Nashville SC are back in action quickly. Three days after their disappointing 2-1 loss to Toronto FC, the Boys in Gold travel to Ft. Lauderdale to take on Inter Miami CF.
Inter Miami CF
Like Toronto last week, Inter Miami find themselves in a bit of an injury crisis. Seven players are out with injury or suspension, and their defense is hit especially hard. Center backs Ventura Alvarado, Ryan Shawcross, Ian Fray, Nicolás Figal and Leandro González Pirez will all miss the match, leaving manager Phil Neville with just a single healthy central defender.
This obviously leaves Neville with a fairly significant conundrum. Miami have used a back three in their last several outings, coinciding with their improved form. Will Neville switch to a back four system and only need one center back, or does he keep three at the back and try to throw numbers at the problem?
21 year old Christian Makoun is a lock to start in the back. He’s not just the only available central defender; he’s also been really good. He’s the 23rd-highest rated center back according to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, and stepped up to take the winning penalty kick in the 95th minute against Toronto two weeks ago.
Aside from him, things get tricky. Neville doesn’t really have many players who are experienced playing as a center back, even in a secondary position, meaning he’ll have to play a couple guys out of position. Left back Kieran Gibbs has the experience to make the shift, and midfielder Gregore has the defensive tenacity to play in a back three. Whatever happens tonight, the Miami backline will be cobbled together.
On the other side of the field, Gonzalo Higuaín has been excellent this season. He’s contributed nine goals and four assists in just over 1,800 minutes, but his production has slowed recently, scoring just once in his last seven games. As he showed last time out against Nashville, though, he needs just the slightest look at goal to find the back of the net.
Miami have improved significantly since their rough start to the season, winning five of six before crashing and burning against New York Red Bulls in a 4-0 loss last Friday. They’re in ninth in the table, just three points off of the final playoff spot. They badly need a win.
If last weekend’s match in Toronto was a “trap game” for Nashville, tonight bears a lot of similarities. After arguably their worst loss of the season, they need a response tonight.
Even after the loss to Toronto, it’s important to remember just how good Nashville have been this season. They’re second in the Eastern Conference, have lost just three times all year, and have won two of their last three road games.
After his strong cameo against Toronto, it may be time for head coach Gary Smith to bring Randall Leal back into the lineup. While Daniel Ríos has been good in his runout over the last several matches, Leal offers much more dynamism and allows Mukhtar to get into even more advanced positions.
Another big question for Smith is whether to continue to “Daniel Lovitz, inverted wingback” experiment or not. The idea was incredibly effective until it wasn’t in Toronto. Lovitz opted to cut inside and play an in-swinging ball nearly every time, and it really limited Nashville’s width down the right side.
While Alistair Johnston has proved to be an effective option in a right center back role for Canada, there’s not an obvious replacement for his production in a wingback role. Dylan Nealis was seemingly signed to be that option, but he hasn’t sniffed the field since he was hauled off at halftime against Cincinnati two months ago.
Smith could go more aggressive and play Alex Muyl as a wingback, but Eric Miller has worked back to being a regular contributor, and has played well on the right of a back three. If Smith wants a more aggressive option in possession than Jack Maher or Jalil Anibaba, it makes sense to play Miller in a back three with Johnston getting forward down the right.
The biggest question for Nashville fans has been Aké Loba’s lack of involvement. The $6.8 million signing has started just once and played just 230 minutes in the 11 matches he’s been available. On one hand, it’s surprising to see him not have more of an impact early in his Nashville career. On the other, his arrival coincided with the rise in form from Sapong, Mukhtar and Leal, making it hard to justify dropping any of them.
Smith has talked about how it’s been hard to justify dropping Sapong or Mukhtar to get Loba on the field, and the switch to a back three, while successful, has limited attacking spots even more. While it’s hard to argue that his lack of involvement has really cost Nashville points, expectations were high coming in. With a busy stretch of four games in 11 days, Loba needs to be involved to start finding his form before the postseason.
Score: Miami 1 – 3 Nashville
Scorers: CJ Sapong, Hany Mukhtar, Daniel Ríos
MOTM: Hany Mukhtar
Bold Prediction: Nashville score three in the first half against Miami’s makeshift backline.
Score: Miami 0 – 0 Nashville
MOTM: Joe Willis
Bold Prediction: Nashville has more possession and shots than Miami.
Score: Miami 1 – 2 Nashville
Scorers: CJ Sapong, Walker Zimmerman
MOTM: CJ Sapong
Bold Prediction: Both Nashville goals come from headers.
Teams: Inter Miami CF (9th) vs Nashville SC (2nd)
Power Rankings: Inter Miami CF (23rd) vs Nashville SC (4th)
Odds: Miami (+210), Draw (+210), Nashville (+130) via BetMGM
Date: Wednesday, September 22
Time: 6:30 PM central, DRV PNK Stadium, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
TV: MyTV30, ESPN+ (out of Market)
Radio: 94.9 The Game 2 (English); El Jefe 96.7 (Spanish)
Forecast: 87°/75°. Mostly sunny. 18% chance of rain. 74% humidity