Nashville SC are three days away from the biggest match in their short history. They’ll be without one of their best players against Inter Miami in their first-ever playoff match on Friday night.
At the time of publication, Randall Leal is on the field for Costa Rica in a friendly match against Basque Country, an autonomous region in the north of Spain that isn’t even recognized by FIFA as an official member.
Nashville will certainly (and probably rightly) be frustrated to lose Leal to what’s a pretty meaningless friendly in the grand scheme of things. Due to Major League Soccer’s Covid-19 quarantine requirements, Leal won’t be available for Nashville on Friday. In fact, were Nashville to advance from the play-in round, he’d be unavailable in their Round One match on November 24.
Leal has been a massive part of Nashville’s first year success, tied for the team lead in goal contributions with seven, and winning the club’s Offensive Player of the Year award. Without Leal, Gary Smith will be without one of his more consistent players, but he has a couple ways to tweak his lineup to compensate.
I’m ranking these options in the order I think is most likely, not necessarily what I would do were I in charge.
1. Start Derrick Jones as the 10
This is a look we’ve seen quite a bit this season. Jones has almost exclusively played underneath the striker in Nashville’s 4-4-1-1 system. It’s not his natural position; he played as an a no. 8 or even a 6 before joining Nashville, and his long-term position is probably in a deeper role.
However, Jones has some of the best feet on the team. He’s not especially quick in traffic, but his touch is clean and he’s consistently able to ride challenges and maintain possession around defenders. He occupies attention and opens space for his teammates, which is itself a valuable skill.
A downside to this change is that it pushes Hany Mukhtar wide. While Mukhtar has done this several times over the course of the season, it’s clearly not his best position, and Nashville are an infinitely better side with him pulling strings centrally.
Another downside to this option is that Nashville could very well be without Aníbal Godoy, who missed international duty with a left thigh injury. If Godoy isn’t fit enough to play on Friday, Jones could be an option to fill in, although Brian Anunga is the more likely replacement.
2. Give Handwalla Bwana his first start
This would be a more like-for-like option, and would have the added benefit of keeping Mukhtar in a central area. While Bwana has yet to start a match since arriving in a trade with Seattle, he’s made couple appearances off the bench to good effect. His 20 minutes against Orlando in Nashville’s 3-2 win showed a lot of promise.
However, it may be a stretch to give Bwana his first start in such a pivotal match. During Nashville’s time in USL, Smith tended to stick with players he was familiar with, and he’s clearly a big fan of Derrick Jones and what he brings to the side.
While Bwana is an intriguing option to start, he’s been an impact sub late in matches, and that’s a really important role to have in the squad. It’s a selection decision to keep an eye on.
3. Go back to the back three?
Nashville has used a 3-4-2-1 a handful of times this season, to mixed effect. Against Houston, the system saw Nashville deliver one of their best performances of the season, winning 3-1.
Against New England, it was much less effective, and Nashville really struggled to take control of the match.
An upside to this system would be allowing Mukhtar and Alex Muyl free roles underneath the striker, able to either drift wide or come central to create. It also pushes Dan Lovitz further into the attack and retains the midfield pairing of Godoy and Dax McCarty.
The 4-4-1-1 has been the prefered formation since Smith arrived in Nashville, and while it makes sense to go with your most familiar option in a playoff match, the back three has to at least be considered.
4. David Accam?
If I told you it has only been 96 days since David Accam scored that late winner against Dallas, would you believe me? Accam hasn’t appeared for Nashville since their 1-1 draw with Orlando back on September 2, and has been a fixture on the injury report with an undisclosed injury.
Ahead of Nashville’s Decision Day match, Accam wasn’t listed as injured, but didn’t feature against Orlando. We’ve seen this throughout the season, with players taking an extra week or more to make an appearance after being cleared to play.
With nearly two weeks between matches, Accam will have time to work towards fitness, and if he’s healthy, he’s an intriguing option. Despite a frustrating 2020 season, he’s still one of the quickest and most direct players Nashville has. In a single elimination match, it would be a bold move to leave him out if healthy.