWB spot, even though he’s more naturally a No. 10. Thanks to available personnel this afternoon (about which more in a moment), it would not surprise to see Red Bulls forced into a more-typical formation. If they stick with the 3-4-3, ephemeral Boy in Gold Andrew Gutman is another primary option at LCB/LWB, to facilitate getting Clark higher up the pitch.
The holding midfielders are Sean Davis – typically the captain – and Dru Yearwood, most often. They’re both solid players overall, with Davis elite at just about every aspect of the position aside from getting into dangerous positions to receive passes. That’s largely a style-of-play factor, though, given the Red Bulls’ central midfielders are largely tasked with hoofing it upfield and getting ready to counterpress if their guy doesn’t come down with it. Yearwood’s passing breakout is below-average, which is a downstream effect of that style, as well.
The attacking-ish pieces of this lineup will be thrown into a bit of chaos with forward/winger Patryk Klimala suspended after a late yellow card in the midweek game. His presence as a winger with center-forward abilities has facilitate the fluid formation of recent weeks, and without him, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a more-typical 4-2-3-1 (though I also wouldn’t be surprised if the 3-4-3 of the past several weeks is tweaked, rather than scrapped entirely). You can bet that Fabio – reportedly not the former margarine spokesman – will be the center forward in Klimala’s absence.
This brings us to perhaps the biggest thing that’s held Red Bulls back over the course of the 2021 season: finishing. Klimala has just eight goals on 13.13 expected, Fabio six on 9.84 expected, Dani Royer zero on 1.73 expected… between your strikers alone, that’s 14 goals that should – with average finishing – have been more like 25. On a given day, the expected goals are more predictive than underachievement, thanks to an element of randomness in finishing. But there’s possibly an argument that some combination of system effects and perhaps minute differences in finishing ability (again: this is largely randomness over the course of a career, but for the 2021 edition of RBNY, it might be A Thing) mean they just won’t get the job done on a consistent basis, anyway.
The creators, on the other hand, have been solid-though-unspectacular. It’s a bit of a shared duty, with the 6-4 Fabio having lump-and-layoff responsibilities that have seen him lead the team with 3.56 expected assists (which have turned into five goals – the non-striker portions of this team are having a much more productive year putting the ball into the back of the net commensurate with their xG). Winger Cristian Cásseres, Clark (who’s played winger and attacking central mid before the Great Formation Weirdness), fullback Kyle Duncan, and Klimala are behind him in terms of creating for each other. Former FC Cincinnati castoff Frankie Amaya has been surprisingly low in the creation department, but he’s playing a more conservative position in his limited minutes for the Red Bulls.
All told, this team creates a number of chances, and doesn’t rely on a single individual to get the job done. As with many other characteristics of the team, that’s downstream from team style: get the ball upfield, and the shooting players do some shooting. That those shooting players aren’t converting (and unlike assisting, are largely just the strikers, with Fabio and Klimala accounting for over half the team’s xG between them) has led to a disappointing season that Struber’s side will certainly want to salvage with a trip to the playoffs.
The Boys in Gold
OUT: F Daniel Ríos (lower body), D Taylor Washington (health and safety protocols)
Not a lot to say here: for the first time in ages, Nashville has its first-choice XI available, including captain Dax McCarty after he came along slowly to avoid aggravating a hamstring injury in recent weeks. He was a full participant in Wednesday’s training (after getting some light rehab work before his teammates hit the field), and I would expect him to be in the starting lineup against his former club.
Beyond that, the Mukhtar-Leal-Sapong MLS line should play up top to maximize the team’s offensive opportunities, with the recent emergence of DP Aké Loba a serious threat off the bench.
The RCB/RWB combination is the lone question mark here. Jack Maher on the inside and Alistair Johnston wide? That appears to me to be the strongest combination there. It would not surprise to see Eric Miller in either of those spots with Johnson in the other, though.
Keys to the game
- Score early. This is a “duh” factor: since scoring is relatively rare in soccer, doing so early in the game is a pretty good way to set up for success! However, it’s particularly important against Red Bulls, since it allows the opponent to handle the particular style of RBNY a little easier: you can worry less about playing through their press if you don’t need to retain possession.
- Set pieces. Ever has it been, ever shall it be.
- Take advantage of a fitness edge. “This team is more fit than Red Bulls” is typically an insane thing to say – they design their program around being in shape to play their style. However, they had a crucial, hard-fought (and frustrating) game against Atlanta United in the midweek, meaning they have three days less rest than Nashville SC. There are ways that NSC can force the press to shift to cover gaps that open, and against a Red Bulls team that’s on short rest, that can be an advantage.
Red Bulls don’t have much to gain by playing for a win versus a draw – they can’t catch NYCFC at 4th, and given that No. 5 Atlanta is playing FC Cincinnati, the Five Stripes will be tough to catch, as well (barring a choke in the Queen City). Thus, the risk-reward proposition leans toward accepting a draw – as much as it’s not in the Red Bull DNA – to ensure a playoff berth, versus risking a loss and a chance of dropping out of the playoff field. Meanwhile, 538’s projections say that the most likely outcome for Philly today is a loss to NYCFC – so a draw would be enough to move to No. 2 for Nashville (while a loss and NYCFC win would move Nashville down to fourth).
That’s not to say the squads will play for a gentleman’s draw, but certainly mitigating the chances of a loss and picking/choosing the spots to take risks is on deck for both sides.
The game ends in a 1-1 draw.