After a thrilling victory against the New York Red Bulls in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs, the Columbus Crew returns to the field on Sunday evening to take on upstarts Nashville SC in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Nashville is coming off not one but two playoff victories.
After easily dispatching Inter Miami in the MLS play-in game, Nashville pulled off a surprising upset against perennial MLS powers, Toronto FC last week. Despite preparing to play playing a lower seed than many expected in this Eastern Conference semifinal, the Black & Gold still have their work cut out for them to advance to the conference final.
Let’s take a look at what the Crew need to do to progress into the final four of the MLS Cup playoffs.
Nashville SC at a glance
Record: 8-8-7, 32 points
League Form: W-W-W-L-D
Leading Scorer: Daniel Rios, Hany Mukhtar (5)
Assist Leader: Randall Leal (4)
Player to Watch
As the first Designated Player in Nashville’s history, Mukhtar is unquestionably one of the most important players for the Tennessee club, especially in attack. Despite getting off to a slow start, the German international has slowly started to adjust to MLS and looks more and more effective in the attack.
Mukhtar uses his rich background of playing experience featuring stints with German club Hertha BSC and Portuguese giants Benfica, as well as time with German youth national teams, to effectively increase his production for Nashville. Often the main link to the attack, Nashville goes as Mukhtar goes, and recently that recipe has been quite successful. His qualities are best featured in attacking transition as Mukhtar often has both time and space available when he is on the ball. With Nashville’s increased ability in creating transition moments and his ability to create something out of nothing, Mukhtar is an important player for the Black & Gold to keep an eye on.
How Nashville SC play
Englishman Gary Smith has made waves in his return to MLS in charge of Nashville SC in 2020. Previously, Smith was the head coach of the Colorado Rapids for three years, leading the team to its first and only MLS Cup triumph in 2010. It is no doubt that Smith has relied on this experience to help propel Nashville forward in these 2020 playoffs.
Smith and his team have achieved success by employing a playing style that causes headaches for most opponents and manages to highlight Nashville’s strengths. The typical feature of the Nashville defense is the defensive press high up the field. Similar to other MLS teams such as the Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City and the Chicago Fire, Nashville uses this press for two main reasons.
The first, and most common feature of high pressing teams, is to try and create turnovers in their opponent’s half to limit the distance between where they win the ball and the goal they are attacking. The second reason, which is a little more specific to Nashville, is to cut the field in half. Nashville will allow the ball to go to one side and then press the opponent and try to keep the ball on that side. This allows the midfield and defense to shift over and eliminate space for the opponent to play in.
This idea also creates counter-attacking opportunities for Nashville with more options to distribute to upon winning the ball. This has featured heavily thus far in 2020 and we can expect to see more of it in this matchup. However, Nashville can at times sit in a lower defensive block to attempt to draw out possession-based teams like Columbus. No matter which style Smith and Nashville chose to employ, it will be designed specifically to make life difficult for the Crew.
Nashville’s attack relies heavily on its defensive system as discussed previously. Nashville is continuously looking for ways to counter attack when regaining possession. This tends to work well against teams like the Black & Gold who are in a wide attacking shape when in possession and like to commit numbers forward into the attack.
The visitors have also created chances and consistently scored off of set pieces this year. Featuring good services into the penalty box from players like Mukhtar and MLS veteran Dax McCarty, combined with the aerial prowess of the likes of Walker Zimmerman and Dominique Badji, Nashville is consistently a threat on set pieces.
How the Crew win
Nashville is one of the hottest teams in Major League Soccer and will pose an incredibly difficult challenge for the Black & Gold in this match. If that wasn’t enough, the Crew’s COVID-19 concerns have been well documented this week and the Black & Gold will be without some key players on Sunday. Thus, there are a few important areas of the game that the Crew needs to focus on.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, Columbus’ mentality needs to be strong heading into this match. Despite the general public not knowing which Crew players will be unavailable until Saturday night, Porter and the team will have had ample time to prepare with the squad available. The Crew is talented enough and has enough depth to be able to win and advance in this match. It is imperative that the Black & Gold are mentally prepared and any and all players who may be asked to step up for the team are ready to do so.
Secondly, Columbus needs to do a good job of establishing control in the game. Nashville will no doubt be aware of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Crew locker room and may try and rattle the home team early in the match to disrupt their game plan. For the Black & Gold, having control of the game typically means controlling possession and establishing a slow, controlled pace to the game. However, Columbus chose to sit off and let Nashville hold the majority of possession in the previous match between these two sides in order to draw Nashville out of the defensive shape and create space for the Crew to attack. Regardless, no matter which style the Black & Gold opt for in this match, it is vital that they implement and execute that game plan right from the opening whistle.
Lastly, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Crew needs to be sharp on defensive set pieces. As discussed, Nashville is adept at scoring on these opportunities and will no doubt the team will be licking its lips as they scout the Crew’s defensive set pieces. It is imperative that the Black & Gold not only defend set pieces well, but also limit the frequency of fouls. Columbus will do well to limit fouls in the team’s own half as well as limit Nashville attacking corners. If the Crew is able to effectively limit these set pieces and defend well, the team will take a large portion of Nashville’s attacking options away.