Golden Goal Match Preview: Nashville returns home for season-defining June

Fresh off a road win over previously unbeaten Pittsburgh, Nashville SC returns home for a tilt with Penn FC. The Boys in Gold haven’t lost since April 14, a seven-match stretch in all competitions, and all signs point to a triumphant return to Music City.

But the last time we thought Nashville had Penn FC’s number, the match ended in a stale scoreless draw. How can Gary Smith’s squad avoid that fate this time? Let’s explore in our match preview.

Match Details

Who

Nashville SC [4-2-4, 16 points, 8th place Eastern Conference] v. Penn FC [2-3-5, 11 points, 13th place]

When

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. CT

Where

First Tennessee Park

How to Watch or Listen

Local TV: WUXP [Channel 1030 on Comcast and DirecTV, John Freeman has the call]

Local Radio: 94.9 Game Two [Golden Goal’s Wes Boling serves as the play-by-play announcer]

Live stream: ESPN Plus

Stats: USL MatchCenter

About Penn FC

  • MLS Affiliation: None
  • Coach: Raoul Voss [1st season]
    • This is Voss’s first head coaching gig. He previously served as an assistant in Tampa Bay for two seasons
    • A native of Germany, Voss has spent time on the technical staffs for lower-division German sides TSG Hoffenheim and Concordia Hamburg
    • A series of knee injuries ended Voss’s playing career at Florida International University
  • First Season: 2004
  • 2017 Finish: 8-12-12 (13th Eastern Conference, missed playoffs)
  • Best-ever Finish: 2011 and 2014 (reached USL Finals)
  • Supporters Group: Capital City Crew
  • Three Fun Facts:
    1. Penn FC is the new name for the Harrisburg City Islanders, who rebranded after the 2017 season
    2. The rebrand comes as part of a major partnership with Rush Soccer, an international soccer organization that trains more than 40,000 players
    3. 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

Why it Matters for Nashville SC

Because June is Nashville’s chance to climb toward the top of the table. The Boys in Gold sit in 8th place with one fewer game played than most teams in the league. Five of the team’s next six league matches are at home — a nice reversal after starting the season with seven road games in the club’s first 10.

Penn FC is a beatable team. Raoul Voss’s side has been outshot in seven of 10 matches and has one of the league’s most anemic attacks — Penn is next-to-last in goals scored and conversion rate, 28th of 33 in passing accuracy and 31st in shots taken. While it compensates with an organized defense, the squad has allowed double-digit shots in four of its last five matches.

“I’m not sure we did an awful lot wrong in Penn,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith regarding the last time these two teams met.

“For what it was worth, we created by far the better chances. We keep the ball for longer periods than they’ve ever done. We make more passes generally in a game. If you look at the way we’ve played at certain venues, we’ve been able to adapt. We adapted on Wednesday. At home, we have a creative possession and attacking style.”

In short: This is a match Nashville needs to win in order to keep its momentum alive. And it’s a match Nashville absolutely should win.

One Burning Question for Nashville SC

How does the squad rotation look? Nashville is in the midst of a stretch of six matches in 17 days. The Tri-Stars took to the turf last Saturday and Wednesday, and they play another Wednesday-Saturday combo next week. That includes a U.S. Open Cup showdown with the MLS’s Colorado Rapids four days after the Penn match.

Gary Smith hasn’t minced words: This stretch will test his team’s depth. That’s surely part of the reason the squad signed striker Brandon Allen and wing player Ish Jome last week. And we’ll be intrigued to see how he chooses to exercise that depth while maintaining a quality side.

“Unfortunately, (players are) not cars, and a light won’t come up on the dash when they’ve got a problem,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith.

“There are certain individuals who suit certain games, and that I’d always like to keep in the side. There are areas of the team for Saturday that might need some freshening up. I think we’re in a good place. Everyone will be fit and available. One or two might be slightly banged up, that are certainly in my mind and the decision-making as we head towards the weekend.”

Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Smith sat Lebo Moloto for the first time. It didn’t work. A Ropapa Mensah illness forced the attacking midfielder to enter the match just 34 minutes in. Smith also sat fullbacks Kosuke Kimura and Justin Davis, leveraging perhaps the deepest part of Nashville’s roster — its back line.

