Preview: Columbus Crew vs Nashville SC

Nashville SC are fresh off the biggest win in club history, thrashing Chicago Fire SC 5-1. Tonight they head north to Columbus to take on the Crew, who are finding their form after a slow start to the season. Can Nashville find form on the road against a difficult opponent?

Columbus Crew SC

The reigning MLS Cup champions started the 2021 season slowly, at least in league play. They advanced to the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League, where they fell to Monterrey 5-2 on aggregate (and were scored on by new Nashville SC signing Aké Loba).

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As is often the case with teams who go deep into CCL, their league form suffers. The Crew won just one of their first five league matches, and have struggled to consistently create chances all season. Through 13 games, they’ve created just under 10 expected goals, and their 12 goals are the fourth-lowest tally in the league.

On the plus side, their defense has been borderline elite, despite a rotating cast of characters. Only Seattle and Philadelphia have conceded fewer. Head coach Caleb Porter has had to rotate fairly heavily at the back – captain Jonathan Mensah has played over 1,100 minutes, but he’s been partnered by both Josh Williams and Vito Wormgoor. Unfortunately for the Crew, Wormgoor is out with a thigh injury and an ankle knock has Williams listed as questionable. Aboubacar Keita has been the Crew’s best player according to American Soccer Analysis‘ Goals Added model, and he seems the most likely to slot in next to Mensah.

“Nashville certainly presents some dangerous attacking options and will be a challenge for this group,” Patrick Murphy told Broadway Sports in the latest edition of Zoomed N, “especially if Josh Williams remains out (he’s listed as questionable for this match). Something the Black & Gold have done well is not allow the opponent’s best attackers to get into dangerous spots, and that will be key in this game.”

Playmaker Lucas Zelarayán is the strength of this team. A consistent threat from setpieces, he’s at the heart of the Crew’s best attacking moments, despite being a consistent outlier in the advanced metrics. Behind him in midfield is Darlington Nagbe, who I still hold is maybe the most talented midfielder in the U.S. National Team pool. He receives the ball in traffic better than anyone in the league, and dictates the rhythm of the Crew in possession.

With Gyasi Zardes on international duty at the Gold Cup, the Crew will be without their DP striker and consistent top scorer. President Tim Bezbatchenko made one of the better moves of the offseason, picking up Bradley Wright-Phillips on a free agent deal. BWP is as capable a backup striker as there is in MLS. Hell, he’s sixth on the all-time scoring list, and only two active players (Chris Wondolowski and Kei Kamara) have found the back of the net more than his 116 strikes. At 36, he’s not a 90-minute player every week, but he’s a weapon off the bench and more than capable of providing relief for Zardes.

Unfortunately for Wright-Phillips, he’s yet to score in a Crew shirt. In fact, he’s taken just a single shot in 274 minutes on the pitch. Columbus will need him to get more involved against a Nashville side that will almost certainly look to defend first.

Nashville SC

Nashville are coming off a high, with Hany Mukhtar’s six minute hat trick against Chicago spreading beyond the confines of MLS. Unfortunately, the news since the win has been less than ideal.

Reigning MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman was injured on international duty, and was forced to withdraw from the U.S. Gold Cup squad with a hamstring strain. Additionally, Jack Maher and Dan Lovitz, two key defenders, have entered the league’s health and safety protocols and will be unavailable tonight (and potentially longer). With Alistair Johnston still playing for Canada at the Gold Cup, and Aníbal Godoy recovering from his own hamstring strain, Nashville will be without five key players, four of whom would be in contention to start in defense.

Head coach Gary Smith had shifted to a back three in Zimmerman’s absence, and it’s a system that’s lead to some of Nashville’s best performances to date. However, with the extensive absences, it’s hard to see that shape continuing, unless Smith calls on Eric Miller or Robert Castellanos to fill in as a third centerback.

It would seem that the 4-4-1-1 is on its way back. Dylan Nealis got his first start in gold against Chicago, and he’s a more than capable starter on the right. Taylor Washington, a regular under Smith, seems the most likely option to replace Lovitz on the left. He’s played over close to 600 minutes for Nashville, primarily further forward on the left, but was the starting leftback for Smith for much of his tenure at the USL level.

New signing Aké Loba wasn’t in the matchday squad against Chicago. While he ultimately wasn’t needed, the record transfer in club history will certainly have an impact when he does play. It’s hard to see him starting after not making the bench three days ago, but with a short-handed squad, having him as an option off the bench would be a major positive. He’s played well against Columbus in the past, scoring in a 2-2 draw at MAPFRE Stadium in CCL earlier this year, and Smith may rely on that past experience.

Availability report

*Kevin Molino is actually back in training with Columbus. Luis Diaz, though, is on international duty with Costa Rica.

Pod picks

Ben Wright

Score: Columbus 1 – 2 Nashville
Scorers: Hany Mukhtar, Jhonder Cádiz
MOTM: Brian Anunga
Bold Prediction: Robert Castellanos gets his first MLS minutes.

Andy Simmons

Score: Columbus 1 – 1 Nashville
Scorers: Randall Leal
MOTM: Randall Leal
Bold Prediction: Columbus score early, but Nashville get a late equalizer.

Davey Shepherd

Score: Columbus 1 – 2 Nashville
Scorers: Hany Mukhtar, Jhonder Cádiz
MOTM: Brian Anunga
Bold Prediction:

Jonathan Slape

Score: Columbus 1 – 1 Nashville
Scorers: Jhonder Cádiz
MOTM: Jhonder Cádiz
Bold Prediction: Nashville go ahead early but give up a late goal.

Lucas Panzica

Score: Columbus 1 – 1 Nashville
Scorers: Hany Mukhtar
MOTM: Hany Mukhtar
Bold Prediction: Aké Loba plays 30 minutes off the bench.

Have a prediction for this week’s match? Vote in our Fan Forecast.

Kit matchup

Match Info

Teams: Columbus Crew SC vs Nashville SC
Power RankingsColumbus (16th) vs Nashville (3rd)
Odds: CLB (+130), Draw (+225), NSH (+195) via BetMGM
Date: Wednesday, July 20
Time: 6:30 PM central, Field, Columbus Ohio
TV:  MyTV 30 (local), ESPN+ (out of market)
Radio: 94.9 The Game 2 (English); El Jefe 96.7 (Spanish)
Forecast: 77°/58°. Partly cloudy. 2% chance of rain. 59% humidity.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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