The Opponent: Nashville SC (5-3-3)
Starters: Tyler Miller, Victor Pálsson, Derrick Williams, Donovan Pines, Ruan, Samake, Chris Durkin, Russell Canouse, Lewis O’Brien, Mateusz Klich, Taxi Fuentas
Subs: Alex Bono, Matai Akinmboni, Brendan Hines-Ike, Yamil Asad, Jacob Greene, Ted Ku-DiPietro, Kristian Fletcher, Cristian Dájome, Eric Hurtado
Captain: Russell Canouse
Martin Rodriguez (knee)
Steve Birnbaum (hip)
Nigel Robertha (ankle)
Andy Najar (calf)
Pedro Santos (thigh)
Starters: Joe Willis, Daniel Lovitz, Lukas MacNaughton, Jack Maher, Shaq Moore, Dax McCarty, Hany Mukhtar, Alex Muyl, Anibal Godoy, Teal Bunbury, Jacob Shaffelburg
Subs: Walker Zimmerman, Josh Bauer, Jan Gregus, Taylor Washington, Brian Anunga, Sean Davis, Randall Leal, Fafa Picault, Luke Haakenson
Captain: Dax McCarty
Nick DePuy (lower body injury)
DC United - Wayne Rooney
DC United Head Coach Wayne Rooney has definitely improved the play of the Black & Red on the field, but has not been able to fully train out the occasional lack of focus, and the team has conceded goals due to individual mistakes. This was again the case against FC Cincinnati where momentary lapses in concentration led to both goals conceded. Rooney continues to promote the idea of playing with courage and on the front foot, and that has begun to pay dividends in the scoring department. This has allowed Rooney’s team to seek a fifth win in MLS.
Nashville SC - Gary Smith
The inaugural Head Coach for the Music, having been their Head Coach in the USL Championship and in Major League Soccer.
An Englishman who carved out a fine, if unremarkable career in the lower leagues of English Football, Smith shifted to coaching after weathering a number of injuries that cut his playing days short. He started with coaching stints at various lower league youth teams and reserve squads. He has also worked as a scout for teams like Arsenal.
In 2008 Smith moved to MLS when he took over the Head Coach role for the Colorado Rapids, first as an interim and then as the permanent. His tenure with Colorado started slowly, but he was able to build the team into a winning side, as they won the MLS Cup championship in 2010.
Despite winning MLS Cup in 2010, and getting them into the playoffs in 2011, Colorado chose not to renew his contract. There were disagreements over player acquisitions and roster building. Smith returned to England and coached Stevenage in the English League One. He had a modicum of success, but the inability to retain players made success fleeting. When he parted ways with Stevenage, Smith returned to the United States to coach in the NASL for the Atlanta Silverback.
On 12 April 2017, Smith was announced as the team's first head coach for the inaugural season of Nashville SC, a new professional club in the United Soccer League. He built a very successful team in USL, based on strong defensive structure and quick counter attacks. On 6 March 2019, the Music announced that Smith would be their head coach for 2020, when Nashville SC would join MLS.
Upon rejoining MLS, Gary Smith continued the strategies that brought him success both in Colorado and in the USL, strong team defense and successful counter attacks that don’t leave many vulnerabilities. With this formula Nashville SC reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals in each of the Music's first two seasons in MLS. Gary Smith’s side have now won their last four matches across all competitions, including successive victories over Atlanta United and Chicago Fire in the MLS. His defense is as strong as ever, and Hany Mukhtar has begun to heat up. As things stand, Nashville looks to again be a top four team in the Eastern Conference playoff standings.
Keys to the Match:
Note - Christian Benteke is a late scratch with a knock.
Can DC United beat Nashville SC? Nashville has been the dominant side in the history of this fixture, having picked up three wins from their five meetings since the Music joined the league, and United yet to taste victory only managing two draws. It’s uncertain if this will be the night when this changes. United is 2-2-1 in home games so far this season, while Nashville is 1-2-1 in road games. This would suggest if DC is to break this trend, it should be done tonight at home.
Can DC United better use their Open Cup sacrifice? Last season, interim Head Coach Chad Ashton publicly announced he was sacrificing the US Open Cup competition to focus on the league, he promptly lost the next few matches, and the Black & Red spiraled down to the Wooden Spoon.
Though it wasn’t the stated strategy for Wayne Rooney, he too chose to sacrifice the US Open Cup by not playing any of his team’s star offensive players in New Jersey. Part of this was due to injuries, but part was also that he chose not to risk players like Klich, Benteke and Taxi on the artificial turf of the college soccer field. This will be the first test to see if saving those players from the wear and tear of an Open Cup match was worth it.
Can DC contain Hany Mukhtar? If it wasn’t for Hany Mukhtar putting in an all-time performance during the 2022 regular season – he was a worthy MVP, Nashville would have probably been on the outside looking in on the playoffs.
