Friday night, Nashville SC became just the second expansion team in MLS to win first playoff match in their first season, as they picked apart Inter Miami CF to win by three goals. Tonight, Nashville will face off against number two seed, Toronto FC, in Hartford Connecticut. What changes will Gary Smith make from the win on Friday? What can we expect from Greg Vanney’s Toronto FC.
The Boys in Gold will have very little to complain about after Friday night. All three of their Designated Players started for the first time, two of those DPs scored, and they picked up an emphatic 3-0 win over their expansion rival as they advanced in the MLS Cup Playoffs. The only negative on the night was seeing Aníbal Godoy come off injured late in the second half. Nashville now face the tough task of beating Eastern Conference powerhouse Toronto FC without arguably their best midfielder.
Tonight is rare occurrence in MLS, as Nashville SC as they take on a team in the playoff that they have never played against and while they may be the second seed in the playoffs, Nashville has plenty of reasons to be confident.
Nashville will need to press well and transition quickly when Toronto loses possession, getting the ball out to Leal and Muyl on the wing or playing it long to Cádiz up top. If Nashville counters as well as they can, they should be able to find a goal or two. The real question is, can they keep Toronto from scoring? We’ll look more at TFC in a bit, but first let’s take a look at how Gary Smith will line up.
Fans from the USL days know that Gary Smith is not one to tinker with lineups during the playoffs and will always go with with his first strength lineup barring any injuries. We can expect that Gary uses the 4-2-3-1 that has brought the team success all season long.
Jhonder Cádiz got his first start of the season against Miami and while he did not get on the score sheet, he played a big role in Nashville’s attack. His ability to hold the ball and lay it off to Randall Leal or Hany Mukhtar will be very important against Toronto. Behind Cádiz, Hany Mukhtar will line up in the central attacking position with Randall Leal and Alex Muyl on either side. Nashville looked the most dangerous it has been all season with these four on the pitch together. I don’t expect that to change tonight.
Aníbal Godoy went down with an injury in the 74th minute and looks set to miss tonight’s match. Nashville has had to cope with his absence before and they’ll have to do it again tonight. Brian Anunga will more than likely be the replacement to lineup alongside Dax McCarty. We have seen Matt Lagrassa fill in and we know Derrick Jones can play the position, but I don’t not see Smith going with any other option. Anunga and McCarty will have to find a way to keep Alejandro Pozuelo from having too much time on the ball. If they can shut him down, Nashville will have an even better chance of advancing.
Smith said it best on Sunday when he said, “our central defensive group matches up with any central attacking group in the league.” Tonight will be no exception. Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney will start at center-back and be tasked with keeping Jozy Altidore quiet. Out wide, Daniel Lovitz will start at left back against his former team with Alistair Johnston on the right. Johnston will need to be careful and avoid picking up a yellow as the next one would see him miss out on the conference semis.
The pandemic undoubtedly has affected every single team in Major League Soccer, but the Canadian teams have faced a particularly difficult challenge. Due to travel restrictions in Canada, Toronto FC have spent most of the regular season playing and living away from their families in Hartford, Connecticut. This makes Toronto’s second place finish all the more impressive.
While a second place finish is nothing to scoff at, Toronto FC struggled down the stretch in the regular season. They were in contention for the supporters shield up until they lost 5-0 to the eventually Supporter Shield holders. They won only one of their last four matches, a 2-1 win over Miami FC. Conversely, Nashville SC have won three of their last five matches. While Toronto may have the higher seed, Nashville come in to the match in better form.
The two week break could not have come at a better time for this team in particular. Due to some changes in the COVID-19 protocols, Toronto has been able to spend time back home training in Canada.
It will be hard to quantify the impact that this could have on the team but being back at home will boost the team morale. In addition to being back in Toronto, the break gave the team time to heal. Pablo Piatti and Jozy Altidore should both be back in some capacity. We even could see Mark Delgado back available.
With the return of key players alongside time to rest, it will be hard for most people to look past TFC advancing.
Greg Vanney, like Gary Smith, likes to play out of a 4-2-3-1 formation, but his team looks to dominate possession more so than Nashville. Toronto struggled with injuries down the stretch but he does have Pablo Piatti and Jozy Altidore back fit. The two week break has been a huge help for TFC.
Up top, Vanney will be faced with the dilemma of either starting Ayo Akinola or Jozy Altidore. Akinola is pacey, quick forward who can stretch the field, while Altidore is a physical striker who will also drop deep into midfield and bring others in to play. With Altidore fit, I expect to see him get the start with Akinola coming off the bench.
Behind the forward, MLS Best XI midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo will line up as the 10. Pozuelo and Akinola have been their main goal threats, each with nine goals, but Pozuelo is also their creative force. Tied for the most assists in the league, Pozuelo is the lynchpin of Toronto’s attacking success. Nashville will need to find away to stop the supply to him.
Out wide, Nick DeLeon and Tsubasa Endoh will most likely line up on the left and right respectively. Designated Player Pablo Piatti has been deemed fit for this match, but after missing their last four matches, Greg Vanney may well opt to bring him off the bench.
In the double pivot, Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio will look to hold possession and dictate much of the play. While strong in possession, Bradley and Osorio can be susceptible to pressure. If Nashville follows the blueprint from TFC’s 5-0 loss to the Union, Bradley and co could be in for a long night.
At the back, TFC have been fairly solid aside from the five goals they gave up to Philadelphia. Omar Gonzalez is the leader of that backline, but he isn’t the quickest player. That can be exploited with speed and quick interchanges. Nashville will look to get the ball up to Cádiz so that he can play balls off to an on rushing Leal and Mukhtar.
OUT: Aníbal Godoy, Jack Maher (not medically cleared)
OUT: Ifunanyachi Achara, Justin Morrow, Mark Delgado (not medically cleared)
Score: Toronto 0 – 1 Nashville
Scorers: Randall Leal
MOTM: Randall Leal
Bold Prediction: Nashville scores late on a counter.
Score: Toronto 1 – 2 Nashville
Scorers: Walker Zimmerman, Hany Mukhtar
MOTM: Hany Mukhtar
Bold Prediction: Both of Nashville’s goals come off set pieces
Score: Toronto 0 – 2 Nashville
Scorers: Jhonder Cádiz, Handwalla Bwana
MOTM: Jhonder Cádiz
Bold Prediction: Nashville scores their second goal late as Toronto pushes for an equalizer
Score: Toronto 1 – 2 Nashville
Scorers: Jhonder Cádiz (x2)
MOTM: Jhonder Cádiz
Bold Prediction: Mukhtar and Leal each assist on one of Cádiz’s goals
Score: Toronto 2 (5) – 2 (3) Nashville
Scorers: Jhonder Cádiz, Randall Leal
MOTM: Randall Leal
Bold Prediction: Game goes to penalties and the second goal for each team is scored in extra time
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Teams: Nashville SC (7th place, 8-7-8) vs Toronto FC (2nd place, 13-5-5)
Date: Tuesday, 11/20/20
Time: 5:00 PM Central, Rentschler Field, Hartford, Connecticut
Forecast: 71°/46°. Sunny. 0% chance of rain. 56% humidity.