Nashville went on the road to Kennesaw last weekend and beat Atlanta United 2 by a score of two goals to zero. They return home to take on Tampa Bay Rowdies in the USL Championship's nationally televised game of the week. Here's what to look for on Wednesday.
Nashville SC currently sit in 6th place in the East, with 14 points and a +6 goal difference. Head coach Gary Smith has used a 3-5-2 formation for two consecutive games, scoring four goals and earning four points.
“It’s nice when you get a little bit continuity and consistency in what we’re trying to do as a
group," said midfielder Matt LaGrassa. "I think one of the things that we’ve emphasized as a team is adaptability, so obviously we’re in it now, but I don’t that we won’t change again at some point this year. I think we’re comfortable in different shapes, we have the personnel for different shapes as well. As of now it’s been working for us, so we’re sticking with it. But we’ll see."
Smith has started a fairly consistent group of players, and I don't expect much to change on Wednesday night. While many players have played a lot of minutes so far, it's still early in the season, and upcoming matches against Swope Park and Charlotte should provide opportunities for a bit more rotation.
Matt Pickens and Connor Sparrow have split games so far, each taking two matches before rotating out. Sparrow has started the last two, and Wednesday is an opportunity for Pickens to play at home on national TV against his old club. Smith could throw a curveball here, but I expect Pickens to start.
Justin Davis gave Liam Doyle a break on Saturday. Prior to Atlanta, Doyle had played every minute of the season, and I expect he'll slot back in with Ken Tribbett and Bradley Bourgeois in a back three.
Taylor Washington has come back into the XI with the return of the 3-5-2, and as the most natural wingback in the squad, he should get another start. On the other side, Kosuke Kimura has started five of seven, but King provides more end product from the right wingback role, and could get a chance to impress at home.
The midfield three of Michael Reed, Matt LaGrassa, and Bolu Akinyode has been consistent this season, with LaGrassa standing out on both sides of the ball. There's not a pure chance creator in this triumvirate, and Smith could take a gamble on Lebo Moloto in on of the box-to-box roles. However, given Tampa Bay's attacking threat, I think he'll stick with the typical three.
Up front, I think Cameron Lancaster will replace Kharlton Belmar. Belmar has been impressive this season, but has played the third-most minutes on the team, and looked gassed at points in Atlanta. "[Lancaster] had a little bit of a problem on Thursday, came in Friday morning. It was a late decision for him not to travel," said Smith. "He trained yesterday and he trained today, and he’s in a good place. Really pleased with him. I’m looking forward to getting him out there, I know that he’s absolutely jumping to get on the field and to show everyone what he’s about. I know that he’ll certainly be in the right place when he’s called upon."
Lancaster was held out in Atlanta for precautionary reasons, but has been a full participant in training. Smith will want to get him on the field with Daniel Ríos and have the two find a good run of form. At home in a nationally televised match against an in-form opponent is a great opportunity to get off the ground.
"It’ll be great to be back on our home field, be great to be back in front
of our home fans," said Smith. "For the players, it’s good exposure. Not that they need that, but nevertheless I think both teams when you know it’s on national television, it gives you a little bit more of a buzz and that anticipation because you’re in front of a lot of viewers. I’m looking forward to it.”
TAMPA BAY ROWDIES
Tampa Bay are in third place in the East with 17 points, having played one more match than Nashville. They have the second best goal difference in the East at +10, and are the only unbeaten side left in the conference.
"[Tampa Bay] are very well organized, they’re very determined, and they are incredibly tough to play against," said Smith. "They certainly have the quality in the group, goals and results that we’ve seen have suggested that, and I think the fact that they’ve still kept five clean sheets tells you that there’s a really good balance in the side... I wouldn’t expect anything less than maybe the toughest game we’ve had all year.”
Tampa Bay play a fast paced style with an attack full of talent. Winger Leo Fernandes is tied for third in the league with four assists, and captain Sebastián Guenzatti has scored five goals. They're also tied for the league lead with five clean sheets. All said, they're the most complete team Nashville has faced to date.
Former Nashville SC forward Brandon Allen plies his trade in Tampa Bay. He's scored once in six appearances, and has split time with Juan Tejada in recent weeks. He's a candidate to start, but should come off the bench if he's not given the nod initially.
OUT: (F) Malik Johnson (separated shoulder)
OUT: (F) Jaime Siaj (quad strain)
DOUBTFUL: (D) Shawn Barry (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: (M) Yann Ekra (ankle)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR?
