After an extended offseason, the season opener is just a week away. Nashville SC have played just two preseason matches, with three others canceled, but have one final chance to work on match sharpness as they take on Birmingham Legion FC. Playing in a closed door match at Nissan Stadium just a week before allowing 33% capacity, there are still a few things to learn from tonight’s contest.
Head coach Gary Smith has said this preseason isn’t ideal, but praised his squad’s ability to adapt and get the necessary preparation in. Today’s match may not be the MLS-caliber opponent Nashville have wanted to face, but it will give the team a chance to familiarize themselves with Nissan Stadium.
The last match against Tampa Bay took place during the international break, and Gary Smith was without the likes of Randall Leal, Alistair Johnston and Anibal Godoy. All three are back in camp with Nashville, and depending on the health of Nashville’s strikers, tonight is the final chance to get a first-choice lineup on the field before the matches count for real.
Who will get the start up top?
Going into the preseason, the most interesting position battle has ben up top. Jhonder Cádiz was acquired in the summer last year, but visa issues and Covid protocol meant he didn’t get onto the field until late October. Cádiz finished the season with two goals and looked better has he gained match sharpness, but never quite got up to 100%. Smith and general manager Mike Jacobs have mentioned multiple times that getting in a full preseason will be key to getting the best out of Cádiz this season, but he has yet to see the field in a match.
Cádiz’s main competition for the starting stop was always going to be Daniel Ríos, who finished last season tied for the team lead with five goals. Ríos may not be the big name signing, but he has managed to score goals whenever he’s on the field, and his underlying numbers are really good.
So far, neither has been involved in one of the few preseason matches. Smith says they’ve held them out due to load management, but with just seven days until their season begins, another match without them involved won’t be an encouraging sign. Will Cádiz or Ríos get on the field, or will we again see MLS veteran CJ Sapong get another start?
How much will Rodrigo Piñeiro be involved?
The biggest acquisition this offseason has been the 21 year old Uruguayan winger Rodrigo Piñeiro. Set to be announced as either a Young DP or as part of MLS’s new U-22 initiative, he’s played sparingly so far in preseason. A player of his quality is too good to be uninvolved for too long, but there’s clearly an adaptation period for players coming into MLS. How long will it take him to break into the XI?
Smith has compared his progression to Randall Leal last year; a young player coming to a new country and league, all while learning a new language. However, there is one key difference.
Last year, Nashville did not have the depth on the wing that afforded Smith the time to let Leal get acclimated. Now, Nashville has enough depth out wide that they can live without Piñeiro in the XI. Players like Alex Muyl and Handwalla Bwana are capable starters, who won’t just give Piñeiro time to find his feet, but challenge him for starting minutes and force him to earn his place.
Nashville does not need him to immediately contribute. As much as I would love to see him get the start today, I think patience is key.
Is this the lineup we’ll see against Cincinnati?
It may be a friendly match against a USL team, but it’s the final preseason match before their MLS opener. Does Gary Smith start his opening day lineup, or does he use this final opportunity to experiment? I don’t think we see a full team on the field all at once, but do think that Smith will split time in several key positions. Cádiz and Ríos may get 45 minutes each, and there should be some rotation on the wing.
I think the area where we could see the “starters” is along the backline. The defense has not all been together until Johnston returned from international duty and today would give the back five some much needed minutes together. I would like to see them get a good 60 minutes together before bringing in guys like Jack Maher or Nick Hinds.
What do you want to see from tonight’s final preseason contest? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments!