Golden Goal Match Preview: Nashville seeks a win at struggling Penn

City Island lies in the heart of the Susquehanna River, sitting stealthily like an oversized grassy barge anchored in view of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s modest skyline.

Tuesday night, it’s where Nashville SC will look to stay afloat in the early race for a playoff spot.

The Boys in Gold (2-2-1, 7 points) visit Penn FC Tuesday for a 5:30 p.m. Central kickoff at FNB Field. The artists formerly known as the City Islanders (0-1-3, 3 points) sit in 14th place among the Eastern Conference’s 16 teams, while Nashville occupies the eighth and final playoff position five matches into its season.

Before we break down the matchup, here’s what you need to know about Penn FC:

  • MLS Affiliation: None
  • Stadium: FNB Field (6,187)
    • Also home to the Harrisburg Senators, the AA baseball affiliate of the Washington Nationals
    • The stadium resides on City Island, a 62-acre tract of land on a mile-long island adjacent to Harrisburg. Also on the island: volleyball/soccer/baseball/football fields, water golf, nature trails and a train that circles the island
  • Coach: Raoul Voss (1st season)
    • Previous coach Bill Becher won 152 games as the only previous coach in franchise history. The team moved him to the Technical Director role before the 2018 campaign
    • Voss comes to Harrisburg from Tampa Bay, where he served as an assistant for three years
    • This is Voss’s first head coaching gig. The 34-year-old never played professional soccer after a knee injury ended his career at the college level
  • First Season: 2004 (founding member of the USL in 2011)
  • 2017 Finish: 10-15-7 (11th Eastern Conference, missed playoffs)
  • Best-ever Finish: 2011 and 2014 (reached USL Finals)
  • Supporters Group: Capital City Crew
  • Three Fun Facts:Penn FC is the new name for the Harrisburg City Islanders, who rebranded after the 2017 season
    1. The rebrand comes as part of a major partnership with Rush Soccer, an international soccer organization that trains more than 40,000 players
    2. Penn FC was among the league’s most physical teams last year — they conceded the second-most fouls and received more yellow cards than all but three teams

Match Details

Who

Penn FC v. Nashville SC

When

Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. CT

Where

FNB Field, Nashville

How to Watch

TV: None

Live stream: ESPN Plus

Full match info: USL Match Center

Why it Matters for Nashville

After a two-match win streak, the Boys in Gold stumbled in Indianapolis just over a week ago. Tuesday’s contest presents a chance for Nashville to rebound against a team still looking for its first win after its first four matches resulted in just three points on two goals. Gary Smith’s side has played the Eastern Conference’s No. 1, 4, 5, 7 and 10 teams. On paper, this will be its easiest test yet.

One Burning Question for Nashville

Can Ropapa stay hot against his former team? If you expected Ropapa to play this well this soon, you should apply for membership into Mensa(h) International. The Ghanaian has three goals for Nashville in all competitions, including two in his last two matches. And Tuesday’s showdown carries extra meaning for Mensah, because Penn FC is his former team.

The striker scored seven goals in 19 appearances for Harrisburg City in 2017. A review of his season stats is a study in player progression. Mensah sat for 12 of the team’s first 15 matches and wasn’t even among the reserves for eight of those games. Then he notched points in three of the next four contests. In the team’s final 15 matches, Ropapa only sat for 28 minutes.

Ropapa had something to prove last year. He proved it. Now, can he double his success and keep his scoring streak alive?

Why it Matters for Penn FC

A late bicycle-kick goal against Charleston Saturday lifted Penn’s spirits and allowed them to steal a point against a Battery squad still trying to find its charge. But Penn has yet to pen a victory in 2018, following last year’s 11th-place season with a four-game winless drought under its new coach. A Nashville team with two road losses in three matches could be a vulnerable target — although those losses came against teams much higher in the early-season standings.

One Burning Question for Penn FC

How will the team’s energy level be? Nashville takes the field after a nine-day hiatus. Penn played Saturday. Voss will either need to heavily rotate his squad or hope they’re conditioned well enough to keep up with Nashville’s pacey play. 15 different field players have earned at least one start for Penn, so there has already been a degree of rotation. And it’s possible that Voss rested highly regarded players against the weaker Battery to save them for Nashville. It’s something to keep an eye on Tuesday night.

Three Fun Things to Watch

  1. Mensah-ational stretch. Mensah should be motivated to continue his run of form against his old team. Watch him closely Tuesday; after all, he knows the pitch well and has shown remarkable poise in his last two contests.
  2. Starting debut for Edgar? Premier League veteran David Edgar only joined the team a few weeks ago, but he came on for Liam Doyle at halftime last week and provided stability along the back line (more about that here). Speedway Soccer Pod rated him much higher than his starting counterpart, and we wonder if he’ll get his first start for the team in Harrisburg.
  3. Like riding a bike. Penn captain Ken Tribbett redeemed the club Saturday with a dexterous 89th-minute bicycle kick to secure a draw. Tribbett is one of only two field players to go the full 90 in every Penn FC match this season, and he’ll look to display his remarkable skill against a Nashville squad that has allowed four goals in three road matches while shutting out both visitors to Music City.

Here’s how we predict Nashville will line up:

NSHPENNNN.JPG

Goalie: With apologies to the talented C.J. Cochran and the promising Micah Bledsoe, it’ll be slim Pickens for playing time for the reserves this season. Matty P is fourth in the Eastern Conference in saves and tied for the conference lead in clean sheets, and he’ll be the starter for the foreseeable future.

Defense: We project one change here: Edgar will overtake Doyle for the starting role at center back alongside Bourgeois. The two players bring similar qualities to the pitch, but Edgar brings a little more savvy and stability — especially after Doyle’s miscues led directly to one Indy goal and indirectly to the other in the last match. We think Smith could rotate Kimura in for Ryan James on the right side of the defense, but we’ll hold James in that spot for now given his superior defensive performance: He has more interceptions than Kosuke and has won more duels won than anyone on the team.

Midfield: Nashville’s evolution from a 5-3-2 formation to a 4-4-2 hinged on Taylor Washington’s transition into a capable attacking player. He sprung Lebo Moloto loose on Nashville’s goal against Indy and ranks second on the team in key passes. He has sent in more crosses (11) than any other player, and he’s overcome pretty mediocre passing accuracy by using his speed to create space. Look for Washington and Winn to create pressure on a Penn defense that has yet to surrender multiple goals in a match.

Forward: Moloto will serve his hybrid No. 10 role again, just as he did so capably against Indy when he notched his first point of the campaign. We see no reason to replace Mensah, for the many reasons listed above.

Projected Reserves (our predicted subs in bold): Cochran, Doyle, Kimura, Lagrassa, Cox, Hume, Shroot

Final Score Prediction

Penn FC has made a living out of playing stingy defense and trying to capitalize on a small handful of chances — nobody in the Eastern Conference has scored fewer goals, taken fewer shots or attempted fewer passes. We don’t expect that to change against Nashville, who we expect will assume an attacking posture and apply pressure all night long. Penn will be tough to break down, but Nashville will wear them down and emerge with three points.

Nashville SC 2, Penn FC 0

Goals: Ropapa Mensah (53′) Lebo Moloto (65′)

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