Three position battles we’ll be watching this preseason

Nashville didn’t achieve its desired result when it opened the preseason against Atlanta United, but it did fulfill one goal: Every healthy field player on the roster saw action.

When Gary Smith emptied his bench and brought in 11 new players to start the second half, he got something even more valuable than a win at this juncture: a glimpse at which reserves will push the starters for playing time.

“There were some performances that really stuck out for me that I wasn’t expecting,” said Smith of his team’s second-half efforts.

In addition to Tucker Hume, whom he called out by name, Smith said “there were three or four other guys in that group that slowly but surely, if they continue the process, will get close to the starting 11.”

Who will push for playing time this preseason? The match created several compelling roster storylines for us to follow during the team’s six remaining preseason friendlies.

Here’s who started each half against Atlanta:

Starting XI

  • Keeper: Matt Pickens
  • Defense: Kosuke Kimura, Bradley Bourgeois, London Woodberry, Justin Davis, Ryan James
  • Midfield: Michael Reed, Matt LaGrassa, Lebo Moloto
  • Forward: Robin Shroot, Michael Cox

Second Half

  • Keeper: C.J. Cochran
  • Defense: Michael DeGraffenreidt, Liam Doyle, Jordan Dunstan, Josh Hughes, Taylor Washington
  • Midfield: Bolu Akinyode, Ramone Howell, Alan Winn*
  • Forward: Tucker Hume, Ropapa Mensah

*While we’re listing Winn as a midfielder, he came forward aggressively in the attack along the left wing and looked like a forward at times.

These units are somewhat fluid; after all, the team had only been together for two weeks, and Mensah had been with the squad for six days. With that in mind, here are the position battles we’ll be watching extra closely this preseason.

Left Back: Ryan James vs. Taylor Washington

James got the starting nod and offers a dynamic presence on the left wing of the defense. We saw him press forward against Atlanta, taking advantage of the hybrid role Smith has assigned to his fullbacks. In fact, while Smith told us a week before the match he would employ a five-man back line, he called his formation a 3-5-2 in his postgame comments, so even he may not have landed on an official characterization of his team’s alignment.

Washington found himself out of position on Atlanta’s game-winning goal. He ventured toward Atlanta’s final third on a run, but Nashville was dispossessed and Atlanta struck quickly, creating a two-on-one situation in Washington’s absence on the left defensive flank. Atlanta generated two second-half goals against Nashville’s left side — Vazquez’s galloping run, and a screaming cross from the right that resulted in a sitter of a rebound for Romario Williams.

It’s a battle between two experienced USL players. James started 59 matches for Rochester over the last two seasons, while Washington earned 56 caps in the last two years for Bethlehem and Pittsburgh.

Right now we’ll give the edge to James based on his assertive performance against Atlanta. But with six preseason friendlies to go, the battle is wide open.

Traffic Jam at Forward

I-24 ain’t got nothing on Nashville SC’s striker situation.

Shroot and Cox earned starts for the Boys in Gold in match No. 1, but they’re looking in their rearview mirrors at a pair of players who earned the coach’s praise after the match.

Smith called Tucker Hume “a real handful,” not just because of his 6-foot-5 frame but also due to his technique and body use. Hume’s header sprung Alan Winn and Ropapa Mensah forward for a two-on-one run that resulted in Nashville’s lone goal. He positioned himself smartly and compensated for his lack of speed with solid field presence.

We’ll go ahead and say it: Mensah will start for this squad when it makes its USL debut at Louisville. The only reason he wasn’t in the starting lineup was his late arrival to preseason training due to travel difficulties. He showcased speed, ambition and smarts, not only in his goal but also through a couple other incisive runs into the final third.

The real question is who will accompany him up top. It’s down to Shroot, Hume and Cox, and we won’t know the answer without a lot more evidence.

Where will Winn fit in?

Alan Winn was thoroughly impressive in his debut for the team, which didn’t announce his signing until the day before the match. The 25th overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft showed serious speed and confidence along the left flank, blurring the line between attacking midfielder and third forward.

And that’s the question: How will Gary Smith use him? Winn appears talented enough to make a difference for this squad, but it looks like his real impact would come along the left side as a winger — a better fit for a three-man formation up top. Will Smith change the team’s formation to accommodate him, or could he place him in a left midfield role as a co-attacking midfielder, with Moloto on the other side?

Another possibility is using Winn as the left striker in a two-man forward tandem, but that takes another forward off the pitch. It isn’t a bad option if Hume, Shroot and Cox underperform in preseason, but it still may not be the most comfortable position for the born-and-bred winger.

What do you think about these position battles? Which competitions are you going to be watching this winter?

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