Nashville SC’s playoff hopes are alive and well after a 3-0 win against Inter Miami on Friday. The expansion side will have to beat an MLS elite in Toronto FC to continue their postseason campaign, not an easy task by any means.
Toronto are a well coached, possession based side with difference makers all over the pitch. Nashville will have their hands full in defense, and their attack will have to break down a Toronto backline that’s conceded just 26 all season.
Here are the matchups I’ll be watching tonight.
1. Dax McCarty versus Michael Bradley
These two perform very similar roles for both sides. Both set the tempo in possession, organize the defense, and the intangibles and leadership they bring to the club are as valuable, if not more so, than their performances on the pitch.
Dax McCarty has been one of the most consistent, if unheralded, holding midfielders in the league over the last 10 years. Michael Bradley has never gone under the radar; in fact, he’s been overly vilified by a USMNT fanbase quick to use him as a scapegoat for anything and everything that goes wrong.
While both players are 33, Bradley has seemed to slow down more drastically in the last year, and as The Athletic‘s Joshua Kloke told our Davey Shepherd, he’s lost a step.
McCarty, on the other hand, has been in great form this season and showed that he still has the legs to compete with a goal on Friday that saw the captain run with the ball for over half the field.
While Bradley may have lost a step, his passing is still a key piece of Toronto’s identity. McCarty and Nashville will look to pressure him early and often, putting him in uncomfortable positions and forcing him into mistakes. If McCarty can quiet Bradley, Nashville will have a much easier task.
2. Dan Lovitz and Alistair Johnston versus Toronto’s wingers
Toronto like to create chances from wide areas. It’s a pretty established part of their attacking identity. Whether it’s Pablo Piatti, Tsubasah Endoh or Nick DeLeon on the wings, or Richie Larrea overlapping from the fullback position, Toronto like to create overloads in wide areas.
Dan Lovitz and Alistair Johnston will have their work cut out for them to try and force Toronto into central areas. Randall Leal and Alex Muyl will need to track back diligently and help them out, as well as try to be outlets in possession to allow the fullbacks to overlap.
3. Dave Romney and Walker Zimmerman versus Jozy Altidore and Ayo Akinola
Whoever Greg Vanney starts up top will pose a very different kind of threat to Nashville.
Altidore is a strong holdup player, but he’s much more than just a physical striker. He’s a very underrated passer of the ball, and likes to drop deep (almost as a “false nine” for lack of a better term) to link play and play his wingers in on goal.
Akinola is much more of a vertical threat, playing on the back shoulder to stretch the field. While just 20 years old, he has a really impressive understanding of space, and is mature beyond his years in the timing of his runs.
Romney and Zimmerman have faced their fair share of dangerous strikers this season, but none have had Alejandro Pozuelo pulling the strings behind them. Tonight will be the type of match where a half yard of poor positioning could spell disaster for Nashville. The backline will need to play a mistake free match to advance to the next round.