What Are They All About? Nashville SC
Victory! This past Saturday the Chicago Fire defeated Florida Gulf Coast University 2-0 as their preseason stay in Bradenton continued. The goals came from trialists Omar Castro and Albert Ruiz as many of the first team veterans were given a rest. Although the match can hardly be seen as a preparation for the MLS season in terms of competition, head coach Veljko Paunovic was able to utilize the scrimmage as a way of evaluating fringe players as well as the guys who have yet to be offered contracts. Such an approach may be useful in terms of deciding who will get minutes in Tulsa, but the continued absence of the bulk of the squad coupled with a lack of movement in the transfer market has many fans worried. Yes, every team goes through injury spells but the occurrence of such a spell heading into the season without adequate squad depth should raise eyebrows.
There is no doubt that the squad is significantly worse off than it was at the end of last season and the window for getting players in with ample time to build fitness and chemistry before the season starts is dwindling. Reports suggest that Nelson Rodriguez is on the verge of making a significant addition to the squad in the coming weeks, but whether this turns into a scenario reminiscent of his “inquiry” into Carlos Tevez’s availability last year or the blockbuster signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger, only time will tell. In the meantime, those players currently wearing the badge continue to grind as Chicago will take on Nashville SC this Wednesday at 3:00 pm CT (stream available on Chicago-Fire.com).
The match will be an interesting juxtaposition of a club with extensive history and a longstanding tradition of success and a club that is just beginning its journey. Nashville SC, a rebranding of Nashville FC founded in 2013, was recently confirmed as one of a group of cities awarded an MLS franchise. Although it is not yet clear when Nashville will make the jump, all indications are that they and their grassroots partial fan ownership are ready now. With a thriving city that is growing by the day serving as the backdrop for the club, and only the Nashville Predators to compete against in terms of season schedules, things are looking bright for the Portland of the South. They may be playing USL soccer for the next few seasons but growing into those MLS shoes is certainly the goal on the pitch and taking a crack at last season’s third place finishers is one way to do that. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Nashville Form Guide: Lost their inaugural match.
Previous Result: A 3-1 loss to Atlanta United.
Formation: 4-4-2; Pickens; Kimura, Woodberry, Davis, Bourgeois; James, Reed, Lagrassa, Moloto; Cox, Shroot
Strengths: Given that this is only the second ever match that Nashville SC is playing in (at least in this iteration of the franchise) it is hard to gauge the facets of the game usually covered here but we’ll certainly give it our best.
Calm Between the Posts: Perhaps the greatest asset that Nashville acquired in the offseason is their veteran goalkeeper, Matt Pickens. Fire fans will remember his bearded face from the Missouri native’s four-season stint with the Men in Red (2004-2007) which included a US Open Cup winners medal. Pickens then went on to play for the Rapids for six seasons where he played in goal for their MLS Cup win in 2010. Since that spell Pickens has plied his trade in the lower divisions, featuring for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL. Although he is now thirty-six, his ability to organize the back line is still impeccable and some of his outstanding performances and vintage acrobatic saves for the Rowdies last season seem to indicate that he is staying fit. He may be in the twilight of his career, but he certainly knows what it takes to be a professional in the sport and brings that wealth of knowledge to Nashville.
Veteran Foundation: If getting Pickens onboard with the project was not indication enough of Nashville’s approach to conquering the USL, MLS defensive veterans Kosuke Kimura and London Woodberry are also under contract at the club. Kimura and Pickens have a history (the Kawasaki Frontale academy product played with Pickens at Colorado) and their chemistry should rekindle with some time together. Woodberry will certainly be playing with a chip on his shoulder as his option was not picked up by New England’s new manager, Brad Friedel, so he should be fun to watch against MLS opposition. At twenty-seven years of age, Woodberry has enough experience at the professional level while still being in his prime athletically, he could just be a piece to build around as Nashville heads for the MLS.
The Unknown Factor: Part of the problem with scouting Nashville is that they haven’t played as a unit for long. Although some of their players can be scouted through their previous clubs, Nashville is still figuring out their playing system and that can be as frustrating for opponents as it is for supporters of the new club. For example, Ropapa Mensah, the scorer of the clubs first ever goal, had an outstanding for the Harrisburg City Islanders last year. His speed, vision, and finishing rate were on another level and at just twenty-one, he has room to grow. He’ll certainly be a handful for the Fire’s backline on Wednesday but whether he can transition to the standards of MLS is a long-term question.
Similarly, the Northern Irishman Robin Shroot has spent much of his career journeying around England’s lower leagues and the ever-grueling Scandinavian leagues. Whether or not his addition pans out in terms of goal scoring remains to be seen but his time at Stevenage with current Nashville coach Gary Smith indicates that there was enough of a talent threshold there to bring him in. This will be a good indication of how well the Fire players can adjust in situations that are new to them.
Weaknesses: As with the strengths listed above, much of this section revolves around their singular match against Atlanta and is very much self-explanatory in terms of issues that brand-new club might have.
USL Appropriate: While we wish our friends to the South all the best in their inaugural USL season, it is also necessary to point out that a lower division is in fact where they belong at this moment in time. The MLS2Nashville hype may have been enough to award them a franchise in the near future, but there is a lot of work to be done yet. The model of scavenging through the wasteland of declined MLS options, European lower league journeymen, untested diamonds in the rough, and aging stars may work well enough for them in 2018 and 2019 but Nashville will need a better long-term plan if they are to compete at the MLS level. We’re not saying anything that is meant to belittle the club, we’re just re-stating what was made evident in their loss to Atlanta. Yes, it may have been monsoon-ing in Nashville and the field conditions were less than ideal, but Atlanta looked comfortable in their 3-1 victory without shifting out of first gear. Sloppy passing from Nashville, a clear gap in technical ability, and an obvious lack of chemistry resulted in what was always likely to be. If Chicago treats this match seriously, they should have no problem dispatching a team still building its identity.
Prediction: Per tradition we will not be offering score predictions throughout the offseason, but we will say that this match will not be straightforward for Chicago. Should the injury list from the match against FGCU carry over to this encounter, Nashville may just prove to be a stumbling block for the Fire. Ultimately the outcomes of these matches don’t mean as much as the outcomes of Nelson Rodriguez’s international phone calls.