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Crossing the Touchline: Crew vs. Nashville SC

Learning about Nashville SC from a guy who knows the team well.

Nashville SC v Columbus Crew SC: Eastern Conference Semifinals - MLS Cup Playoffs Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The Columbus Crew and Nashville SC have a short history. The two teams met twice in the expansion side’s first Major League Soccer campaign, once in the regular season and again in the MLS Cup playoffs, both games going to the Crew by a 2-0 scoreline.

Columbus and Nashville meet again, for a third time in Ohio’s capital city, on Wednesday night. The two teams enter the game within two points of each other, the Black & Gold on 20 and Nashville on 22, following 13 games of the season. While there remains plenty of time in the year, the winner of this game will be, at the worst, in fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

Because of the limited experience with Nashville, we reached out to Ben Wright, the senior writer at Broadway Sports, to help get a better sense of what the Crew will face on Wednesday.

Questions for Broadway Sports

Massive Report: It’s Year 2 in MLS for Nashville. After making the MLS Cup playoffs last year, what were the expectations for the team coming into the year and how has the team lived up to that so far? In other words, are fans satisfied with how this season is going?

Broadway Sports: I think last year raised the bar pretty high. No one (even Nashville fans) expected to make it to extra time in the Eastern Conference semifinal, especially after the struggles in the final third to start the year. Playoffs are absolutely the expectation for this year. My colleague Davey Shepherd has rightly said, though, that Nashville could be a better team this season and not get the same results they did in 2020. And while I think Nashville is objectively better in 2021, they’ve had some frustrating draws at home. I think overall, though, fans are happy with this team, especially coming off a 5-1 win.

MR: After scoring just 24 goals a year ago, Nashville has already finished 21 times and we’re not even halfway through the season. What has been the biggest change that’s allowed the offense to flourish this year?

BS: There honestly hasn’t been much change. Nashville found their rhythm down the stretch last season and were one of the better attacking sides in the league for the last few weeks of the season. Even in the playoffs, they dominated Toronto and probably should have won by more than just a goal, and against Columbus they had plenty of chances and were unlucky not to find the back of the net.

They just picked up where they left off to start the year. I think you’ve seen Hany Mukhtar grow more comfortable in Nashville and MLS this season. Randall Leal is improving as well. Dan Lovitz is playing like one of (maybe the) best leftback in the league. And the addition of CJ Sapong has been huge. He’s scored three goals, but his work off the ball and in possession has been huge. He, Leal and Mukhtar have developed a lot of chemistry and he’s been a major part of their success in front of goal.

MR: With the last question in mind, how will the addition of Ake Loba increase the attack?

BS: This will sound strange given how much I just praised their attack, but the finishing has been somewhat disappointing. Heading into their match against Columbus, they had underperformed their expected goals by nearly five, and had missed a worrying amount of high-quality chances. Loba was brought in in part to fix that, but his signing realistically wasn’t in response to anything they saw this season. Nashville have pursued Loba for over two years, and they were always going to go after him if he became available.

That being said, Loba is a more dynamic attacker than any of the forwards on the roster. Columbus fans saw him up close and personal in CCL - he’s the real deal. He’s quick, moves really well in the box, and is an opportunistic finisher.

Nashville is creating chances at an elite level (only Sporting KC has a higher xG tally). They’re fourth in the league in goals scored, despite some issues putting chances away. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Loba could come in and turn them from a good team into a great team.

MR: How big of a loss will Walker Zimmerman be in this game as he is now out with an injury following his time on Gold Cup duty with the U.S. National Team?

BS: He’ll be a huge loss. Nashville have already been held back a bit by some sloppy defending, which is a bit of an ironic reversal of last year’s narrative. They’ve been just a bit weaker at the back, even with Zimmerman available, but with him out they’ve really struggled to defend set pieces. Gary Smith switched to a back three, in part to cover for Zimmerman’s absence. Jalil Anibaba has expectedly filled in well, and Jack Maher has come in and put himself firmly into the conversation for a starting role, even when Zimmerman returns.

Unfortunately, Zimmerman just withdrew from the USMNT’s Gold Cup squad with a hamstring injury, so he’ll be out for at least a couple of weeks. And both Jack Maher and Dan Lovitz are out tonight in the league’s health and safety protocols. I expect we’ll see Nashville revert to a back four with Dave Romney and Jalil Anibaba in the middle, which is even further exacerbated by starting rightback Alistair Johnston’s callup to Canada for the Gold Cup.

It’s a big loss though. Even with Zimmerman absent, I liked Nashville’s odds tonight with Maher and Lovitz playing as well as they have. Without four starting-quality defenders, though, it’s a big ask.

MR: Nashville is 5-0-5 at Nissan Stadium but is 0-1-2 away from home. How do you think going on the road for the first time in five games will impact this team?

BS: That’s the million dollar question. They’ve been solid at home and pretty disappointing on the road. Granted, it’s a fairly small sample size on the road, but they haven’t been great. They’ve already played 10/17 home matches, and have 14 road matches left, so they have to start picking up points away from home soon if they want to make the playoffs. There’s not much margin for error. Obviously, Columbus isn’t an easy place to get a result, and they’re shorthanded in defense, so a loss tonight won’t make anyone hit the panic button, but they need road points badly.

To read Massive Report’s answers to Broadway Sports’ questions, click here.