We reached out to Evan Villella, Bethlehem Steel FC beat writer for Brotherly Game and host of The USL Show podcast, to learn more about Nashville’s next opponent. Villella is also a special guest on Friday’s Speedway Soccer Pod. Nashville SC takes on Bethlehem Steel FC at Goodman Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m. CT.
We asked Villella about Bethlehem’s first two games, which players to watch out for, if Nashville will get on the score sheet and his final score prediction.
GG: Which players were the biggest losses and who was the most intriguing signing for Bethlehem in the offseason?
Villella: So our losses were our offensive production in Seku Conneh and Cory Burke. Saying we “lost” Cory is cheating in a way because, well, he signed to the Philadelphia Union and actually played for us against Tampa last weekend so he might be around. We also lost stalwart defender Hugh Roberts to the Riverhounds, which was unfortunate. That being said we brought in USL goal scoring powerhouse Brandon Allen and Toronto FC draft pick and TFC II regular from last year Brandon Aubrey who looks so sharp anchoring the back line. I think Allen is the most intriguing we have just because on his day he’s one of the best forwards in the US.
GG: Bethlehem dominated Richmond but were knocked around by Tampa Bay, after two games what’s your overall impression of this team?
Villella: I think we’ll be somewhere in between those two games. No one has been able to do much of anything against Tampa at Al Lang (so good luck when you get there) and honestly everyone’s running over Richmond right now. We’re comfortable playing a few different styles of soccer but obviously that first goal is so important. Honestly if Steel can get out on the front foot early or counter teams that press high like we do, it’ll be a good year.
GG: Bethlehem made the playoffs last year, what’s your expectations for this team in 2018?
Villella: Playoffs again would be great, preferably not in the same manner as last year (4-0 drubbing by Louisville) but we aren’t super results focused. We’ve developed a bunch of young kids over the last three years and that’s really the beauty of Steel FC. Of course, that being said winning is a great development tool so if we get in that top eight, I’m a happy man.
GG: Bethlehem has a solid central midfield in James Chambers and Derrick Jones. How important is for these two players to have a strong performance against Nashville and how do you see them matching up against Michael Reed, Matt LaGrassa and Lebo Moloto?
Villella: Our midfield is a bit more fluid then that, Chambers and Jonesy are the two names that stand out of course but we also get great contriubtions from University of Wisconsin Alum Mike Catalano, we have NYCFC Draft Pick AJ Paterson, Stanford alum Drew Skundrich and Academy boys Brenden Aaronson and Michael Pellegrino as well. Long story short, we’re deep at mid. To contain Reed, La Grassa and Moloto especially, the best defense is to not let them settle in I think. I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever is next to James Chambers or even center back Brandon Aubrey is close to Moloto for most of the game, keeping Nashville away from playing route one soccer.
GG: The Rowdies plan of attack was along the left side of the pitch creating a 3-on-2 advantage. Knowing that Nashville head coach Gary Smith wants his wingbacks to push up the pitch and play out wide, is this a concern for Bethlehem and do you think Brendan Burke will prepare his players for this style of play?
Villella: I actually think both clubs play this way which should be interesting. Steel like to move the ball starting with their center backs, who have to be comfortable in possession and with long passes, then it’s over lapping runs and trying to find service into the middle. Another interesting wrinkle is that we’re very familiar with how Taylor Washington plays. We had him for our first year and then he wasn’t too far from us in Pittsburgh last year. I think this match will come down to which team can change up looks a bit and maybe just who executes better.
GG: What matchups are you looking forward to between Nashville and Bethlehem? Where do you think each team has an advantage over the other?
Villella: Actually, it’ll be nice to see Taylor come back and square off against Chris Nanco or Santi Moar out wide. I’m also really interested in seeing what Lebo and Ropapa Mensah can do with a good bevy of talent around them. Bolu Akinyode is another guy that we had in 2016 and while I know he didn’t get many minutes last week, I think he’s a great bench option or even a USL starter at this point.
GG: Which players on Bethlehem should Nashville fans be watching for during the game?
Villella: I’d say guys that you’ll 100 percent see are James Chambers, Brandon Allen and Brandon Aubrey. That’s our captain and our two big USL signings this year and guys I think have razor sharp skill sets to succeed at this level (which, they all have already so that’s not a hot take or anything) as well as guys that can really hurt you in a variety of ways. Chambers is basically a second coach out on the field and can still hit a pass like no one’s business, as well as not being afraid to get physical when time comes. Aubrey is a magnet to anything in the air, and is incredibly comfortable on the ball to boot. Allen is everything you’ve heard about him. Clinical goal scorer, great knock down and hold up play and well, watch the Richmond highlights, he finishes at some impossible angles.
GG: Nashville is yet to score a goal, do you believe this will change against Bethlehem?
Villella: Bob Lilley’s teams are just incredibly draining to watch, let alone play against. I’m not pining for the days of Lilley-ball for every team or anything but it gets points. That being said, we aren’t set up to play like that. Both teams should get chances, and I’ll say you might break duck here.
GG: What is your final score prediction?
Villella: We did our picks for the Show/USL Pick Em this week and I had us going over 3-1. I’ll stick to that.