Playoff soccer is back in Nashville!
After a 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls, Nashville kicks off their 2021 MLS Cup Playoff campaign against Orlando City. Can Nashville get that elusive win over the Lions? Will Orlando break Nashville’s 384 day unbeaten streak at Nissan Stadium?
Two straight years in the playoffs is good for any team, but to be doing it in your first two years in the league is even more impressive. Tonight, the Boys in Gold look to make that two straight years of playoffs wins as they look for that ever-elusive win against Orlando City.
Nashville ended the season with only one loss in their last nine matches. They also only had one win in those last nine, a 3-6 win away to FC Cincinnati. They will need to rediscover some of that earlier form if they want to make a run deep into the playoffs, and the 15-day break gave them time to reset and prepare. In his pre-match press conference, head coach Gary Smith said that they used that break as a mini preseason as they “try and turn the screw on the positive parts of our game.”
Those positive parts include the attacking combinations of Hany Mukhtar, C.J. Sapong, and Randall Leal, coupled with the defensive solidity that much of Nashville’s success is built on.
The international break always brings the risk of players picking up injuries with their national team, and that risk was especially heightened heading into the post season. Walker Zimmerman, Alistair Johnston, Aníbal Gody, and Randall Leal all returned back from the break healthy and ready for the match-up against Orlando. Smith’s squad is almost completely healthy as he looks to make his selections for tonight’s starting lineup.
The biggest selection decision for Smith and his staff will be the fitness of Dave Romney. Romney missed his first minutes ever for Nashville when he was held out of the Red Bulls match with a left calf strain. Smith downplayed concerns that the injury was serious, and said that Romney being held out was just a precaution. After a two week break, Romney is officially listed as questionable on the injury report. If he’s unable to go, what options are available?
Smith will more than likely look to slot Eric Miller or Jalil Anibaba into the back three with Jack Maher and Walker Zimmerman. Miller has been the preferred option along the back three when one of the others are unavailable, but I would prefer to see Anibaba be given the start. Miller has made several high-profile mistakes including one that led to New York’s goal on Decision Day.
In the midfield, Nashville will have a fit Dax McCarty andAníbal Godoy to organize the team and help dictate play. McCarty made his return to the team off the bench against the Red Bulls and quickly reminded everyone how dominant the pairing can be. Godoy and McCarty will be responsible for winning the ball back against Orlando’s possession dominant team and helping them transition quickly into the attack.
In the attack, the team really picks itself. All season long their most dangerous attacking trio has been Hany Mukhtar, CJ Sapong and Randall Leal. Mukhtar is the catalyst for the offense and will need to make sure that he is able to create opportunities for both himself and the rest of the team. As Smith said, “If we’re going to win this game, we have to get back to how we attacked at the beginning of the season.”
Orlando City SC
While Orlando City may have limped into the playoffs, needing a win on Decision Day, they proved to be one of the more frustrating opponents that Nashville faced all season. In fact, they were the one of three Eastern Conference teams that Nashville was unable to beat, recording three straight draws.
The Lions will come into tonight’s matchup with a bit of a chip on their shoulder after the previous match between these two teams. Orlando felt hard done by after Andres Perea’s goal was called off due to what was deemed a foul by Darryl Dike.
That feeling was only exacerbated by PRO’s statement deeming the foul not “clear and obvious” and therefore should have stood. If that goal stands, the play off picture looks vastly different.
Orlando will look for revenge as they look to get their first win of the season over Nashville in the biggest game of the year for either team.
Much like Nashville, Orlando City has fairly clean injury report with only David Loera ruled out due to a lower-body injury. Loera has been on loan in the USL Championship all season, and hasn’t factored into Orlando’s plans in 2021.
This will allow Coach Pareja to lineup in his preferred 4-2-3-1 that has brought the team much success over the last few seasons. The Lions will look to control possession from the middle of the field and push their fullbacks high up the pitch into the attack.
To get a more in-depth look into how Orlando plays, check out Ben Wright’s Zoomed N piece with Ben Miller of the Mane Land.
If Orlando is going to have their best chance beating this Nashville team, they will need Nani to find his early-season form. As good as Nani was to start the season, he has struggled over the past three months recording only a single goal and two assists. Those aren’t the type of numbers you need from your star player.
If Nani isn’t firing, Mauricio Pereyra will have to shoulder the load of creating chances for Darryl Dike and Chris Mueller. Pereyra has shown himself to be one of the better number 10s in this league and will need to be in top form.
In the midfield, Pareja will have to make the decision on who to start alongside Junior Urso. Sebas Méndez has been the preferred option over the past few matches and scored arguably the goal of the season in their last match. But Andres Perea is an intriguing option with his ability to break lines and open space. Perea has come on and had an instant impact off the bench with both his passing range and defensive skills but with the possibility of extra time and penalties he could have more of an impact off the bench.
Key matchups to watch
1. Walker Zimmerman versus Daryl Dike. Two of the more physically dominant players will be battling for 90 minutes. Zimmerman is always a threat on attacking set pieces, but he’s a monster in defense. He’s won a staggering 73.2% of his headed duels this season, and has single handedly eliminated opponents’ ability to play over the top. Dike is as good a match for Zimmerman as there is in MLS. He wins about half his aerial duels, and showed his ability to get shield the ball with his body in their September 29 meeting. The winner of this matchup could very well win the game.
2. Hany Mukhtar versus Junior Urso. Mukhtar is so dangerous for Nashville because he operates between his opponent’s midfield and defensive lines. He constantly forces them to make decisions; does a midfielder drop back to mark him or does a defender step up and leave space in behind? With CJ Sapong’s ability to occupy a two-man backline, Urso will have a lot of defensive work to ensure that Mukhtar isn’t left alone. If he can keep the MVP candidate quiet, Orlando will like their chances.
3. Ruan vs Dan Lovitz. Two of the better attacking fullbacks in MLS will go head to head tonight. We’ve seen before how fullbacks can often neutralize each other, but both Ruan and Lovitz are so crucial to their team in attack that neither side can afford to lose their production. Both players have pace and guile to spare, and their head to head battle will be one to watch.
Score: Nashville 3-1 Orlando
Scorers: Hany Mukhtar, Walker Zimmerman, Randall Leal
MOTM: Hany Mukhtar
Bold Prediction: Nashville scores the third on a counter in the last ten minutes
Score: Nashville 2-1 Orlando
Scorers: Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal
MOTM: Hany Mukhtar
Bold Prediction: Orlando gets a player sent off at 1-1. Nashville goes on to win from a Leal banger.
Score: Nashville 0-0 Orlando
MOTM: Joe Willis
Bold Prediction: Joe Willis records over six saves as Nashville advance 5-4 in penalties.
Score: Nashville 1-1 Orlando
Scorers: Walker Zimmerman
MOTM: Hany Mukhtar
Bold Prediction: Nashville wins on Penalties with Hany Mukhtar taking the winning Penalty Kick.
Teams: Nashville SC (3rd) vs Orlando City SC (6th)
Odds: Nashville (-110), Draw (+240), New York (+300) via BetMGM
Date: Tuesday, November 22nd
Time: 7:00 PM Central, Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee
Radio: 94.9 The Game 2 (English); El Jefe 96.7 (Spanish)
Forecast: 50°/31°. Sunny. 0% chance of rain. 45% humidity