Will Lancaster be a factor? After missing the majority of the season with injury, it looks like Lancaster is finally healthy. Will he get the start, and if so, will he make an impact?
How will Nashville defend? Tampa Bay is a pacy and aggressive side. Nashville will have their hands full, particularly from wide areas. Whoever starts at wingback will have a lot of work to do to provide with in the attack as well as defensive cover.
The return of Brandon Allen. Allen had a moderately successful spell in Nashville. He scored eight goals but split opinions among fans. He'll want to make an impact against his former team, especially in his nationally televised return.
Score: Nashville 2 - 1 Tampa Bay
Scorers: Daniel Ríos, Ropapa Mensah
MOTM: Matt LaGrassa
Bold Prediction: Brandon Allen scores late in the second half to equalize before Mensah scores a late winner.
Score: Nashville 2 - 1 Tampa Bay
Scorers: Daniel Ríos, Cameron Lancaster
MOTM: Cameron Lancaster
Bold Prediction: Nashville get a late winner from Lancaster to pull within two points of the conference leader.
Score: Nashville 2 - 1 Tampa Bay
Scorers: Daniel Ríos, Bradley Bourgeois
MOTM: Matt LaGrassa
Bold Prediction: Brandon Allen scores against Nashville.
Score: Nashville 3 - 1 Tampa Bay
Scorers: Daniel Ríos (x2), Matt LaGrassa
MOTM: Daniel Ríos
Bold Prediction: All three of Nashville's goals are scored in the first half.
Have a prediction for the match? Vote in our Fearless Forecast and reply with your predictions.
GARY SMITH (Head Coach)
On the tight schedule in the next few weeks: “The next three weeks are as tough as they get in a season. We’ve got Open Cup next week after the Swope game, then we have our third home game against Charlotte, we quickly run into two away games in Birmingham and Indy. So, for the next three weeks we’ve got a really tough schedule. The group is strong, we’re healthy, we’re in a good place as far as players being mentally and physically in a good spot. I’ve been at clubs before where players have not seen the field at this point, and when you’ve got to call on those players eight games in, they can be off of the pace of match play. But I’m hoping that one or two bits of our rotation here with players means that everyone feels as though they’re in a good place to perform. I don’t have an issue with whoever’s out there, you've seen that already. We’ve certainly got depth in all positions and it’s going to be tested.”
On Lancaster's health: “Good. He had a little bit of a problem on Thursday, came in Friday morning. It was a late decision for him not to travel. But, he trained yesterday and he trained today, and he’s in a good place. Really pleased with him. I’m looking forward to getting him out there, I know that he’s absolutely jumping to get on the field and to show everyone what he’s about. After such an exciting year last year, it’s been incredibly frustrating for him, so I know that he’ll certainly be in the right place when he’s called upon.”
On playing at home again after three road matches: “For all sorts of reasons. It’ll be great to be back on our home field, be great to be back in front of our home fans, our preparations are different because of the lesser travel. There’s a lot more we can control when we’re at home, as all teams do. We’ve got three tough opponents on paper and games rarely turn out the way you see them on paper, but on paper we’ve got an unbeaten Tampa coming into town. You could easily say that this might be the toughest one, but you throw into the equation down the line we will have had two or three games before we meet up with Swope and Charlotte at the back end of that after an Open Cup game. There’s all sorts of difficulties we run into, as do many teams throughout the season. We’ve got some tough ones, but it’s really the time for us to start taking advantage of home field. Most teams rely on that. If they’re going to do well in any season, they’ve got to make their home ground somewhere difficult for opponents to come and play. It’s no different in any sport. We need to take maximum points wherever possible.”
On managing the roster in a tight schedule: “When you’ve got good players, it’s a little bit easier because you’re generally looking for no falloff when individuals come into the group that didn’t necessarily start the week before. It’s the first time in a long time that I can honestly say that in every position on the field, if I rotate bodies, we don’t see a falloff, which is great. Therefore, I can keep a fresher group and I can certainly add some energy to certain areas, and I can change the dimension of the group as well, which certainly I can’t say I’ve had throughout my career. The one thing that all coaches look towards as well is continuity. If I change too many players, then you lose a little bit of rapport in the group. If you don't change enough, then you might lack a little bit of energy or sharpness with a lot of games coming up. Getting that balance right is all about discussing with the players, how they feel, where they’re at, any little knocks or injuries, certainly chatting with coaches and finding out their views and feelings on what those changes look like and what they could do to the team. You’ve seen already, we’ve changed bodies, we’ve changed shape. This is a good group that take onboard a lot of the information and they act upon it very well.”
