Following a disappointing midweek performance in Ohio, Orlando City will play its final regular-season home game this Sunday at Exploria Stadium. It’s a massively important clash for the Lions, who control their playoff destiny and would be helped immensely by taking all three points.
Complicating matters will be OCSC’s opponents, as Nashville SC comes to town. Ahead of Orlando’s game against one of the best teams in the East, I spoke to Ben Wright, one of the senior writers over at Broadway Sports. My fellow Ben did a great job of bringing us up to speed on Nashville.
Nashville has been very good this year and has only lost four times. However, in the team’s last 6 games before Wednesday’s blowout of FC Cincinnati, Nashville had five draws and a loss, and only scored three goals. What had been going on with the offense?
Ben Wright: I think the attack slowed up for a couple reasons. Rotation and player availability were big issues. Randall Leal went on international duty with Costa Rica and came back with a knock, so he was eased back into the lineup and took a while to get going. Hany Mukhtar was rested in a couple games and was suspended due to yellow cards in Philadelphia, and then CJ Sapong was also rotated a bit and just hasn’t been able to get back to his mid-season form.
Before the 6-3 win in Cincinnati, Nashville have looked like they’ve gone into games with the minimum goal of a draw, and they hadn’t been nearly as aggressive or proactive as we’d seen earlier in the year. Winning like they did in Cincinnati will hopefully catalyze them to get back to their earlier attacking production, although Cincinnati is so bad that it’s hard to know how impressive scoring six goals on them actually is.
Maybe the biggest takeaway from that win was Ake Loba getting his first goal and assist, and putting in his best showing of the season so far. They didn’t spend $7 million for him to play handfuls of minutes off the bench, so if he’s able to break into the lineup and keep contributing down the stretch, they’ll be much more optimistic heading into the playoffs.
CJ Sapong has been quietly excellent this season with 12 goals and four assists. How important has that production been for the team?
BW: Sapong has been huge, and a core part of why Nashville has been so much better going forward. Twelve goals and four assists are great numbers for a free agent signing, but he’s been even better off the ball. He and Mukhtar have built a ton of chemistry together, and Sapong has brought the best out of Mukhtar and Leal up front. Nashville look so much better when he’s in the side, even when he isn’t scoring.
Given what you’ve seen from Nashville this year, what do you think the expectations should be for the team in the playoffs?
BW: Nashville’s defense gives them a pretty high floor. Even when they’re not scoring, they’re still in games. They’re really dangerous from set pieces, which will be huge in tight matches. And we’ve seen how lethal they can be when Mukhtar, Sapong, and Leal fire on all cylinders.
I think their floor is high enough to go on a run, and they are a team no one in the East wants to face. I wouldn’t be surprised if they go to the conference final, and then at that point anything could happen.
Are there any injuries, suspensions, or call-ups that will keep players unavailable for selection? What is your projected starting lineup and score prediction?
BW: Dax McCarty missed the last two matches with a hamstring injury. It sounded like he was close to being fit for Wednesday night, so we’ll see if he’s able to be involved on Sunday. Daniel Rios hurt his leg in a challenge against Philadelphia, and while it doesn’t sound like it’s a long-term issue, I’d be surprised if he’s back. And then Dan Lovitz (who just came back after three games injured) will be out serving a yellow card suspension.
Gary Smith went with a 4-4-1-1 against Cincinnati after using a 3-4-1-2 for 15 straight games, so that throws a wrench into projections. I expect he’ll go back to the back three:
Joe Willis; David Romney, Walker Zimmerman, Jack Maher; Taylor Washington, Anibal Godoy, Brian Anunga, Alistair Johnston; Randall Leal; Hany Mukhtar, CJ Sapong.
I think it’ll be a tight one in Orlando. I’m going to say a 1-1 draw.
Thank you to Ben for the excellent information on Nashville. Vamos Orlando!