At long last, it is here. Nashville will play at a home of its own.
Opponent: Philadelphia Union (5-1-2)
Time, Location: Sunday, May 1, 3:00 p.m. • GEODIS Park
Weather: 78ºF, 15% chance of rain, 27% humidity, 11 mph Westerly wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: ESPN • IHeartRadio (English), El Jefe 96.7 (Español)
Tailgate: Lot 1 with the Backline Supporters Collective
Recent form (most recent first): D-L-W-W-W
Non-nerd stats (2021): 54 points, 1.59 PPG (2nd East) • 1.41 GF/gm, 1.03 GA/gm
Nerd stats: +0.26 xG Power (9th MLS), +0.32 G Power (6th MLS). +0.06 “Luck” (12th MLS) • +0.06 Offense (10th MLS), -0.19 Defense (9th MLS). +0.25 away advantage (8th MLS)
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +116, draw +204, Philadelphia Union +248
Match officials: Referee: Chris Penso. Assistants: Jeremy Hanson, Mike Rottersman. Fourth official: Tori Penso. Video assistants: Kevin Terry Jr., Eric Weisbrod
Questionable: F Sergio Santos (hamstring)
Philly has morphed over the past couple seasons from a press-and-possess style to a more Red Bull-like press-only philosophy: Jim Curtin’s 2022 squad has one of the lowest pass completion rates in recent league history, and certainly amongst teams that are any good. The Union connects on 66.1% of passes, and is averaging about 38% possession per game. That hasn’t been a bad thing, though: they boast the top points per game mark in the East (and the only team ahead of them, NYRB, has played one more game… and is barely more successful linking passes).
“Recently Curtin has gotten more analytical with his statistics,” Brotherly Game‘s Joe Lister said. “The team eventually realized that they simply didn’t care about certain stats that plenty of fans and teams worry about constantly. As long as Curtin’s teams are productive with the ball, it doesn’t really matter how long they have it. It just matters that they have enough possession to create a few good chances a game.”
Goalkeeper Andre Blake is playing it long out of the back, the fullbacks are whipping in early crosses, and the attacking players are combining… less-than efficiently. Despite that, the Union notches a goal and a half per game, with Daniel Gazdag orchestrating from the tip of a 4-4-2 diamond midfield – creating for himself (a team-leading four goals) and his teammates (0.87 xA on seven key passes, though he’s yet to record his first assist). After a frustrating start to his MLS time at Inter Miami, striker Julián Carranza has been very good alongside a combination of Cory Burke, Sergio Santos, and Mikael Uhre. With Santos battling injury and Uhre settling in after joining the team in preseason, you’re likely to see a Carranza-Uhre starting lineup, as has been the case for the past three games. He’s a bit more of a dribbly-connecty guy, which is a solid complement to Carranza’s finish-first style.
With Gazdag’s production to date mostly benefitting himself, it’s been vet Alejandro Bedoya doing most of the creation for others. As the right-sided shuttler in that diamond (though Curtin is basically playing those outside midfielders as winger-types in a fairly aggressive attacking posture), he’s got 11 key passes, though like Gazdag, that hasn’t been paid off yet. Leon Flach is the left-sided midfielder, though he’s far more defensive-focused than Bedoya out of possession, and he doesn’t work to get as high up the pitch. At times, you could consider the diamond more of a 4-2-2-2 box, with Flach dropping next to Jose Martínez in defensive midfield.
As is often the case with formations that are fairly narrow in attacking areas, the fullbacks get forward to provide width, with left back Kai Wagner making up for a lack of attacking punch out of Flach, while Nathan Harriel can hang back a bit more on the right because of Bedoya’s more-dynamic style. Wagner has 15 key passes already, though given the nature of the position, they’re largely lower-value crosses – even on that volume, he hasn’t reached 1.0 xA yet.
The CBs and Martínez are massively important to keeping Blake relatively low-stress, and of course the Jamaica International is elite when they do let the opposition get a shot off on him.
“Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes aren’t necessarily DPOY material, but the combination is deadly,” Lister said. “Kai Wagner is one of the league’s best fullbacks, and Nathan Harriel, despite his youth and relative inexperience, is melding well with the defense. He’s making fewer mistakes each match. At the no. 6, Jose Martinez doesn’t have the loudest games (outside of with the referee, though this has calmed down recently), but he’s a good sweeper when needed.”
Add it all up and you have a fun style of play: a team that wants to get the ball into (and keep it in) the opponent’s attacking half, but doesn’t focus on worrying who has the ball in that area: it’s real territorial, field-position stuff in a lot of ways. The Union works to generate chances during unsettled moments for the opposition (rather than sweating a pure volume of chances), and makes sure its outstanding keeper is not tested regularly. That’s a winning combination when you have he finishers to pay it off.
The Boys in Gold
OUT: F Teal Bunbury (knee), D Robert Castellanos (ankle), M Koze Donasiyano (knee)
The Boys in Gold have played over two years in MLS – including two full seasons worth of home games – but never before have they had their own home. Feeling like a tenant in Nissan Stadium is very different than being the boss of GEODIS Park. Nashville has trained on its new home pitch as much as possible in the past three weeks, adjusting to the nuances (and the big field size), and preparing for this day.
Precisely how big the playing surface is might be an interesting factor here: naturally, a team with Philly’s style wants to compress space… and that’s difficult to do when there’s a whole lot more of it to cover.
With Dax McCarty back from suspension, minor injury, and the birth of his second child (busy Spring for the captain), Nashville can put a bit more technical ability on the field, and it would not surprise to see Gary Smith go back to the 4-1-4-1 type formation we saw in the first couple games of the year, with McCarty dropping in to protect the CBs out of possession for a de facto back five, and the attacking midfielders and striker fairly interchangeable (as has pretty much always been the case since Hany Mukhtar’s breakout last season).
It’s not what NSC has been doing lately, of course, with the 3-4-3/3-5-2 boasting three true CBs, and wingbacks up the field and running the touchline. Some of that has been a matter of necessity with McCarty either unavailable or at less than 100%, but tapering up for this game makes sense.
Keys to the game
- Set pieces. Obvs
- Withstand pressure. It’s obviously not ideal, but booting the ball long rather than coughing up a turnover in your own end is the “live to fight another day” move against a team like Philly.
- Get behind Wagner. The left back simply loves to get up the field, and while Flach will insert to cover for him deep, there should still be space to exploit behind him (which is often the case when you face a diamond midfield). Even firing some speculative shots from distance in those space may very well create moments of chaos.
- Feed off the home crowd. Nashville has essentially not had the opportunity to play in front of a packed house since the franchise’s very first MLS game. That will… very much change this afternoon. Getting the home crowd behind them, and having an intimidating atmosphere for the Union (with very little distance from even the worst seat in the house down to the field) should be fruitful.
- Moments of magic. You need ’em in this sport, and Nashville especially needs its recently-extended Designated Players, Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman, to play like a couple guys who, well, deserved the extensions that they got and want to live up to them going forward, as well.
If it weren’t for the first-game factor, it would be easy to see Nashville being willing to play a cagey brand of ball and get out of a game with Philly putting a point on the board. However, Gary Smith has not been secretive about wanting an expansive game in home matches, and there’s only one chance to make a first impression. Whether that results in NSC putting up a big performance or a backfire with he Union exploiting the weaknesses that interently open up is the name of the game.
Nashville SC 3, Philadelphia Union 1