Has the pupil become the master? The team that Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs put together looks like one of MLS’s best, while his mentor, Peter Vermes, is off to an uncharacteristically slow start with Sporting KC. They meet tonight.
Opponent: Sporting Kansas City (2-4-0)
Time, Location: Saturday, April 9, 7:30 p.m. CST • Kansas City, KS
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): L-W-L-L-W
Non-nerd stats (2021): 58 points, 1.71 PPG (3rd West) • 1.71 GF/gm, 1.18 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.21 xG Power (10th MLS), +0.43 G Power (4th MLS). +0.21 “Luck” (7th MLS) • +0.07 Offense (8th MLS), -0.14 Defense (10th MLS). +0.51 home advantage (3rd MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +214, draw +204, Sporting Kansas City +145
Match officials: Referee: Ismail Elfath. Assistants: Cory Richardson, Diego Blas. Fourth official: Greg Dopka. Video assistants: Jair Marrufo, Eric Weisbrod
Sporting Kansas City
OUT: M Gadi Kinda (knee), M Jose Mauri (top secret mystery), F Alan Pulido (knee)
The injury report here is notable: Gadi Kinda was one of the team’s top xG+xA players last year, and striker Alan Pulido has been a focal point of the attack ever since he arrived on the banks of the Kansas River. Also notable, though, are the absences of Uri Rosell and Kortne Ford, who had missed extensive time to start the year, as well. Indeed, six games deep, “injury report” may well be the theme of SKC’s season thus far.
“Uri Rosell missed four matches, [Khiry] Shelton missed three, [Daniel] Salloi missed two and Johnny Russell missed one,” the KC Star‘s Daniel Sperry told me. “All of those injuries along with the two big name injuries have forced players to play out of position, or forced newcomers to play key roles while missing most, if not all of preseason. It’s match day seven for SKC, and it maybe feels really like they’re on match day three in terms of health and minutes played with their full first choice group.”
Without Kinda and Pulido, “first choice” might doing a lot of work there, but Pulido’s expected to miss the entire year and Kinda’s expected to be at least a couple more weeks from returning, so it’s a new normal at the very least.
“This team, whilst a couple of their away performances have been tough and they’ve lost by the odd goal, are very, very capable,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said. “They always find a way. They are missing two very good attacking players in [Alan] Pulido and [Gadi] Kinda, but if you look at the guys coming in, if you look at the group that they have on the field and what they’re capable of, it would be extremely naive of me or any of the players to expect anything other than an incredibly tough game.”
In the absence of those two players, a couple guys that Daniel mentioned as being too-recently returned from injury has led the way: Salloi and Russell, playing on the wings in the typical 4-3-3 favored by Vermes, have had to take on the brunt of the attack. Salloi is more a guy who does it for himself (1.62 xG, 0.46 xA), though he’s been rewarded with just a single goal to date, while Russell is a more balanced attacking piece, equally capable of scoring (0.73 xG) and assisting (0.80 xA), even though his top-line stats are identical with a single goal and no assists yet.
Leading the line between them has mostly been Shelton when he’s healthy, though Montenegro International Nikola Vujnovic (on loan from Vajdovac in Serbia) has filled in in his absence. They have combined for just seven shot s and three key passes – and have accounted for no goals from either department – which sources indicate is not ideal for your striker, regardless of system. It’s less damning in a 4-3-3 with scoring wingers, of course, but Russell and Salloi have only met that definition in the most technical sense, given that they have a goal apiece. Which still ties them for tops on the team. It’s not good on attack so far is what I’m saying.
The return of Rosell should allow Remi Walter and Roger Espinoza to be a little more free as the more-advanced midfielders n a central three, with Nashville native Felipe Hernandez potentially factoring in there, as well. Espinoza has been Sporting’s best player according to both American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added and the eye test, and has been a driver of the attack as well as breaking up opposing attacks. Walter has been poor so far, but given that something he’s struggled with is passing, the return of some healthy options is probably going to boost him.
With all the struggles to accomplish much in the attacking third, the Wiz have still managed one of the better defensive groups in the league. They’re 13th in expected goals allowed, and while caliber of competition (Houston, Chicago, Vancouver: not exactly a murderer’s row) hasn’t been great, there are pieces to build on there. Obviously former US International Graham Zusi remains a key piece at fullback – and is less likely to be pulled out of position thanks to improved midfield depth – but the crucial part of the backline has been centerback Nicholas Isimat-Mirin.
“Sporting’s best runs of form in 2021 came during his health,” Sperry said. “He’s a great aerial defender, great 1v1 defender, decent speed, a good passer and has a competitive edge that isn’t surpassed on this squad. He is the perfect complement to Fontas on the back line. Vermes even at one point believed he has Defender of the Year talent.”
