The Columbus Crew returns to action after the international break this Saturday at home against Nashville SC. It will be a special day for the club, which will honor club legend Federico Higuain who will sign an honorary one-day contract to allow him to retire as a member of the Black & Gold.
In addition to the off-the-field festivities, the Crew will face another early-season test in Nashville SC. In the middle of an eight-game road trip to start the season, Nashville has struggled, losing the last two matches.
Regardless, Nashville has made the MLS Cup playoffs each of the last two years and has always been a tough team to beat, setting a league record for ties last year. Nashville will be rested and rejuvenated after the break and is looking to get back to winning ways quickly.
Here’s what you can expect on Saturday in Columbus.
Nashville SC at a Glance:
Record: 1-1-2, 4points
League Form: L,L,D,W
Leading Scorer: Anibal Godoy, Walker Zimmerman, CJ Sapong (1)
Assist Leader: Hany Mukhtar (2)
Player to Watch: Hany Mukhtar
No longer the underrated player he once was, Mukhtar has become must-watch in MLS. Known for his ability on the ball and in the attacking third, Mukhtar exploded onto the MLS scene. With 24 goals and 15 assists in just 55 matches, he is among the league’s best in terms of production in the final third.
Mukhtar has used his experience in Germany, Portugal, Denmark and Austria to torment his opponents in MLS. Operating mostly in the central part of the field, Mukhtar excels in attacking transition and is at his most dangerous when running at his opponent's backline. There’s no doubt the Crew will have to be well aware of him in all phases of this match.
How Nashville SC plays:
Nashville has been one of the more consistent teams over the last two years in MLS. After solid playoff runs to the Eastern Conference semifinals the past two season, Nashville is now making the switch to the Western Conference in 2022.
So far this. yera, it looks to be more of the same on the field for Nashville. Crew head coach Caleb Porter mentioned in his pre-match press conference how difficult Nashville is to break down and cited the team’s expertise in closing down attacking space quickly and effectively in the defensive third of the field. Nashville has thrived in this area for almost its entire existence.
In addition to their defensive prowess, Nashville does an excellent job of posing a threat both in attacking transition and on attacking set pieces. Rotating between a 4-4-2 diamond and a 3-5-2 formation, Nashville is capable of playing in multiple ways and has been able to adapt to counteract their opponents consistently since entering the league. These subtle formational changes as well as the team’s consistency in defense, counter attacking ability and danger on set pieces are what makes Nashville one of the toughest sides to beat in MLS.
How the Crew can win:
Looking to remain undefeated, the Black & Gold will have a tough challenge on their hands Saturday night. That being said, there are a few key moments of the game for Columbus to focus on in order to take all three points from this match.
The Achilles Heel of the 2022 Crew side has been set piece defending. The Black & Gold have allowed five goals and each has come from a set piece.
Nashville has likely been excited watching film over the international break. Nashville is already one of the best attacking set piece teams in the league and finished tied for fourth-most goals scored in this phase in 2021. The Crew will need to button up its set piece defending in general if the team wants to be competitive in 2022, and now is a great time to start doing so. If the Columbus can clean this area up, not only will it help limit the biggest weakness so far, but also take away a huge piece of the Nashville game plan.
The Black & Gold hasn’t struggled to create chances or score goals so far in MLS play. In fact, the Crew is second in goals scored and first in Expected Goals (xG) so far in 2022. Despite all this, Columbus missed several chances in the most recent matchup against the New York Red Bulls that could have won that match on the road.
It would behoove the Crew to quickly regain that shooting touch in this matchup for a few reasons. Firstly, against good defensive teams like Nashville chances are few and far between. Thus, if you’re going to score, you need to take advantage of the chances you do get and capitalize on them. In addition to the obvious benefit of winning this match, Columbus will benefit from regained confidence that comes from scoring goals.
Lastly, as briefly mentioned earlier, defensive transition moments will be huge for the Crew on Saturday. One of the benefits of Nashville’s compact defensive style is that it creates advantages in attacking transition for them as well. When Nashville sits in a lower defensive block, it forces the opponents to move up the field to try and score, thus, any turnovers or mistakes can be punished thanks to misplaced defenders higher up the field.
The vast majority of Nashville’s goals in the team’s first few years in the league have come in these moments. While these moments are always important for the Black & Gold, effectively limiting and stopping the Nashville counter attack will be of the utmost importance on Saturday as it will limit the majority of their attack.
In doing so, it will also allow Columbus to control the tempo and rhythm of the game. Historically speaking, the Crew under Caleb Porter has excelled when able to control these things in a match. If the Black & Gold arre effectively stopping and limiting Nashville’s counter attacking threat, supporters should feel really good about the team’s chances on Saturday.