Old rivals meet once more. After drawing the first several competitive matches across two leagues, Nashville SC took a pair of commanding victories to close 2021. With a radically different (which is to say: competent) FC Cincinnati team, can NSC maintain its unblemished record?
Opponent: FC Cincinnati (7-8-6)
Time, Location: Saturday, July 23, 6:38 p.m. CDT (7:38 local) • Cincinnati, Ohio
Weather: 91ºF, 12% chance of rain, 52% humidity, 8mph SSW wind
Follow: MLS MatchCenter • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch/Stream • Listen: MyTV30/NashvilleSC.com (local), ESPN+ (out-of-market) • IHeartRadio/El Jefe 96.7 (Español)
Watch Party: ML Rose 8th South with the Heaters and Eastern Front
Match officials: Referee: Tim Ford. Assistants: Nick Uranga, Brooke Mayo. Fourth official: Greg Dopka. Video Assistants: Victor Rivas, Tom Supple.
Vegas odds: Nashville SC +175, draw +240, FC Cincinnati +150
|Stat||Nashville SC||FC Cincinnati|
|Record (W-L-D)||8-7-6 (1.43 PPG)|
|7-8-6 (1.29 PPG)|
|Recent form (most recent first)||L-W-L-D-W||L-D-D-D-D|
|xG Power||+0.39 (7th MLS)||+0.43 (6th MLS)|
|G Power||-0.04 (16th MLS)||-0.25 (20th MLS)|
|“Luck”||-0.42 (23rd MLS)||-0.68 (27th MLS)|
|Offense||+0.08 (12th MLS)||+0.46 (2nd MLS)|
|Defense||-0.31 (3rd MLS)||+0.04 (16th MLS)|
|Venue advantage||+0.64 Away (1st MLS)||+0.25 Home (8th MLS)|
|Injury report||OUT: D Robert Castellanos (ankle), Aníbal Godoy (thigh)||OUT: D Ronald Matarrita (ankle), F Dom Badji (leg) |
QUEST.: F Sergio Santos (leg)
SUSP.: M Lucho Acosta (red)
This is not your one-year-older brother’s FC Cincinnati team. After spending three years in historic levels of incompetence, the Knifey Lions wised up and hired some staff with know-how in the league, yanking Philadephia’s assistant GM (Chris Albright) and assistant coach (Pat Noonan) to lead the charge. Ta-da! Hire people who aren’t stupid, and your fortunes turn around! So easy a Carl Lindner III can do it!
The key personnel aren’t even guys who were unavailable last year:
- Striker Brandon Vazquez has been with FCC ever since spending 15 minutes as a Nashville SC player on the day of the Expansion Draft in late 2019. Noonan has given the former US Youth International (and prospective senior International) a chance, and he’s made good: he’s third in MLS with 9.80 expected goals, and his 10 times converting are good for sixth in the league. He’s chipped in two assists on 2.45 xA.
- When he was signed last year, Brazilian striker Brenner commanded a league-record fee, all to be the literal single-worst player in MLS (according to ASA‘s Goals Added metric – inexplicably ending up worse than Cincy keeper Kenneth Vermeer, who is far and away the worst player I’ve seen in the league in the past 15 years). He’s not exactly lighting the world on fire now, but five goals as a part-time player is a big contribution in comparison.
- Playing with competent personnel in front of him has reawakened something in attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta, who would probably be in MVP discussions if playing on a slightly better team. He’s third in the league with 13.897 xG+xA.
- Former NSC striker Dom Badji is having an OK year as an option off the bench. His finishing and health have been questionable (which will surely shock and awe Nashville SC fans), and the latter has him out this evening.
Put that together, and an attack that showed signs last year is suddenly among the league’s most potent. We’ll, uh, get to the rest later. Cincinnati has often gone to a 3-5-2 to get al three of those guys on the field in their preferred positions this year. The problem? Acosta is serving the final game of a violent-conduct suspension, and won’t be able to help FCC tonight.
In his stead, Brenner and winger Alvaro Barreal have traded primary playmaking duties, with either the same formation (Barreal slotting in directly for Acosta), or a shift back toward the previously-preferred 4-2-3-1, with Brenner in the center of the three-man attacking midfield that includes Barreal on the left and Yuya Kubo on the right.
Ray Gaddis has slotted in as the primary right back or RWB – with the Philadelphia connection luring him out of retirement – with Alvas Powell the backup. For what it’s worth, Powell has been very good while Gaddis has been very bad according to G+, though the components that favor him (dribbling and fouling) are not the most crucial for defense. Barreal plays as the LWB (and obviously an attack-minded version of the position), while John Nelson is the primary right back in a back-four and the backup option at LWB. Barreal excels at the offensive duties of the position, as you may expect, while Nelson is absolutely anonymous to the numbers aside from the fact that his passing is terrible. Drilling down on that, he’s not passing over great distances, but attempting low-percentage passes (i.e. making bad decisions), and completing them at lower-than-expected rates.
