Nashville SC travel to conference-leading Columbus Crew tomorrow. After a breakout attacking performance against Atlanta last time out, here are the five players I’ll be keeping an eye on.
McCarty has had as good a season as anyone in gold, but his goal and three assists against Atlanta constituted maybe the best individual performance this season.
“The fact that I was involved in four goals tonight is something that I do not believe is sustainable,” he joked after the match. And while he probably won’t have that kind of attacking output again, his passing has been key to Nashville’s chance creation all season. If Nashville are to take points from Columbus, McCarty will have a hand in it.
The Costa Rican DP missed last week’s match through injury. After scoring his first goal just two matches before, he had been steadily improving before Nashville’s big attacking breakout. Were Nashville better because of his absence, or was it just a coincidence?
I think it was the latter, but Leal will be eager to get back and get involved against the best team in the conference. Against a defense that’s on track to be one of the best in MLS history, though, Leal will need to be more efficient than he’s been so far in the final third.
Walker Zimmerman & Dave Romney
Cheating here and listing two players. Sue me. Nashville’s center-back pairing will have their hands full against Gyasi Zardes and co. Columbus have the best attack in the East, with their 21 goals scored only behind LAFC for the best in MLS. They’ve scored at will this season, with Zardes’s runs pulling defenders out of position and getting to the ball first.
“I think one of Gyasi’s strengths is the runs he makes,” said Dave Romney, who played with Zardes for three years with the LA Galaxy. “He times his runs extremely well, he knows exactly where to go when the ball is wide for service… But he’s also a good finisher. He’s going to get two or three chances a game, and you know he’s going to put at least one or two of those away. He’s got eight goals this year already, he’s got confidence now, and he’s going to be a tough test. But I think me and Walker are definitely ready to play against him this weekend.”
Center forward has been talked about ad nauseam this season, with Nashville’s inability to score a real issue. Before the Atlanta match, they had scored just five goals in nine matches. Sure, they scored four against Atlanta, but is that repeatable?
Nashville just announced DP Jhonder Cádiz before the Atlanta match, and Badji certainly responded to the pressure.
“Competition is always a key factor in the way players play,” said head coach Gary Smith. “Those guys know that there’s someone coming in. They’re certainly looking over their shoulder, and maybe feeling they need a little bit more out of themselves. Whatever it takes, I’ll accept.”
The way Nashville play will require Badji to be productive. Even if he doesn’t get the goals himself, he has a big role in the build up play, stretching the field or holding up the ball to allow others to get forward. His form over the next few matches will have a big impact on Nashville’s final position.
Nashville’s first DP looks like he’s coming into form over the last couple weeks, with his performances steadily improving since the restart.
“He looks to me like he’s getting back to his old self,” said Smith after the 0-0 draw with Miami. “He looked brighter, he looked like he was a catalyst for a lot of the work we had in possession. Just as importantly, he found himself in some good shooting and creative positions, and that’s exactly what we need out of him.”
Mukhtar built on that performance against Atlanta, scoring his first goal in gold and assisting another. He’s a central part of Nashville’s front line, and it’s really a case of “as Mukhtar goes, so goes the attack.” His form against Columbus (and for the rest of the season) is a crucial part of the puzzle for Nashville.
Who will you be watching? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments.