After a scrappy first win at Lower.com Field, the Columbus Crew return to midweek action on Wednesday, welcoming Nashville SC to Columbus for the first time in 2021. Crew head coach Caleb Porter made it clear how pleased he has been with the side’s last two matches and his troops will look to continue their momentum in an important Eastern Conference battle.
A win for the Black & Gold could catapult them to as high as third place in the Eastern Conference depending on other results. It won’t be an easy task as Nashville is in a great run of form and has consistently provided challenges for the Crew since joining the league.
Here is what Columbus can expect from the visitors.
Nashville SC at a Glance:
Record: 5-7-1, 22 points
League Form: W-D-W-D-W
Leading Scorer: Hany Mukhtar (7)
Assist Leader: Randall Leal, Daniel Lovitz (3)
Player to Watch: Hany Mukhtar
Mukhtar is quickly becoming a household name in the MLS. As the first Designated Player signing for Nashville, Mukhtar slowly adjusted to the MLS and has clearly figured out how to be successful.
The attacking midfielder uses his rich background of playing experience, featuring stints with German club Hertha BSC and Portuguese giants Benfica, as well as time with the German youth national teams, to effectively increase his production for Nashville. Often the main link to the team’s attack, Nashville goes as Mukhtar goes, and recently that recipe has been quite successful.
Mukhtar is coming off of a weekend hat trick against the Chicago Fire and has four goals in his last two matches. 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 increased ability in creating transition moments and Mukhtar’s ability to create something out of nothing, the German is an important player for the Black & Gold to keep an eye on.
How Nashville SC play:
Nashville SC coach Gary Smith has done a remarkable job thus far. Smith, who won an MLS Cup with the Colorado Rapids in 2010, has quickly established Nashville as a dangerous MLS team. This is no easy feat considering it’s Nashville’s second year in the league and other recent MLS Expansion sides have struggled immensely in their first few years upon joining the league.
Last season, Smith and his staff were able to use their MLS experience and expertise to set up Nashville for success utilizing their defensive prowess, counter attacking ability and dangerous set pieces. This led Nashville to the Eastern Conference semifinals. before falling to the Crew.
This year, Nashville has retained those qualities as well as added the ability to create and convert more chances in the run of play. In fact, Nashville has almost equaled the team’s entire 2020 goal tally in just 13 matches in 2021. On top of this, Nashville has only been held scoreless three times in 2021 and ranks first in the league in shots on target per match.
Perhaps the most impressive feat is that Nashville has given up very little defensive stability despite the team’s attacking efforts. In fact, they are in the top 10 in the MLS for goals allowed per game and in the top 5 for clean sheets. Nashville’s ability to soundly defend while creating opportunities both in attacking transition and on set pieces makes the team a huge threat in the East and a tough opponent for the Black & Gold on Wednesday night.
How the Crew can win:
This match will no doubt be tough for the Crew, especially considering the players that are still missing due to Gold Cup duties and injuries. However, there are a few things for Columbus to focus on in order to take three important points from this matchup and continue climbing up the standings in the East.
As discussed above, the Nashville attack is nothing short of potent so far in 2021 and the Black & Gold’s most important task on Wednesday will be keeping that attack at bay. The Crew will find itself in a good spot to do this as Harrison Afful returns after a brief red card suspension. In addition, Columbus goalkeeper Eloy Room is in fine form after returning from Gold Cup duty with Curaçao.
If the Black & Golf are able to stifle the Nashville attack, it will put them in a good position going forward. The most dangerous part of the Nashville attack is the first few moments after the team wins the ball of its opponent. These counter attacking moments often lead to dangerous opportunities for Nashville that they convert with vicious precision. If the Crew is going to take three points from this matchup, the team will need to be excellent on the defensive side of the ball.
Obviously, Columbus will need to score in order to win a second in a row. One moment when the Black & Gold could be especially dangerous is in the first few seconds after winning the ball back from Nashville. The Crew is remarkably successful when getting in the space behind the opponent’s defense. As Nashville moves the ball up the field, there are at times huge gaps for the opponent to exploit when they win the ball back. If Columbus can make a habit of getting into these spaces quickly when they win the ball back, they could have a field day on the Nashville goal.
Lastly, the Crew needs to win the set piece battle against Nashville. Smith has become a set piece expert and his teams are often incredibly solid on defensive set pieces while posing a consistent threat on their attacking deal balls. In fact, in 2020, 11 of Nashville’s 28 goals came off of attacking set pieces. Crew fans will well remember the chances that Nashville created off of set pieces in the Eastern Conference semifinal as well.
Columbus is markedly better on defensive set pieces this year than last, however, with so many new players in the lineup, the Black & Gold will need to be well drilled on their responsibilities on defensive free kicks.
If the Crew can do a good job defending set pieces and prevent Nashville from gaining an advantage in that area, the team will be fully capable of taking all three points on Wednesday.