The 2022 season is here. As ever, I feel horrifically unprepared. But we move.
All stats from 2021 season
Opponent: Seattle Sounders FC (17-8-9)
Time, Location: Sunday, Feb. 27, 7:00 p.m. CST (5:00 p.m. local) • Lumen Field, Seattle
Weather: 51ºF, 45% chance of rain, 85% humidity, 7 mph Southerly wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30/NashvilleSC.com (local), WatchESPN (national) • IHeartRadio/El Jefe 96.7 (Español)
Recent form (most recent first): W-D (CCL)
Non-nerd stats: 60 points, 1.76 PPG (2nd West) • 1.56 GF/gm, 0.97 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.36 xG Power (7th MLS), +0.52 G Power (2nd MLS). +0.16 “Luck” (9th MLS) • -0.07 Offense (16th MLS), -0.43 Defense (3rd MLS). -0.58 home disadvantage (25th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +239, draw +222, Seattle Sounders +123
Match officials: Referee: Alex Chilowicz. Assistants: Ian Anderson, Chris Wattam. Fourth official: Malik Badawi. Video assistants: Geoff Gamble, Rene Parra
OUT: M Josh Atencio (quad), D Jimmy Medranda (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: F Will Bruin (calf), F Raul Ruidiaz (hamstring)
Seattle is one of the few MLS teams that we actually have competitive 2022 data on: the Sounders won a two-legged affair against Honduras’s FC Motagua in the Concacaf Champions League over the past couple weeks. Head coach Brian Schmetzer ran out strong lineups in both games: switching to a 4-2-3-1 (after primarily being a back-five team last year), he started Yeimar Gomez – who was last year’s minutes leader for this club – and Xavier Arreaga at CB, both Roldan brothers, new DP signing Albert Rusnak, striker Raul Ruidíaz, winger Jordan Morris, No. 10 Nico Lodeiro, and keeper Stefan Frei in both games. Those are all first-choice XI players. On the bright side, he was able to take some of those players out early in the recent home game, because it was ultimately a 5-0 shellacking that was under control early on.
Schmetzer implied during the week that Nashville might be seeing a weakened lineup – because Seattle has every intention of winning in Concacaf Champions League – but the blowout nature might have gotten them a little more rest.
“We were able to pull guys off and rest them for Sunday, so that was a benefit of scoring a couple early goals in the second half, for sure,” he said. “So we’re gonna bring them all in for a regen slash training session tomorrow [Friday] and reassess and figure out a lineup for Sunday.”
Less bright: after a couple days to recover, Ruidiaz, who was eighth in the league in xG+xA last year, remains questionable with a sore hamstring – and it doesn’t look promising. That’d be a big loss for Seattle… but at the same time they have a lot of talent to overcome it. Given that talent, though, the output last year was surprisingly low: a below-average offense according to xG Power (opponent-adjusted expected goals). If Ruidíaz is out, the next most-productive returning player is Cristian Roldan, who has slid back from an attack-minded spot last year to a holding mid role with the arrival of Rusnak.
Of course, “but they also have Albert Rusnak” is pretty important! The No. 15 player in the league in xG+xA (despite playing as the second-banana to Dami Kreilach in an RSL attack that wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire), he’s much more creator-oriented than goal-getter. The big picture is that with his arrival and the return of Jordan Morris – after an ACL tear cost him almost all of last year – there are weapons here.
“As per usual, what you see are some wonderfully gifted, technical individuals on the field,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “Are they going to play a back-four again? I think the challenge that maybe Brian has run into – or maybe it’s not a challenge – but he’s got a multitude of riches up front, and he’s wondering now how he gets them all on the field and what’s the best shape for that. It would make an awful lot of sense to be in the shape that he’s in, which is a back four and a 4-2-3-1.”
The calculus may change with Ruidíaz and Bruin sub-100%. There’s still a glut of attacking talent that can be dropped into a number of formations and find success. Nashville is familiar with Rusnak despite never having played Seattle, because Real Salt Lake was on last year’s abridged crossover slate. Smith paid particular attention to how he’s fitting in – and oh yeah, the Jordna Morris thing, too.