An issue for SKC is – and has been over the past few years – a decline in the form of keeper Tim Melia. Once among the league’s best, he’s on a fairly steady multi-year decline (as noted a couple years back, even), and the advanced numbers – with extreme caveats that the sample size remains low – are at a nadir, allowing 148%(!) of expected goals so far.
“I actually think Tim had about a two game stretch that was rough, and then followed it up with two stellar back to back performances,” Sperry said. “He’s shown he can snap back into it, but even if he isn’t as good as he was from 2016-2019, he’s still better than most.”
One caveat will be extremely applicable today, of course: SKC has won both home games so far this season, while all four losses have come on the road. This is a team that historically succeeds at Children’s Mercy Park, and last year had the third-best home field advantage in all of MLS (only Portland and NYC were greater – and the Timbers had more room to look good at home because they were very poor away).
“I think the way that the ground’s set up, it adds a very old-school feel to it,” Smith said. “The fans are very tight to the pitch, it’s not a huge stadium but the pack it out, and they really get behind their team. They make it a wonderful atmosphere there, and they really do get their team on the front foot.
The Boys in Gold
OUT: F Teal Bunbury (knee), D Robert Castellanos (ankle), M Dax McCarty (susp. for violent conduct red)
The fanbase is somewhat obsessed with Aké Loba, so in the second-straight week without Tela Bunbury available, we may as well get it out of the way.
“Aké’s still a very young man,” Smith said. “He’s achieved an awful lot in Mexico, we know that. Has he found a stronger foundation here with the group, having been here over eight months now? Absolutely. But the key to seeing more minutes is always going to be that constant build of confidence in what the players can do, and what the players around him see and how he fits in. Slowly but surely, I think we’ve seen all of those things in training, and in some of the minutes that he sees on the field.”
So: the typical trajectory you may expect from a fairly young guy, unless you want to bench guys who are producing just to get him on the field. IMO there’s no real reason for this unless you look at the price tag and are a true believer in the sunk-cost fallacy. You should not be, of course, because “fallacy” is right there in the name.
So with that out of the way, what will Smith do in the second straight game with McCarty unavailable after his red card (and additional game tacked on) against Real Salt Lake? A 3-5-2-ish philosophy* in Columbus worked well, but it may not be the choice against a team with a different attacking mindset. SKC is much more willing to press up the field and possess than Columbus was. Guys who are more ball-secure near the back could be at a premium, but so too will be locking down on those two talented wingers.
* The actual implementations of the attacking personnel are always a little fluid when Nashville goes to the odd backline, but this was one of the more true two-striker looks that we’ve seen. You could very easily still have called it a 3-4-3 with Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar n the wings.
IMO that all leads to the 3-4-3ish look, with Eric Miller – a more defensively-sound wingback than Alex Muyl, and a little more ball-secure, though less energetic and athletic – replacing last week’s goal-scorer out wide, while Walker Zimmerman returns to the starting lineup to take the third CB spot vacated with Miller’s shift wider.
I will also stump for a 4-2-3-1 because I always do. Either way, we’re getting to a depth situation where Gary Smith’s job is made trickier by the number of available and capable players.
“Now, the big difficulty for me – and it’s a place that all coaches want to be – is where you have choice,” he said. “Now we’ve got a group of players, two international guys coming back, some wonderful performance, a victory, and they’ve put me in a tough position. I’ve got to choose a team that are gonna go out and hopefully pick up points again at the weekend, and I’ve now got plenty more players to choose from. So it’s good in one sense, and difficult in another.”
Keys to the game
- Set pieces. Obvs
- Withstand pressure. Nashville will probably be pressed as high (and as vigorously) as in any previous game this season. This team has not always been 100% confident on the ball so far this season, but it’ll be a key tonight.
- Take advantage of few opportunities. This may manifest itself in testing Melia a lot – this would be a smart manifestation, because he’s been mediocre-to-bad for three-plus years at this point – but it also means not being wasteful in the attacking third, because Nashville’s style of play is not going to provide volumes of chances at SKC, but may provide a few gilt-edged ones.
- Lock down the wingers. There’s other attacking talent at Sporting’s disposal, particularly if the health situation is as improved as it looks. But Salloi and Russell are the guys, and if you can take them out of the equation, you feel better about daring the other guys to beat you.
SKC has been really bad this year, but I hesitate to say Nashville’s going to go into a hostile environment against a team that’s traditionally exceptional in that environment and find an easy time. That’s particularly true with an SKC team that seems as healthy as it has been yet this year. Which is not to say “healthy” in an absolute sense, but certainly “more healthy” in a relative one.
These teams are in different places from a confidence perspective, and that’s not quite enough for me to pick the Nashville SC upset, but if the Boys in Gold can go into one of the crucibles (pun extremely intended) of the league and pick up a result, that may very well feel like a win.
The game ends in a 1-1 draw.