It’s been a week for Nashville SC. Their friendly matches against New York Red Bulls, New York City and Inter Miami CF have been called off, with Miami going ahead and pulling out of all their remaining preseason matches. You never want to speculate, but it definitely seems that there’s more going on in Bradenton than is being publicly disclosed.
Tonight’s friendly against USL Championship side Tampa Bay Rowdies has not officially been called off, although by the time of publication, it may well be cancelled. Read the below knowing that the match may not happen, and you definitely won’t be able to watch either way.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
One of the premier sides in the USL Championship’s eastern conference, Tampa Bay made it to last year’s final before the match was called off due to Covid-19 issues.
Details on Tampa Bay’s preseason matches have been quite limited so far, so it’s really tough to predict their lineup with any accuracy. Instead, we’ll just go with the strongest team on paper.
Nashville SC fans will recognize Forrest Lasso. After his loan 2019 loan ended with Nashville, FC Cincinnati didn’t renew his MLS contract and the center-back joined Tampa Bay, where he immediately took the captain’s armband and anchored the backline. Under head coach Neil Collins, the Rowdies have tended to use a back three, with Lasso flanked by Aarón Guillén and Jordan Scarlett.
Tampa Bay have a wealth of midfielders to choose from, with Lewis Hilton, Yann Ekra, Zach Steinberger and Jordan Doherty all proven players at the USL level.
Collins has used attackers like Leo Fernandes and Sebastian Dalgaard as wingbacks, and it’s largely succeeded in USL. The two are capable playmakers, and with the midfield and outside center-backs picking up a lot of the slack defensively, they’ve been able to stay forward more than this formation typically allows.
Tampa Bay added a pair of exciting attackers in the offseason, with USL stalwart Steeven Dos Santos joining from Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and promising youngster Luiz Fernando joining from Atlanta United 2. Both were regulars at their former clubs, and Dos Santos especially is a proven scorer at the USL level. Both should immediately factor in to the first team, and could well claim starting spots.
Ahead of their 2021 campaign, Tampa Bay will once again be among the favorites to take home the USL Cup, along with perennial contenders Louisville City and Phoenix Rising. Competing in the newly-formed Atlantic Division, the Rowdies are favorites to win the division, but will have to contend with consistent sides like Charleston Battery and New York Red Bulls II, as well as newcomers Miami FC.
This preview is largely the same as the last two previews for the cancelled matches.
Nashville will be without three presumed starters. Aníbal Godoy, Alistair Johnston and Randall Leal are returning from international duty for World Cup and Olympic qualifying. Johnston is able to avoid the quarantine requirements, since Canada played in Florida, where Nashville is located. He may be given a bit of a rest, though.
With new signing Rodrigo Piñeiro still adapting to the physical requirements of MLS and Gary Smith, Handwalla Bwana and former Red Bull Alex Muyl started their last contest against Louisville City.
Brian Anunga proved to be a capable MLS midfielder last season, and should slot in next to captain Dax McCarty in midfield. With Matt LaGrassa as the only other central midfielder in the squad, one of the three will likely play the full 90 minutes, barring a tweak in system or another unsigned player getting minutes, although Smith seemed to downplay that possibility.
Striker continues to be a question mark heading into the season, and neither of Nashville’s presumed first-choice players saw the field last match. Jhonder Cádiz and Daniel Ríos each sat out with minor injuries, but both should be nearing full health. With limited opportunities to get up to speed before the season opener, either one seems a likely option to get the start.
CJ Sapong got the start last time out, and scored the first goal of the preseason. In reality, he’s probably as qualified as anyone on the roster to be Nashville’s first-choice no. 9, and could very well earn the job heading into the season. He’ll take every chance he can get with the first team to prove he should be the starter, and if he can score a couple more goals in preseason, he’ll give Gary Smith a selection headache.
Dom Badji is another player who’s reportedly looked really good in training, and don’t forget he went into 2020 as the preferred striker. If Cádiz, Ríos or both don’t play today, he’ll also be looking to take his chance and make his case to Smith. If he scores a banger like this in a game, he may just grab the job.
What to watch for
With very limited opportunities to get any information on the squad’s progress, tonight’s lineups and subsequent press conference will be a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of the pecking order and position battles heading into the season.
As stated above, the winger and striker positions seem like the most up for grabs, with plenty of competition for spots. Even without the ability to watch the match, the lineups will give a good idea of who Gary Smith sees as first choice just 16 days before the season kicks off.
Teams: Nashville SC vs Tampa Bay Rowdies
Date: Wednesday, March 31
Time: 6:00 PM central, IMG Academy, Bradenton FL
Forecast: 84°/70°. Partly cloudy. 2% chance of rain. 89% humidity.