Perhaps the biggest challenge yet comes to GEODIS Park: the top team in MLS has added reinforcements, and has no fear of playing on the road.
Opponent: LAFC (12-4-5)
Time, Location: Sunday, July 17, 7:38 p.m. CDT • GEODIS Park
Weather: 83ºF, 26% chance of rain, 61% humidity, 8 m.p.h. SSW wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30/NashvilleSC.com (local), ESPN+ (out-of-market) • IHeartRadio/El Jefe 96.7 (Español)
Tailgate: Lot 5 with the Backline Supporters Collective
Match officials: Referee: Drew Fischer. Assistants: Cory Richardson, Logan Brown. Fourth official: Elton Garcia. Video Assistants: Allen Chapman, TJ Zablocki
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +140, draw +250, LAFC +180
Etc.: Rate, review, subscribe to the podcast, with great insight from Shoulder 2 Shoulder‘s Chris Saenz, and my return leg on their pod … Check me out talkin MLS more generally on Benched … The Playlist.
|Record (W-L-D)||8-6-6 (1.48 PPG)|
|12-4-3 (2.05 PPG)|
|Recent form (most recent first)||W-L-D-W-L||W-L-W-W-D|
|xG Power||+0.33 (9th MLS)||+0.68 (2nd MLS)|
|G Power||-0.03 (15th MLS)||+0.66 (2nd MLS)|
|“Luck”||-0.36 (22nd MLS)||-0.01 (16th MLS)|
|Offense||+0.01 (16th MLS)||+0.37 (4th MLS)|
|Defense||-0.32 (2nd MLS)||-0.30 (3rd MLS)|
|Venue advantage||-0.71 Home (28th MLS)||+0.18 Away (10th MLS)|
|Injury report||OUT: D Robert Castellanos (ankle), Aníbal Godoy (thigh)||OUT: D Julian Gaines (pelvis), F Danny Musovski (leg) |
QUEST.: F Brian Rodriguez (leg)
SUSP.: D Diego Palacios (Yellow accumulation)
LAFC is one of very few teams that out-xGs opponents on the road (New York Red Bulls and your very own Nashville Soccer Club are the other two – while Philly and Colorado Rapids are dead even), and will not be intimidated, to say the least. It’s also a team that is elite at home (so the away advantage is really saying something) and oh yeah is also expected to see the debuts of Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini and Wales captain Gareth Bale – one of whom will be leading his team in the World Cup, but not the one you’d think! – very soon, almost certainly this evening.
So, yeah: tall task.
It all starts up top for LA, where right winger Carlos Vela is a past MVP and Golden Boot winner (both in 2019, while injuries prevented him from being highly productive the past two years). Some combination of Cristian Arango, Danny Musovski, Brian Rodriguez, and Kwadwo Opoku has rotated through the other two spots for much of the year in the front three (there have been brief forays into two-striker formations – we’l get into that in a moment). Musovski didn’t travel and Rodriguez is questionable with a leg injury, having not appeared since June 26. My assumption is we’ll see Arango up top – though even he is the subject of rumors about a transfer away because of the embarrassment of riches LAFC has in the attacking lines – with Opoku on the left wing. Bale will be able to rotate in for any of the three as a substitute, and the positions for those guys are fluid anyway.
Vela’s dribbling has been below his historical par so far this year, though you could safely assume it is more apt to bounce back than continue being bad (particularly as even more help arrives in the front line). Though Musovski can play as a creator type, his strength is getting into dangerous positions and finishing slipped through-balls. He likes to tests the back line with those runs, and he can also cut back with endline crosses (though they haven’t been a huge source of production for him this year). Musosvki’s ostensibly playing out of position because Arango likes to play through the middle and sometimes feed his teammates those through-balls, but more get on the ball deeper in the lineup and carry it forward to shoot. He’s… not been super-successful with the carrying at all times. He has been more so with the shooting, leading the team with seven goals.
Now it’s formation chat time: LAFC has alternated between back-four and back-five principles lately, with the assumption being that the odd backlines are to prepare for the debut of Chiellini, allowing him to be the organizer/communicator/sweeper in the middle while… minimizing the impact of the lost athleticism that comes with being less than a month away from your 38th birthday (and having experienced persistent leg injuries the past couple seasons). I would imagine we’ll see that today, in the form of a 3-4-3 – there was one match with a 3-5-2, but it doesn’t suit the talent of a healthy LAFC side – meaning the fullbacks become wingbacks.
Diego Palacios has been pretty consistently on the left, with Ryan Hollingshead starting on the right. Nashville SC fans may recall Hollingshead as a left back for FC Dallas (and goal-scorer from that position in Nissan Stadium last year), but he’s a right-footed guy capable of playing on the other side, and he’s the top backup on the left for LAFC, with Franco Escobar slotting in on the right. Hollingshead has been on the left both recent games with the odd backline, so look for that from a familiarity perspective if we see the formation (though Palacios was unavailable for both of those games, so we have some confounding factors in the data – it doesn’t matter since he’s suspended tonight anyway. The sample lives!).
The three-man rotation in midfield has been tightened up a bit, with Kellyn Acosta and Jose Cifuentes playing as the advanced members ahead of Ilie Sanchez. Obviously Acosta has plenty of experience as a 6 in various stops during his career, so there’s some flexibility. Cifuentes is by far the most offense-oriented player in the midfield – evidenced by his brace against LA Galaxy in the team’s most recent outing – and is a guy who likes to be on the ball, and if he’s not on it, get into spots where his teammates are going to get it to him. He’s third on the team in both shots and key passes, and is another of the players feeding the likes of Vela and Musovski from deeper in the midfield (as well as Arango, of course).
