Nashville SC head north of the border for the first time in their MLS history. The Boys In Gold will play 13 of their remaining 19 matches on the road. Can they get their first away victory of the season?
As Canada continues to make more Covid-19 vaccines available to the general population, their MLS sides are finally able to return home, thanks to a National Interest Exemption. After spending the first part of 2021 based in Orlando, Florida, and all of 2020 based in Hartford, Connecticut, the return to BMO Field was welcomed.
Unfortunately, they have yet to win at their home stadium, drawing against both Orlando and New York Red Bulls. Two draws aren’t a bad result, though, given their early form this season. In fact, they struggled enough that manager Chris Armas was fired after just 11 games in charge, culminating with a 7-1 loss to DC United.
Things have been better under interim manager Javier Peréz. They picked up a shock 3-2 win in New England in his first game at the helm and a pair of draws at home before managing a win on the road in Chicago, despite being dominated in every metric other than the scoreline. The Reds were outshot 31-8 by the Fire and conceded 3.58 expected goals, but somehow left Soldier Field with three points.
“There’s no doubt about it, this is as talented a group as any in MLS,” said Nashville head coach Gary Smith ahead of the match. “History tells us that with as many final appearances and a championship under their belt, this group is more than capable. They’ve got quality in all areas of the field, and it’s really just a matter of time for them.”
Reigning league MVP Álejandro Pozuelo pulls the strings in the no. 10 role. He’s back in the squad after an injury kept him out for the first part of the year, and he’s contributed two assists in eight matches. Despite playing just 640 minutes so far, he ranks 10th in American Soccer Analysis‘s goals added metric, and is one of the best passers in the league.
Homegrown midfielder Ralph Priso has turned into a contributor this year. He’s played 440 minutes, and started their match against Chicago in midfield with captain Michael Bradley. Peréz has been forced to shift his midfield around with rightback Auro Junior out injured. Midfielder Marky Delgado has dropped down to outside back, with Priso filling in in midfield. Auro’s listed as questionable, and his status will likely determine how Toronto’s midfield shapes up.
The forward position is an issue for Toronto. Top scorer Ayo Akinola will miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL at the Gold Cup with Canada. Jozy Altidore was frozen out of the team by Armas, and has picked up two goals in the four matches he’s been back. Toronto also signed MLS veteran Dom Dwyer in the offseason, who’s started four matches this season and has allowed Altidore to be eased back into the lineup.
Yeferson Soteldo is the real spark of this team, though. The 5’2″ Venezuelan winger was signed as a designated player in late April for a hefty $6.5 million. His physical profile brings back memories of Sebastian Giovinco, arguably the best player in club history, even if his production hasn’t been as explosive. He’s played nine matches for Toronto thus far, contributing a solid two goals and one assist. His goals added total is the 12th best among wingers, and his talent is undeniable. While he’s still adapting to the league, he looks capable of being a Best XI caliber player once things click.
“Maybe this is the time where they’re getting into a rhythm again,” said Smith. “But our job is going to be to obviously stick a little bit of a pin in that and to come out of there with some points on the board.”
Nashville SC head to Canada undefeated against Canada. The won in extra time in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last season, and came back for a thrilling 3-2 win at Nissan Stadium earlier this year.
After several injury, health and protocol and international absences over the last month, Nashville are finally returning to full strength. Defender Walker Zimmerman remains out with a hamstring injury suffered on international duty, while Smith said midfielder Aníbal Godoy will be a “last minute decision” with a similar injury.
Nashville will be bolstered by the return of Dan Lovitz and Jack Maher, who are out of the league’s health and safety protocols. Lovitz has been a virtual lock in the eleven during his time in Nashville, while Maher had worked himself into the starting lineup when Zimmerman missed time due to the birth of his son. Until he was forced out due to the league protocols, he had been a standout performer for Nashville, notching a goal and an assist, and ranked 43rd among centerbacks by ASA’s G+ metric. After sporadic moments on the field last year and a loan to USL earlier in the season, he’s living up to the potential Nashville saw in him when they drafted him second-overall in the SuperDraft, and his form has been a major factor in Nashville’s shift to a 3-4-2-1.
Alistair Johnston will also return to the squad after an exceptionally strong showing at the Gold Cup. The second-year pro started every match at the tournament for Canada, and was impressive in a 2-1 semifinal loss to Mexico. He played a full 90 minutes on Thursday, and while he’ll be available for selection, it remains to be seen how much he plays, if at all. As a Toronto native, though, he’ll surely push the coaching staff for a chance to play in front of a hometown crowd for the first time as a professional.
Both sides are in much better form than they were in their meeting in late June. Nashville’s attack has blossomed into one of the best in the league, while Toronto have strung together their best four-match stretch of the season. Despite Toronto’s points record, though, the advanced metrics suggest their performances have actually been worse in their last four games.
While Nashville are underdogs according to the bookmakers, their recent form is hard to ignore. And with 13 of thier remaining 19 matches on the road, they absolutely have to pick up points away from home. While not desperate, Smith will certainly preach the necessity of three points to his squad throughout the week, while simultaneously trying to manage minutes with two more road matches to play later in the week.
Score: Toronto 1-2 Nashville
Scorers: Hany Mukhtar, Aké Loba
MOTM: Hany Mukhtar
Bold Prediction: Mukhtar scores a penalty kick and assists Loba’s first Nashville goal to complete a second half comeback.
Score: Toronto 0-2 Nashville
Scorers: Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal
MOTM: Hany Mukhtar
Bold Prediction: Mukhtar picks up a goal and assist.
Score: Toronto 0-1 Nashville
Scorers: CJ Sapong
MOTM: CJ Sapong
Bold Prediction: Joe Willis makes more than five saves.
Score: Toronto 1-1 Nashville
Scorers: Ake Loba
MOTM: Dax McCarty
Bold Prediction: Loba comes off the bench to earn a late draw.
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Teams: Toronto FC vs Nashville SC
Power Rankings: Toronto FC (25) vs Nashville SC (4)
Odds: Toronto (+140), Draw (+240), Nashville (+170) via BetMGM
Date: Sunday, August 1
Time: 6:30 PM central, BMO Field, Toronto, Ontario
TV: MyTV 30 (local), ESPN+ (out of market)
Radio: 94.9 The Game 2 (English); El Jefe 96.7 (Spanish)
Forecast: 69°/59°. Scattered thunderstorms. 70% chance of rain. 72% humidity.