An ignominious stretch in Nashville’s early season has been disrupted by an international break. Can NSC take advantage of the pause to get back on the right track?
Opponent: Columbus Crew (2-0-2)
Time, Location: Saturday, April 2, 5:00 p.m. CST (6 local) • Columbus, Ohio
Weather: 50ºF, 15% chance of rain, 43% humidity, 8 mph SSW wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30/NashvilleSC.com (local), WatchESPN (national) • IHeartRadio/El Jefe 96.7 (Español)
Watch Party: At MLS Rose 8th South with C&C podcast sponsor MLS Rose, the Music City Heaters, and the Eastern Front Supporters Group
Recent form (most recent first): D-W-D-W
Non-nerd stats (2021): 47 points, 1.38 PPG (9th West) • 1.35 GF/gm, 1.32 GA/gm
Nerd stats: -0.20 xG Power (16th MLS), +0.02 G Power (15th MLS). +0.22 “Luck” (6th MLS) • -0.15 Offense (21st MLS), +0.05 Defense (15th MLS). -0.46 home disadvantage (23rd MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +266, draw +204, Columbus Crew +121
Match officials: Referee: Rubiel Vasquez. Assistants: Chris Elliott, Meghan Mullen. Fourth official: Marcos de Oliveira. Video assistants: Daniel Radford, Eric Weisbrod
Columbus Crew SC
OUT: M Kevin Molino (knee), M Kevin Parente (illness)
QUEST.: D Josh Williams (thigh), M Lucas Zelarayan (knee)
Let’s start with a quick multi-year arc tale for the Crew: Caleb Porter took over in 2019, and the team was pretty poor en route to a 10th-place finish n the Eastern Conference. In 2020, the team was good-not-great, but one of the luckier sides in the league… and rode that luck to an MLS Cup title. Last year’s team wasn’t a whole lot worse, but quite a bit less lucky (still one of the luckier teams in the league), and dropped back out of the playoffs – Caleb Porter has never led a team to the playoffs in back-to-back years, despite winning MLS Cups at both of his head coaching stops in the league.
There’s something to be said for the difficulty the Crew had adjusting to a new home – and perhaps something of a cautionary tale for a Nashville SC team doing the same thing later this year – since Columbus was one of the worst home teams (in comparison to road) in all the league. There was also bad injury luck last year (striker Gyasi Zardes, CB Vito Wormgoor, midfielder Artur among those who missed plenty of time), so there’s every reason to believe that the Crew will have a bounceback season, continuing the Porter Destiny.
Of course, there are a couple injury issues to deal with today: midfielder Kevin Molino was among those who missed time last year, and he’s still a solid four or five months from returning from his torn ACL. Lucás Zelarayán was in the running for league MVP last year, but hobbled off the field in Columbus’s last game, and may not be 90-minute fit even if he plays. Defender Josh Williams was a key member of the CB rotation next to outstanding Jonathan Mensah last season.
If Zelarayán can go, he’s a free-kick wizard who scored five of his 12 goals a year ago from dead-ball situations. Playing as the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 formation, he’s not hyper-dangerous from the run of play (at least not comparatively), so it probably behooves Columbus to play him as little as possible and potentially save him for a late run and maybe some of that wizardry if this game is close in the late stages.
It all starts defensively for this team, which boasts goalkeeper Eloy Room – who was about average (slightly below) between the pipes last year, but despite that is better-than-average in his three years (and a few games) thus far. I’ve already mentioned Mensah, but he’s an elite interruptor and nice set-piece threat who has been the cleanup guy playing alongside a more all-field CB historically. So far this year that has been new signing Milos Degenek, though his 398 minutes aren’t enough to tell us a ton about his style or quality (G+ is not impressed early; sample size forces that to remain inconclusive).
After playing as a purely attacking winger in the three-line in the past couple seasons, Pedro Santos has played exclusively left fullback so far this season, while Steven Moreira has been on the right. It should not surprise that Santos’s already-good attacking statistics from winger look even more eye-popping at FB, but his decent-enough defensive work… has yet to reach average for his new position. There’s a lot of upside if it clicks. Moreira’s pretty close to average in most ways for the position.