Sanchez is a non-entity in attack aside from his ability to quickly move possession forward by getting it to his guys in space. Some of that is obviously talent and vision. Some of it is the simple nature of having the weapons around him that he does. It’s a vintage TFC Michael Bradley role (minus any defensive effort of note) from the deep-lying six.
So back to the defensive line: Sebastien Ibeagha and Jesús Murillo are mainstays. ASA‘s Goals Added has really not liked Ibeagha this year, with a negative mark on each of the breakout categories en route to the lowest overall grade on the team. His lowest categories have been interrupting and fouling, which reports indicate are pretty important parts of being a centerback (particularly with a non-destroyer like Sanchez in front). Murillo is extremely positive in the interrupting category, above-average in fouling (which encapsulates both committing and receiving fouls, but for a CB is an indicator of not making The Big Mistake), and negative in the attacking ones. The CBs have generally gotten the ball to Sanchez and let him do the building out of the back – though it’s worth noting that has not included the drop-into-backline thing that Nashville did at times last year. Mbacke Fall has been the top backup this year, and G+ loves what it’s seen out of him, though some of that is a smaller sample size – and that sample size being skewed by his ability on set pieces, which is part of his game, yes, but doesn’t say much about his defending.
If Chiellini slots in between two of those guys, it’ll give them a little more room to roam, and a little more freedom to be destroyers. We’ll see whether their lack of having done so this year is a personal style or tactical reality. I remain skeptical that somebody older than I am and persistently fighting injury is going to be, like, a game-changingly capable defender (regardless of what the more distant past on his résumé may indicate. He was an every-minute player for the first Italy team to fail to make the World Cup since the 1950s… and then captained the second one. He was the captain of a Juve team that broke a nine-year streak winning Serie A… and then the one that failed to atone this past year, etc.).
With all of that, this is still been an elite defensive team in terms of creation, so how? A big part of it has been getting leads and playing a bit of keepaway – while opponents get desperate and don’t build effective shooting platforms because of the sense of urgency that LAFC makes you feel. Some of it is off-ball stuff that just won’t show up in the stats and makes LAFC pretty good.
No matter what, they’re protecting their keeper extremely well… and weirdly, Maxime Crèpeau has needed it this year: he’s below average, allowing 113% of expected goals against – resulting in about two extra goals for opponents over the course of the year to date, so it’s not like it’s been horrible. He was good last year but has hovered around average the two before that, so maybe my perception of him as purely elite is way off. He generally plays short out of the back, though not to the dogmatic degree that LAFC did under former head coach Bob Bradley.
All told, this is a team with no obvious holes, and a few positions (namely in the attack) at which it is truly elite. It’s not unbeatable, though, which almost feels like a surprise after running through plenty of “good not great” personnel, something I was not anticipating the numbers to show!
NSC bounced back in the midweek after a really rough stretch. This game doesn’t quite feel like free money – a loss could see Salt Lake pass the Boys in Gold in the table, and really eat into any margin for error when it comes to holding onto a home-playoff slot – but having beaten Seattle takes a lot of pressure off this one.
The question is how Nashville reacts to that situation: play fast-and-loose with three points already in the bag from this week, or get even more conservative to turn those three points into four, and hope to nick one on the counter for all six? Before the week I guessed the former, but now I’m leaning toward the latter, particularly because an LAFC team that likes to push numbers up the field is particularly susceptible to the counterattack, and Nashville’s personnel is built for that.
The other primary question is Nashville’s tactical setup: it’s been mostly a 3-4-3 this year, but the past couple weeks have seen shifts back toward a four-man backline (presumably with major RB help on the way in the form of Shaq Moore). Against LAFC, I have to think that sitting back with three and letting an attacking trio of Mukhtar, Leal, and Sapong get out on the break (with some help from the wingbacks) might be the philosophy that maximizes the chance at both a result and at getting all three points.
Heck, this may very well be a game for Aké Loba to get extended run up top, as well. He’s got a little more technical precision and cutting edge up top than Sapong, and giving him the chance to test those legs for an extended track meet may give Nashville an important data point about where his long-term future may lie. Add in that his weaknesses (defensive effort high up the pitch, where Sapong is elite and Loba… lacking, and an inability to be secure on the ball in settled possession) aren’t all that negative against a team like LAFC, and I think I’ve talked myself into a Loba start.
The rotation in central midfield with Aníbal Godoy still out is a question, too: can Dax McCarty be relied upon for the lion’s share of the game after 90 minutes midweek – and to be fair, some of his best 90 minutes of the year with pretty obvious struggled for him throughout this year – or is Brian Anunga’s defensive bite needed (and can he rein in the too-unleashed version that’s seen major mistakes in recent games), with McCarty available off the bench?
Keys to the game
- Set pieces. Ever has it been, ever shall it be.
- Keep them shooting from distance. If there’s anyone that can make you pay from long-range, it’s a team that has Chicho Arango and Carlos Vela (and Gareth Bale). But the flipside of that is this LAFC team’s ability to sneak guys in-behind – even from settled attacking postures – to create major danger from the doorstep. I’ll take the former over the latter.
- Stout at the back. This is part two to the part one above, but being strong at the back is priorities [long list of numbers] against this LAFC team. There’s no shame in drawing them, but there’s every opportunity to do much worse than that if there are mistakes.
- Hit ’em on the counter. Under both bob Bradley and Steve Cherundolo, LAFC has loved to push numbers forward into attack. they do it even on the road (which partially explains their success away from Banc of California Stadium). Nashville typically bunkers a bit on the road and is more open at home, but drawing those numbers forward with frustrating defense, and than banging balls for quick breaks spearheaded by Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar is going to be one of the best ways to not only keep LAFC from scoring, but to score themselves.
Nashville SC 1, LAFC 2