“Honestly, when you get a talented individual such as Rusnak, you’re really only trying to work out as a coach what the dynamic and connections look like with others,” he said. “As I watched him in his first appearance for Seattle away from home: he’s such an intelligent and technical player, I’m sure the other – not just the attackers – the other teammates he has around him are absolutely delighted to have a player of his caliber in the group. It won’t take long for those guys to connect and start to understand one another’s movements and tendencies. It’s just another very, very talented and game-changing players they have in the group.
“The one thing I will say is that I think the addition this year – after injury – of Jordan Morris out wide or as a really dynamic attacking player, is something that I’m sure they missed last year. And watching him again in some national play, and also last week in the Concacaf [Champions League], I think just reminded everyone again of just what a serious threat he can be with his pace and power.”
For all the disparity between Seattle’s attacking reputation and the good-not-great production from a year ago, the opposite may be true at the other end of the pitch: it doesn’t get talked about much, but the defense kicks ass.
“They keep the ball well, therefore it’s harder to create and score,” Smith said. “They attack well, they create plenty of opportunities and they’ve shown in the past that their record speaks for itself. They’ve got a very good balance themselves: athletic, strong, determined defenders. Good technicians, good creators. They sound like a good team to me. That sounds like the perfect blend.”
Aside from his first year in Seattle (he started his career with Toronto FC), goalkeeper Stefan Frei has been pretty consistently just above-average as a shot-stopper: occasionally elite, but typically good enough to steal a couple goals over the course of the year, nothing more or less – he saved a half-goal for Seattle over the course of last season. It’s worth noting that he faced among the fewest shots per outing of any keeper in the league – and his backup, Stefan Cleveland, saw the least of anyone who played 1000 minutes between the pipes. This Seattle defense protects the keeper reasonably well at baseline, and can pack it in to be even stingier if needed.
Coincidentally, Nashville SC acquired the discovery rights for Hany Mukhtar from the Sounders when he arrived in Music City, though it’s worth noting that he didn’t get too close to signing with Seattle.
“Yes, Seattle was, I think, the first team in MLS which were very interested in me,” he said. “I mean, it’s a long time ago – probably like five years by now – but yeah, it didn’t really go very far. Because I decided pretty early that I want to stay at my old club.”
That doesn’t really mean much in terms of the game but I thought it was interesting and it’s my blog, so
The Boys in Gold
Cap’n Crunch Oops All Healthy
Nashville SC arrived in Seattle a day earlier than the typical cadence – traveling Friday, resting yesterday, playing today – which should help adjust to the time change, get loose after a 4.5-hour flight, etc. That’s only the first step of managing a tough eight-game opening stretch, with the closest trip (Columbus) also Nashville’s lone inter-conference game.
“They won’t all be two-day prior to the game, depending on where we’re going, of course,” Smith said. “We certainly want to give the players the best chance to acclimate to the West Coast, and the two-hour time change. I’ve got to try and be mindful of the sorts of stresses and strains that all the players are going to be under. And whilst we’re going from weekend-to-weekend in the first batch of games, there’s an awful lot to contend with for each player, and we’ll have to look at their data as they come out of these games and the way that they’re recovering.”
One other challenge? Playing in front of a hostile crowd, and on what is sure to be a less-than-ideal playing surface – find u a man who loves u as much as nashville hates playing on FieldTurf. They practiced on it at Currey-Ingram Academy this week, but there’s no question the players sees this as just getting through the conditions, not thriving in ideal circumstances.
“First of all I hate artificial turf,” Mukhtar said. “That’s – we have to take it and play there. I don’t mind it: it’s not the best circumstance or field for my game, but it will be a different game than on grass. But yeah: we trained the last weeks two times now on turf, so we should be ready.”
As for how Nashville SC will approach the game, there’s definitely an understanding of the reputation the club has – for being a bunker/counter side – as well as the idea that it can’t be the case going forward (whether or not it’s accurately applied at this point) if Nashville wants to not only get wins against teams with Seattle’s talent, but even get the draws they’ve become so known for.