On Tampa Bay's performance this season: “They’re a very changed side in the last year since Neill [Collins] has really been at the helm. I think this has been the first big opportunity for Neill to really put his fingerprints on the team. Lots of changes to the group, he’s had a good preseason to work with players, he’s changed their style and their system. I think the biggest really credit we can give to the group that Neill’s offered up is that they’re very well organized, they’re very determined, and they are incredibly tough to play against because of that. They certainly have the quality in the group, goals and results that we’ve seen have suggested that, and I think the fact that they’ve still kept five clean sheets tells you that there’s a really good balance in the side. That’s always the difficulty for any coach. So, when you’ve got a confident side coming into town, unbeaten and feeling good about the way they’re playing, having had a weekend off to prepare, I wouldn’t expect anything less than maybe the toughest game we’ve had all year.”
MATT LaGRASSA (Midfielder)
On his goal against Atlanta: “When it came off my foot, I kind of knew. It’s a fairly difficult technique, but it’s always nice when you catch one like that.”
On how much he's practiced that shot: “A decent amount. A decent amount of balls sailing over the goal as well. When they go in, you’ve got to be happy about that.”
On playing in a 3-5-2: “It’s nice when you get a little bit continuity and consistency in what we’re trying to do as a group. I think one of the things that we’ve emphasized as a team is adaptability, so obviously we’re in it now, but I don’t that we won’t change again at some point this year. I think we’re comfortable in different shapes, we have the personnel for different shapes as well. As of now, it’s been working for us, so we’re sticking with it. But we’ll see.”
On the tight schedule: “I think the depth of our squad this year is really evident, and I think we’re going to need everybody in these next four weeks with eight games. We have confidence in the entire group, I know Gary does as well. There’s a lot of good players that haven’t necessarily been getting minutes lately that I’m sure will be seen this month. We’ll need them to help us.”
JUSTIN DAVIS (Defender)
On the defensive performance in Atlanta: “It was good to get back into a familiar set of ways with the shutout on the road. That’s kind of been a feature of the team that Gary is trying to put into us. It was good to get back to that. I think there were a couple of slip-ups on the road earlier this year, so we had a lot of right be doing. It wasn’t anything structural or formation, it was just some individual stuff that we needed to clean up and we did. Hopefully we keep doing that moving forward.”
On Tampa Bay: “It’s a good team. I don’t think they've lost a game yet. They play very similar to us after doing a little bit of scouting on them this morning. It’s going to be a tough one in a nationally televised game. They want to keep their streak alive, and we want to make a point that we should be up there with them.”
On playing at home again: “I think the next three are at home, so that helps us out a lot, and hopefully it doesn't rain. We’ve had some bad luck with that. Playing at home in front of our fans will be a nice little change.”
On playing a nationally televised match: “Huge for us as players wanting to showcase what we can do, and also huge for the club. The club is trying to make a lot of noise going forward for this year and next, and being on ESPN2 doesn’t hurt that. It’s on us as players to show well and show that the club is doing things the right way and making a little name for ourselves nationally.”
On the buzz the club is generating: “You see it more and more. I think in my apartment I saw a guy with a hat on, so you start seeing the logo and the gear around town a little bit more. It starts spreading around with word of mouth and people come check out a game and they get hooked. That’s kind of what we want to have happen here, just come out, check of the game, and you’ll fall in love with it, fall in love with the supporter culture and then you’re hooked moving forward on to MLS next year.”
On how important the first goal will be on Wednesday night: “I hope they don’t score at all. I think we’re expecting a low-scoring game. That’s one of the hallmarks of our team is to try and keep their chances to a minimum. But we have a lot of firepower going forward too. I know Kharlton [Belmar] is itching to get on the score sheet, and Daniel [Rios] has been in great form. We also have players coming off the bench that want to show well. I wouldn't be surprised if it’s low scoring, but at the same time, if we get rolling here we can do some damage.”
Date: Wednesday, 05/08/19
Time: 7:00pm CST
Place: First Tennessee Park, Nashville, Tennessee
Radio: 94.9 Game 2
Forecast: 82°/75°. Partly cloudy. 0% chance of rain.