So now that we have the fullbacks/wingbacks covered, we get into the true defensive positions. It’s worth noting that, like the attack, the personnel isn’t too turned over here. It’s also worth noting that, unlike the attack, it still sucks. Ok, that’s not fair: it’s gone from historically, record-breaking terrible to simply below-average, so that’s actually a big step forward. It’s the achilles heel of the team nonetheless.
Kubo – who you may recall was brought in as an attacking DP! – is still a member of the CDM rotation, but the double-pivot has more frequently consisted of Obinna Nwobodo, a 25-year old DP, and Júnior Moreno. The latter has missed the past seven games with a leg injury, but is not on the FCC injury report, so if he’s back, it’ll be a huge boost – worth noting that the team has gone 1-1-5 without him after starting 6-7-1 with him going 90 nearly every outing. Moreno is a destroyer in the midfield, and FCC needs that given Nwobodo is average in that respect (and Haris Medunjanin, who never met a defense he didn’t feel like playing, literally can’t see the field without a good DM next to him). Allan Cruz is the most attack-forward of that group, but has seen just sparing time, mostly when Kubo is played at wing in the 4-2-3-1.
The centerbacks are awful. G+ has Geoff Cameron as the fifth-worst CB in the league this year (min. 1000 minutes). Tyler Blackett is 15th-worst. Ian Murphy is close to average, but has far less time on the pitch than either of those two. Nick Hagglund has actually been pretty good (+0.50), but most of his positives come from being on the receiving end of set pieces. A line of Blackett-Cameron-Hagglund papers some of the weaknesses of the two non-Hagglund players, but neither of them is disruptive – part of what gives FCC so many problems when Moreno isn’t in the lineup to break up play ahead of them – and Cameron’s one of very few players in the league older than me, so. (The fact that a geriatric guy who’s got a long reputation of being a horrible dude and has been one of the worst players in the league this year remains a nailed-on starter is really something, tbh).
Despite that, the two-headed goalkeeping unit of Alec Kann and rookie Roman Celentano (Vermeer has been planted to the bench, another troubling sign of competency creeping in to FCC management) has not exactly been shelled. They’re facing the 10th-most xG per game, and the ninth-most shots (some of that is because they haven’t had a tough schedule compared to the rest of the league, as the opponent-adjusted xGA value puts them below halfway). Kann is allowing 122% of xG faced, while Celentano is right near average at 103%. The rookie has played every minute since mid-April: this is his team. FCC is having him mostly play long from the back, for what it’s worth.
Not a lot has changed for the Boys in Gold, aside from the obvious big news that Shaq Moore signed with Nashville SC. If his International Transfer Certificate has come in, I would expect a cameo role for him, though starting after a couple training sessions with a month off after Tenerife’s failed promotion campaign ended… probably not in the cards.
NSC should also be as rested as we’ve seen in a little while: the Sunday-Saturday turnaround isn’t ideal, but it’s much better than the Sunday-Saturday-Wednesday-Sunday stretch that preceded it. With Aníbal Godoy still unavailable due to injury, the rest in Dax McCarty’s legs is going to be important. McCarty and Sean Davis provides a different two-way threat from Davis and Brian Anunga.
What will we see out of Nashville’s formation? Shifting to primarily a back-four seems reasonable for when Moore is full fit to go… but until that time, Eric Miller as an overlapping fullback is not the best use of resources, either. Either the true 4-4-2 we’ve seen a bit of lately, or… I expect the back-five (which also gets both Dave Romney and Jack Maher on the field in the backline) and the hybrid 3-4-3 formation NSC has gone with much of the year makes the most sense – and then pulling a CB off for Moore if he sees the field will make some sense.
Keys to the game
- Set pieces. Ever has it been, ever shall it be.
- Turn the centerbacks. Aside from Hagglund, they are bad. Sending service through middle channels will probably be fruitful (or force Cameron into his toughest decisions since “what are my plans for Jan. 6”). Those guys aren’t highly mobile, and NSC can attack them.
- Keep them shooting from distance. These guys aren’t opposed to it, and it’s obviously better than one of the major alternatives! If you lock down the back and frustrate Vazquez into hitting from distance rather than trying to work his way into dangerous areas, it’s gonna work out for you.
- Dominate wide play. FCC’s wingbacks are a guy who was literally out of soccer for a year (though I do have a lot of respect for Ray Gaddis), and one whose numbers and even roster photo look pulled from “US Soccer in the 80s, you know, the kind we’ve tried to move on from by producing better players.” NSC should be able to eat against them.
- Don’t give them solutions to their Lucho problem. Luciano Acosta is the heartbeat of the FC Cincinnati team, and his absence has been felt. Vazquez, Brenner, and the CMs can produce some attack without him… but it ain’t the same. Giving them problems to solve without their problem-solver is the No. 1 path to victory.
Nashville SC 3, FC Cincinnati 1. With Acosta here, I’d be making a different prediction, of course.