“At the weekend, if we don’t show enough edge going forward, we’ll leave ourselves in a really difficult place,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t want to be defending our final third for large portions of the game with the guys that they have at their disposal. They’re as good as anyone at home in an attacking sense. So, we’ve got to somehow, some way get on that front foot – maybe be a tad more aggressive without the ball. I know I’ve said that before, but I truly believe that. I’m hoping that the combination of players that we have, the experience that we have now together for two years gives everyone a little bit more belief that we can certainly get higher up the field, and we can cause teams more problems away from home.”
Nashville has made rumblings about being more progressive in its philosophy beyond that, of course. That trend showed from Year One to Year Two, and one must expect the same going into Year Three, as well. Of course, there were growing pains defensively in that regard. Smith doesn’t give lip service to the term “balance” when he uses it – though he admits that using the terms and finding the perfect balance are not the same thing.
Either way, it does seem like the front three will be more free offensively, and aside from being active in a mid-high press, won’t be asked as much defensively as in recent years. As always, that’s subject to change to strike that balance. For now, at least, it’s giving Mukhtar the opportunity to potentially reprise his MVP runner-up performance from a year ago.
“First of all, I really liked the position I played last year: it gave me a lot of freedom,” he said. “I think I could impress, I think I could be the best version of myself. But in the end, it’s a team sport; it’s not an individual sport. If I want to play an individual sport, I have to go to tennis or other sports. So in the end, I have to do my job, I have to do the best for the team, and if the coach thinks that another position is the best for the team, then I will play there. There is no doubt in my head.”
A big performance today not just in the scoring department, but in possessing the rock and taking some pressure off the backline would be ideal.
Some potential surprises both ways: I have Seattle sticking in the 4-2-3-1, though I could very easily see Schmetzer switching to the back-three (slide Nouhou inside, play Kelyn Rowe at LWB) as a way to save legs due to the dearth of forwards (play Morris up top with a striker, take off Lodeiro or Rusnak while the other creates from underneath the front two). It’s also totally possible that Ruidíaz is good to go in this game, but given the history of CCL teams overextending – and then losing – key players early in the year, I’d have to expect playing it safe a bit here.
As for Nashville, I went with Alex Muyl over Eric Miller at RWB, since it gives the group quite a bit more formational flexibility and more numbers in the midfield (Muyl is not a wizard on the balll, but he’s gonna be able to connect and overlap more readily than Miller). The top line forwards could pretty much be thrown in a blender other than Mukhtar. I went with last year’s top options, though it’s totally possible that Teal Bunbury and/or Aké Loba is a starter over either of the other guys.
Keys to the game
- Set pieces. Nashville SC: bad on set pieces until proven otherwise.
- Be ready to counter. Seattle’s going to want to get on top early so that the stress on the legs of some of the key players can be mitigated – as was the case Thursday evening. That should mean a backline pushing up, and gaps for Nashville to exploit. Gotta make the most of ’em.
- But don’t force it. As Smith implied, there’s value in possession to take the air out of the ball a bit. It will shock you to learn that I do not believe one Gary Neil Smith to be a tactical mastermind the caliber of – or philosophically similar at all to – one Josep “Pep” Guardiola Sala. But possession as a defensive strategy is foundational to Pep’s teams over the years, and at least on this occasion, it makes sense for Nashville whenever the counter isn’t on.
- Be ready to battle. The way Nashville wins this game is by being fresher and therefore more ready to fight for every battle, win physical confrontations, and out-work the Sounders.
I dropped by the Sounder at Heart podcast to drop some Nashville SC knowledge. Preview materials from Jeremiah Oshan. Jayda Evans takes a close look at Rusnak in the Seattle Times. Broadway preview. The homie Claudio Villalobos on the scene. Season preview materials from Drake Hills in the Tennessean.
Seattle is a bear to handle, even if the advanced stats faded the Sounders late in the year. The conditions should be tough (even though, despite all the difficulties Lumen Field and Seattle present, this was a below-average home team last year). Nashville has not started either of the past two years at its sharpest.
Seattle rushes out to a quick goal, and adds another just before halftime. The Boys in Gold are able to pull one back late, but Seattle emerges with the 2-1 victory.