After a long road trip to start the year, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds are gettin’ comfy at home. They’ve made popcorn and a pillow fort and settled in for an extended viewing of each of the twenty-one movies in the Avengers lineup, along with all nine of the ‘X-Men’ films, plus the two Deadpool movies that nobody can really quite place in any comic-book universe without a small sense of guilt.
No, no, no, silly, they’re here to play soccer.
After a win over Hartford and a draw against Louisville City in their hometown filled with bridges and hills and rivers and pierogies, the Hounds take on Nashville SC tonight at 7pm at Highmark Stadium.
Tactical Preview and Personnel
The experienced and talented Gary Smith is head coach of Nashville. After a stint with the Colorado Rapids, where he won MLS Cup in 2010, Smith spent a few years with Stevenage in English League One and with the extinct Atlanta Silverbacks of the NASL. He has been at the helm of the Nashville SC since the end of 2017, helping build the squad and train them up for their first USL season in 2018. It was announced that he would join Nashville’s promotion to MLS at the end of 2019, so he has the rare opportunity to experience an absolutely pressure-free year as a USL manager. Does that make him a better manager because he can feel free to express himself without the need for results? Does that make him worse because winning isn’t that important this year for Smith? I leave that decision to you.
Smith’s reputation is as a defensively-minded coach. In 2018, he solidified that reputation as his team allowed just 31 goals, the second-fewest in USL, with only Bob Lilley’s Riverhounds allowing fewer.
Nashville SC played with a 3-man backline last week against Charleston Battery on the road, and were a bit more adventurous and attacking than the Nashville team I’d seen the previous year. With the score at 0-0 and behind 1-0, Smith’s Nashville side liked to put 3 or 4 attackers all the way up alongside the defensive line, then use 3 midfielders to run into the space those players had created to force the defenders to make difficult choices – go to the ballcarrier, or stay with their man. Practically in the attack, the offense looks like a 3-1-3-3; Liam Doyle, Bradley Bourgeois and Darnell King stayed deep, Michael Reed typically sat as a defensive midfielder or deep-passer, Justin Davis, Matt Lagrassa, and Kharlton Belmar worked in space from midfield to the 18-yard box, and attackers Tucker Hume, Daniel Rios, and Lebo Moloto stayed pinned to the opposing back line.
Each of the three attackers has a different style. Moloto often likes to come from the left or middle, often from a little deeper, popping up with the ball in between the lines kind of like Thierry Henry used to. Rios will stand right in front of the backline and get between the center back and the fullback in order to receive the ball with a little time and space, then drive into the box for a chance. Big Tucker Hume will lurk front or back post, hoping to find a mismatch with his defender so that he can dunk a crossed ball with his head. Against Charleston, all three were effectively neutralized on the night – Moloto’s passing was a bit off, Hume was well-defended, and Rios was closed down quickly whenever the ball came to him. The Battery, meanwhile, passed and dribbled well and came away with a tidy 3-1 victory.
Defensively, Nashville’s Achilles heel is their width. Often using their wide players to bring up the ball, Nashville were caught with just three at the back to defend a few times, and it often left their opponents with a man free at the back post – that’s how Charleston scored their first goal. Earning a midfield turnover and hitting a good cross or diagonal might very easily undo Nashville – that is, if you can take the ball off them in a dangerous spot.
To some degree, it’s all fun and games this year for Nashville – winning would be nice, but their real goal is building for next year. I’m sure they’d like to go up to MLS with a USL Cup to show for their two years in the league, and maybe take a few of their current USL players with them – veteran goalkeeper Matt Pickens is a likely candidate to go up, and striker Daniel Rios was already made their first official MLS player back in November. The rest of their players are auditioning for the role of ‘guy who deserves to be in MLS’, and that might very well turn out to be a very dangerous thing for their opponents.
Date: Saturday, April 27
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA
Live Statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live Updates: Twitter at @RiverhoundsSC and #PITvNSH
Highlights of Charleston vs Nashville
Featured Picture of Daniel Rios from Nashville SC via twitter