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Massive Scouting: Nashville SC

What the Black & Gold need to be ready for from Saturday’s visitors.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Nashville SC Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

After struggling against the Chicago Fire just a week ago, Columbus Crew SC returns home to take on MLS newcomers Nashville SC for the first time ever. Despite a slow start, Nashville has heated up recently, is unbeaten in the team’s last four matches and comes off of a 4-2 thrashing of Atlanta United. Let’s take a look at what promises to be a fascinating first MLS encounter between these two sides.

Nashville SC at a Glance:

Record: 3-4-3, 12 points

League Form: W-D-D-W-L

Leading Scorer: 9 players with one goal each

Assist Leader: Dax McCarty (3)

Player to Watch: Hany Mukhtar

As the first Designated Player in Nashville’s history, Mukhtar carries with him a high burden of expectation in the team’s attack. Despite getting off to a slow start, the German international has slowly started to adjust to the MLS and looks more and more effective in the attack.

With a 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, it is no doubt that Mukhtar provides high quality to the Nashville offense. As Nashville has begun to string together some quality results, Mokhtar has had an increase in influence on the team’s play in the center of attack. His qualities are best featured in attacking transition, as he often has both time and space available when he is on the ball.

With Nashville’s ability to create 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 makes his return to MLS in charge of Nashville SC in 2020. Previously, Smith was the head coach of the Colorado Rapids for three years before being relieved of his duties in November of 2011.

Recently, Smith and his team have gotten back to winning ways, employing a playing style that causes headaches for most opponents and manages to highlight the Nashville strengths. The most notable feature of the Nashville defense is its press that the team typically uses high up the field. Similar to other MLS teams like the New York Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City and the Fire, Nashville SC 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 opponents half to limit the distance between where they win the ball and the goal they are attacking. The second, 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 its opponents and try to keep the ball on that side of the field. This allows the Nashville midfield and defense to shift over and eliminate space for the opponents to play in. It 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 the Crew can expect to see more of it in this matchup.

The Nashville attack relies heavily on its defensive system as discussed previously. Nashville is continuously looking for ways to counter attack when the team regains possession. This tends to work well against teams like Columbus, who is in a wide attacking shape when in possession and likes to commit numbers forward into the attack. Nashville has also created chances and scored off of set pieces this year. Featuring good services into the 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 can win:

After a bit of a disappointing performance a week ago in Chicago, the injury-riddled Black & Gold look to return to winning ways in what is yet another tricky matchup for Columbus. The Crew has sputtered a bit recently, winning only two of the team’s last five gaves. Nashville plays in a way that is typically difficult to solve for teams who play similarly to the Black & Gold. However, there are a couple of key things for Crew head coach Caleb Porter to focus on in order to take three points from this match.

It is no secret that the Crew is typically looking to play out from the back and dominate possession. Due to the Black & Gold’s attacking shape in possession, it is really important that Columbus is able to not only handle but break the pressure from Nashville. If the Crew continuously turns the ball over with this pressure, Nashville will be able to create a number of attacking transition moments that will be dangerous.

One way for the Crew to beat this pressure is to successfully move the ball from one side to the other against the Nashville pressure. As mentioned above, one key component of this pressure is to keep the ball on one side of the field when the other team is in possession to limit their opponent’s attacking options. This means that there is space to be found on the opposite side, and if the Black & Gold are successful in finding it, they will be able to mount a number of dangerous attacks in this match.

The Crew must also work to eliminate counter-attacking opportunities for Nashville. The visitors have been successful recently in attacking transition and are no doubt looking for more of the same against the Black & Gold. Columbus must do well in stopping these moments in order to maintain control of this match.

A key component of the Crew’s playing style under Porter has been counter-pressing, or trying to win the ball back as quickly as possible after losing it, and this will be vital to Columbus in this matchup. If the Black & Gold are able to successfully win the ball back quickly, they will stop Nashville from launching a counter attack. When the Crew is not successful in winning the ball back immediately, it is important that the team is able to quickly get numbers behind the ball and force Nashville to try and beat the defense, which is something few teams have been able to do this year.

Lastly, the Crew needs to have a major emphasis on defensive set pieces in this game. Thus far in 2020, the Black & Gold have not been sharp on set pieces and have at times, struggled to effectively and convincingly defend those opportunities. Contrarily, Nashville has been one of the better sides in the league on attacking set pieces and regularly score goals from set pieces.

Knowing this, Nashville is likely going to look to create set piece opportunities in this contest. Not only does the Crew need to be much more convincing in its efforts to defend set pieces, but eliminate set piece opportunities. One way Columbus can do this is by not committing silly fouls in its defensive third, allowing Nashville to set up and attack via a set piece. If the Black & Gold can limit set piece opportunities for Nashville, it will bode well for the rest of the match.

It is no doubt a tricky matchup for the Crew this weekend against Nashville as the two sides have seemingly opposite game plans and strategies. This game will likely be won by whichever of the two sides is able to execute its game plan more effectively. Either way, this promises to be an entertaining first encounter between Columbus and Nashville.