This week, Nashville welcomes MLS newcomers, St. Louis CITY SC, to GEODIS Park. It will, of course, be a first-ever meeting between the two clubs.
CITY SC have defied all expectations in their first year. They sit atop the Western Conference table with 29 points from their first 16 matches. With their high-pressing style, St. Louis will present a difficult challenge for Nashville SC.
St. Louis CITY SC
This Season: 1st (West) | 29 points | 9W-2D-5L | +16 GD
Injuries / Absences:
Out: Njabulo Blom (Int’l Duty); João Klauss (quad); Joakim Nilsson (knee)
Questionable: Eduard Löwen (lower body)
St. Louis CITY SC started their existence by reeling off five straight wins – a record start for an expansion club. Since then, it has been a bit more of a rollercoaster. They experienced a six-game stretch where they managed just one win, followed that up with a three-game winning streak, and now are winless in their last two.
A myriad of factors can explain the dip in form. They regressed to the mean after significantly outperforming their expected results. João Klauss’ injury left them without a dependable striker. Their energy-drink soccer philosophy no longer takes teams by surprise. Whatever it is, it is likely a combination of all three.
Regardless of form, CITY SC presents a unique challenge – one that Nashville hasn’t always dealt with well.
CITY SC enjoys pressing and turning up the speed of the game. Under head coach Bradley Carnell, a former New York Red Bulls assistant, the club has adopted the energy-drink style soccer that has characterized the Red Bulls organization for the last decade.
This season, St. Louis leads the league in Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA). For those unfamiliar with the statistic, it is used to measure the intensity of a team’s press by looking at the average number of passes made by the opponent before the team either tackles, challenges, intercepts, or fouls the opposition.
Once St. Louis turns their opponent over, they get up the field in a hurry. Their average sequence time (the time in possession before a turnover, shot, or being interrupted by an opponent’s defensive action) is just 6.40 seconds, the second-lowest mark in the league. CITY SC leads the league, even above the Red Bulls, in the direct speed of their attacks.
However, St. Louis may have their work cut out for them this week as they could be without both of their starting midfielders. South African Njabulo Blum is out on International duty as Bafana Bafana host Morocco. While DP midfielder, Eduard Löwen, is questionable with a quad injury.
Löwen has played nearly every available minute this season, and it is not entirely clear what direction Bradley Carnell will turn to fill in for the captain. The Homegrown, Miguel Perez (18), likely slots in as one of the midfielders. Playing next to the teenager is anyone’s guess. The most likely option is for Indiana Vassilev to drop deeper into the midfield. However, Carnell’s team has been formationally fluid. At various times they have fielded a 4-2-3-1, traditional 4-4-2, 4-4-2 Diamond, and even spent one away match in a 5-man backline.
While my predicted lineup puts St. Louis in a 4-2-3-1, it would not surprise me, given the absences, if Carnell throws Nashville a curveball.
An extra midfielder would help Perez shoulder the load and deal with the Coyotes’ diamond formation that packs bodies into the central areas of the pitch. With three matches in a seven-day timespan, Carnell will need to juggle bodies regardless to manage everyone’s load.
2nd (East) | 32 points | 9W-5D-3L | +13 GD
Injuries / Absences:
Out: Nick DePuy (lower body); Walker Zimmerman (Int’l Duty); Aníbal Godoy (Int’l Duty); Fafà Picault (Int’l Duty)
Questionable: Lucas MacNaughton (groin)
Nashville SC enters on a nine-match unbeaten streak in league play, tied for the longest stretch in club history. If the ‘Yotes want to set the club record outright, they will need to overcome St. Louis’ high press, a style that can cause this team fits (more on that in a minute).
Nashville have historically struggled with CITY SC’s two most ideologically similar counterparts, Philadelphia and the New York Red Bulls. Historically, the Boys in Gold have managed a paltry 0W-2D-1L against RBNY with only one goal scored and only a marginally better 1W-2D-1L record against the Union.
The trouble for NSC is often twofold. Under Gary Smith, Nashville have never been particularly adept at bypassing pressure with intricate movement and one-touch passing. Without this ability, Nashville resorts more often to launching long balls to the target striker for them to knock down. It devolves the game into a pinball match with little attacking fluidity. As a result, only once has a Nashville match against the Union or the Red Bulls finished with a team scoring multiple goals. It was a 2-0 home win for RBNY in 2021. Given the tactical similarities with St. Louis CITY SC, it would not be surprising to see a similar outcome.
With Walker Zimmerman away on national team duty, the big question becomes the health of Lucas MacNaughton.
A “game time” decision never gives me the warm fuzzies regarding a defender’s status to start a match. Gary Smith must be absolutely confident that MacNaughton will not reaggravate his injury in the opening minutes. Further injury would force another early substitution and potentially lose the Canadian prior to a midweek trip to Montréal.
With MacNaughton’s status in doubt and Josh Bauer the next man up, I would keep an eye on Nashville’s starting lineup announcement. Being down to a fourth-choice center back is the type of situation where Gary Smith often reverts to a three-center-back formation. The extra defender would allow Bauer to play with less defensive responsibility and provide more passing outlets in the back to horizontally stretch and evade St. Louis’ high press.
However, Nashville may instead stick with its popular 4-4-2 Diamond formation, as sometimes the best defense is a good offense. If Nashville can pressure St. Louis into their own mistakes and tilt the field in NSC’s favor, it will deny opportunities for the visitors to engage in their own high press. Of course, Nashville will need to remain on alert given the vertical nature of St. Louis’ attack. Given such, look for Dax McCarty to drop deeper than usual to screen the center backs and cut out CITY SC’s quick counterattacks.
Either way, it should be a fascinating tactical battle that provides a lot of insight into how Gary Smith views his team and the best approach to solving the high press puzzle.
Score: 1-0 (Nashville)
Bold Prediction: St. Louis finishes with more possession due NSC lead.
Score: 4-3 (Nashville)
Scorers: Mukhtar, Shaffelburg, Maher, Mukhtar
Bold Prediction: Someone scores a hat trick
Score: 2-1 Nashville
Scorers: Mukhtar, Davis
Bold Prediction: Davis hits a banger from outside the 18-yard box
Score: 3-0 (Nashville)
Scorers: Mukhtar, Shaffelburg, Leal
Bold Prediction: Mukhtar assists twice and Leal takes at least five shots
Score: 3-1 (Nashville)
Scorers: Mukhtar, Mukhtar, Shaffelburg
Bold Prediction: Leal gets an assist off the bench
Teams: Nashville SC v. St. Louis CITY SC
Odds: NSC (-160), Draw (+290), STL (+380) via BetMGM
Date: Saturday, June 17
Time: 7:30 pm CDT, GEODIS Park, Nashville, TN
TV: Apple TV – MLS Season Pass
Radio: 104.5 The Zone (English); El Jefe 96.7 (Spanish)
Forecast: 90°/64° – 0% chance of rain at kickoff. 5 mph winds