Nashville SC go into tonight’s match against Columbus Crew knowing that a win would earn them the right to host the Eastern Conference final next week. Against a Crew side that beat them 2-0 in their only prior meeting, they’ll have their work cut out to advance. Here are the matchups I’ll be watching.
1. Brian Anunga against Darlington Nagbe
If you’ve followed Major League Soccer at all over the past few years, you’ve likely heard the name Darlington Nagbe. The midfielder isn’t just one of the best players in the league, he’s one of the best Americans currently playing the game.
Columbus’s 4-2-3-1 system is built around him. With Artur next to him to do the dirty work, Nagbe controls the tempo of the match and keeps the ball moving quickly. He’s one of the best rhythm midfielders in the game.
Nagbe’s impact on the game can be hard to pinpoint statistically, but his control of the tempo and his ability to find space is a core part of this Columbus side. While he’s not flashy or even aggressive in possession, he doesn’t make mistakes and puts teammates in good positions with his passing.
With Aníbal Godoy almost assuredly out for tonight’s contest, Brian Anunga will partner Dax McCarty in midfield, and he’ll likely be tasked with limiting Nagbe’s effectiveness. If Nashville and Anunga can keep Nagbe off the ball, it will be the first step towards victory.
2. Jhonder Cádiz against Andrew Tarbell
Columbus’s starting goalkeeper Eloy Room is out due to Covid-19. That means Andrew Tarbell will fill in for him.
Tarbell has played just over 600 minutes already this season, and has performed well. He’s saved 71% of the shots he’s faced this year, and his goals minus expected goals total is just slightly under the league average.
Nashville’s Jhonder Cádiz has certainly had chances. He had two goals called offside in the win over Toronto, and scored two goals in pretty limited minutes this season.
Nashville have created plenty of chances in their two previous playoff matches, and they should have opportunities tonight. Cádiz is their focal point in the final third, and especially on set pieces, he’ll challenge Tarbell for balls in the box. Taking advantage of that matchup will be crucial for Nashville.
3. Walker Zimmerman versus Gyasi Zardes
The MLS Defender of the Year matching up against one of the league’s best striker. This will be a fun one to watch.
Gyasi Zardes is a very different type of player than Jozy Altidore, who Walker Zimmerman faced last week. Zardes is a much more mobile striker, who relies on intelligent off-the-ball movement and well timed runs to get his goals.
It’s a different type of threat than the physical mismatch of Jozy Altidore, and one that will require Zimmerman to constantly check his shoulder and be aware of where Zardes is at all times.
Nashville haven’t sat back much at all in these playoffs. They’ve actually pushed numbers forward quite a bit and played with a high line in possession. It’ll be crucial that they don’t let Zardes get behind the centerbacks. With passers like Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayán, Columbus is more than capable of making them pay.