The Nagbe-Artur central midfield paring that Columbus was robbed of last season (Artur injury limited him to under 500 minutes – he’s about two appearances away from surpassing that already in 2022) has been the go-to for all four games to this point. Artur is the wide-ranging destroyer with limited attacking performance thus far in MLS – with the caveat that the hernia he dealt with in 2020 and ultimately required the second surgery for (knocking him out of most of 2021) could be limiting to that style. Darlington Nagbe is… who he’s always been. A good-not-great defender from the defensive midfield, but an elite ball-possessing player from that double-pivot… up until the point of the final pass or the shot, when he’s historically been unimpressive, even tentative.
Assuming Zelarayán is not quite 100%, it’s totally possible that wingers Derrick Etienne Jr. and Yaw Yeboah are complemented by someone new in the middle (possibly even Santos, who played at a No. 10 in past seasons off-and-on, or usual sub winger Luis Díaz folded inside), or that Porter goes with a bit more of a flatter 4-4-2 look to get both Zardes and fast-rising striker Miguel Berry on the field at the same time. It would not be his preference – he’s a 4-2-3-1 zealot, almost – but when the player who makes that go is not… able to do that… a little creativity and getting the best players on the field can happen.
Since I just mentioned both Zardes and Berry: the emergence of the latter has a changing-of-the-guard feel, given that the veteran has fewer than half the minutes of the youngster. Berry spent most of his rookie and sophomore seasons on loan with San Diego Loyal back in his hometown, but the 24-year old returned midseason last year during Zardes’s injury troubles to bag eight goals in 18 appearances, and he’s been the go-to-guy this year. He also has only a single goal on 1.01 xG+xA, and Goals Added is not impressed with him (at -0.82, the Crew’s worst player, and particularly poor at getting into dangerous shots and shooting, which it must be noted are fairly important for a striker), while Zardes has a goal on 1.06 xG+xA in less than half the minutes played. There’s a bit of a “Zardes out, Berry in” national-team narrative based on their playing time – but that narrative is not supported by the numbers (Zardes is getting into elite spots in his limited time, and is about average in the shooting department. The six-year age difference and obsession with youth may have a bit more to do with it.
The Boys in Gold
OUT: F Teal Bunbury (knee), D Robert Castellanos (ankle), M Koze Donasiyano (thigh), M Dax McCarty (susp.)
We’re up against a classic time crunch here, so I’ll keep it brief. Teal Bunbury’s injury should open the door for Aké Loba to be the first substitute in the forward line, while Dax McCarty’s suspension prevents Nashville from getting too wild with three-midfield setups.
That leaves us with either a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-3 (with the variations we’ve seen on the attacking line in that philosophy) this afternoon, and since it’s never a 4-2-3-1 any time I predict it, we’ll guess 3-4-3 – though Gary Smith mentioned that he believes in the formation-matching trend that’s somewhat popular in coaching circles these days. That also takes a bit of stress off Aníbal Godoy and Walker Zimmerman, who had three hard-fought – uh, no pun intended for the fracas between the two of them – national team matches while their teammates were mostly chillin.
Keys to the game
- Set pieces. Both teams have been iffy on ’em this year.
- Be patient in attack. Columbus is mostly gonna sit deep. Nashville can’t get frantic when the first or second attacking window doesn’t open.
- Set pieces. (Again).
- Let the attacking players cook. If NSC can get into transition or otherwise get Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal the ball in dangerous spaces, that would be ideal.
These teams have been barely-separable in their past meetings, with an extra-time playoff disappointment for Nashville’s inaugural team still lingering, having not had the opportunity to earn that first win against the Crew. It should be more of the same today, with Porter’s Crew very willing to sit back even at home, while NSC tends to be a little cagier on the road than in Nissan Stadium (or presumably GEODIS Park when the time comes).
From Nashville’s perspective, holding for a single point here with another game or two on the tail-end of the roadtrip looking winnable… that allows for a very successful start to the season.
The game ends in a 0-0 draw.