Smith faces a dilemma Saturday: Does he trot out a tired Moloto, potentially burning him for the Open Cup in four days’ time? Or does he employ someone like Alan Winn (who recently experienced an injury of his own) to play a more vital attacking midfield role than he’s accustomed to playing? The good news for Nashville: Mensah will be available, per Smith. We’re really interested to see how he handles the XI.

Why it Matters for Penn FC

Because the team hasn’t been playing badly of late, and this could be a signature road win.

We mentioned how beatable Penn is, and that’s true. But the Keystone State squad is unbeaten in three of its last four, including a resounding 3-0 win over Tampa Bay in which it held the Rowdies without a shot on target. Penn’s only win away from home came over listless Toronto two matches ago — it outshot the reserve squad 19-2 and possessed the ball more than it had all year.  It will take a lot more to win in Music City, but if Penn can pull off even a point, it heads home for winnable matches against Richmond and Toronto and a chance to jump-start its season.

One Burning Question for Penn FC

Can Penn fix its passing woes? The Capital City bunch is coming off a miserable passing display against Pittsburgh in which it completed just 59 percent of its passes. As a frame of reference, Penn is a middling 28th in the league in passing accuracy this year at a much-better 72 percent clip.

Distribution hasn’t always been difficult for Penn. In the Toronto win it connected on 82 percent of its passes, its best mark of the season. But the Harrisburgers have only exceeded the league median of 76 percent once against a team in playoff position — a 77 percent display at home to Charlotte. Its

Three Fun Things to Watch

  1. The poacher. Allergy season doesn’t seem to be affecting Brandon Allen’s nose for goal. The newly signed striker has notched two goals in three games since joining the team a week and a half ago, and he came on as a reserve in the match where he didn’t score. While squad rotation seems inevitable, we don’t think it’ll send Allen to the bench Saturday. He’ll have a shot at staying hot and continuing to fuel the Nashville offense.
  2. From controversy to consistency. Penn FC striker Tommy Heinemann was released last offseason by FC Cincinnati in a move that was later ruled to be a breach of contract. All he’s done at his new stop is lead the team in goals (3), shots (17) and shots on target (10). One of the winter’s most talked-about players seems comfortable in his new home.
  3. Season ticket record? Nashville SC tweeted Thursday that it’s 10 season ticket purchases from setting the record for a first-year USL club. There may be a milestone to celebrate at Saturday’s match.

Starting XI

Earlier we speculated how Gary Smith’s squad rotation might play out. Let’s take a stab at it.

Screen Shot 2018-06-01 at 12.22.06 PM

Goalie: Pickens. Default. Next.

Defense: Two of the Doyle-Woodberry-Bourgeois triumvirate will play every match for this team, and all three started against Pittsburgh. We chose to rest Bourgeois in advance of Cup play and employ Doyle and Woodberry in the middle. Davis and Kimura are odds-on favorites to start at fullback after resting against Pitt.

Midfield: If Alan Winn were healthy, this would be a great chance to rotate him in for Washington on the left flank. But as it stands, we need to see Winn return before we slide him into a projected starting role. Reed and Akinyode should man the middle as usual. And we like sliding Robin Shroot into right midfield; he takes up a coveted international player slot in Cup play and could eat some minutes for Matt LaGrassa in league action.

Forward: Smith intended to rest Moloto last match, but Mensah’s injury forced him to play two-thirds of the match. Now that we know Mensah is available, we’ll choose him for a break this weekend. You can’t sit Allen after his early productivity for this team.

Projected Reserves (our predicted subs in bold): C.J. Cochran, Bradley Bourgeois, Ismaila Jome, Matt LaGrassa, Alan Winn (if healthy), Lebo Moloto, Tucker Hume

Final Score Prediction

Since I [Wes] am on the broadcast, I’ll hold off from making a score prediction. But Nashville will win if:

  • It is patient in possession and builds from the back rather than trying to beat Penn with longballs
  • It avoids getting flustered by a Penn team that ranks in the top third of the league in yellow cards
  • It bottles up Heinemann and doesn’t allow him to pull off any magic moments
  • It disrupts Penn’s continuity in midfield, taking advantage of the side’s poor passing accuracy to create giveaways that can lead to breaks on the other end

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