Mukhtar’s play was clearly a top-10 individual season in league history, and this season sees him playing at a similar level. Nashville wouldn’t be the team it is without Mukhtar. Gary Smith has drilled defense into every player for the Music, but that wouldn’t count for much if there wasn’t a player capable of putting the ball into the back of the net with the consistency that Mukhtar does.
If DC is to have a chance it’s going to have to mark Mukhtar, and make his opportunities few and far between. Expect Russell Canouse to stick close to Mukhtar and several DC players to be physical with the Music’s star player.
Can DC DC’s midfield outplay Nashville’s? Outside of Hany Mukhtar, the Music’s midfield of Dax McCarty, Alex Muyl, and Anibal Godoy is good, but not great. She has caught up to their legs and they just don’t cover the ground they used to. That said, Head Coach Gary Smith has the team setup to mitigate this risk, and to take advantage of the players’ strengths. Dax McCarty’s ability to play third-line passes to feet in the pockets is unparalleled in MLS, while Anibal Godoy has the ability to hit inch-perfect left-footed diagonal passes that reverse the field for successful counter attacks.
Russell Canouse, Lewis O’Brien, and Mateusz Klich will have to challenge the Nashville line, using quick passes and intelligent dribble drives to pull the Nashville players out of position. The more they can make McCarty, Muyl, and Godoy move and run the better. Though it’s not their preferred style of play of late, expect DC to have more of the ball, and try to control the game with quick movement.
Things to Watch:
Offense - The DC United offense will have its work cut out for them as the Music team from Nashville have been very impressive in defense this season, conceding just six goals this year, the fewest of any MLS team. Nashville have kept clean sheets in three of their last four matches in all competitions, most recently defeating Dallas 2-0 in the US Open Cup.
Expect a lot more long passes out of the back towards Christian Benteke, and short passes or head-one to cutting players like Taxi, Klich, and O’Brien, with very direct movement towards Nashville’s goal. This will be to create fast chances before the defenders can settle. If DC allows the Music to settle into their defensive block, it will be difficult to break them down.
There is some question as to whether Walker Zimmerman plays, and that would be helpful for DC United, it’s not the game changer one might expect from missing a two time MLS Defender of the Year. First Lukas MacNaughton is not that much of a step down, and second Gary Smith has the team from Nashville playing team defense that is greater than the sum of its parts. This means DC United will only get a handful of opportunities, so it’s important to make the most of them.
Defense - DC United have one man on their mind going into this match and his name is Hany Mukhtar. The Music’s entire offense revolves around Mukhtar. Last season he scored a brace when Nashville visited Audi Field, and this season he’s participated in ten of the team’s fourteen goals - scoring six and assisting on another four. If DC’s defense can keep his opportunities down, then they have a chance.
A big part of this is avoiding turnovers in their own half, and pushing the ball into the Music’s final third. Nashville is a counter attacking team, and so when they do get the ball, DC will want to make them have to bring the ball all the way up the pitch.
Another part of this will be the play of Russell Canouse. His hustle and tackling ability will be a big part of harassing Mukhtar wherever he is in the pitch.
Expect DC to press McCarty, Muyl, and Godoy to keep them from making line splitting passes. O'Brien and Klich halve proven to be quite proficient in the press, and Taxi has added that ability to his repertoire At the same time Miller, Willams and Pálsson will use long passes to bypass the Music’s midfield.
By the Numbers:
DC United are currently 8th in the Eastern Conference standings, having picked up 14 points from their opening 11 matches
DC United were dumped out of the US Open Cup this week as they were beaten 1-0 by New York Red Bulls.
DC United is 7th in MLS in goals scored with 15 (1.4 per game)
DC United is 19th in goals allowed at 15 total and (1.4 per match)
DC United is No. 14 in MLS in goal differential at 0
Christian Benteke has 5 goals (on 23 shots, 2.1 per game) for DC United
Taxiarchis Fountas has scored 3 goals
Mateusz Klich has 1 goal and 3 assists
Lewis O’Brien has 1 goal and 2 assists
With 18 points from 11 matches, Nashville are currently third in the Eastern Conference table, level on points with fourth-placed Atlanta United.
Nashville SC’s 6 goals conceded (0.5 per game) rank 1st in the league
Nashville: 4-3-3, averaging 1.2 goals, 4.4 shots on goal and 5.5 corner kicks per game while allowing 0.6 goals per game
Nashville SC ranks 12th in MLS in goals so far this season with 14 goals, (1.3 per game)
Nashville SC is 5th in MLS in goal differential at +8
Mukhtar has scored 6 goals with 4 assists for Nashville.
Jacob Shaffelburg has 3 goals
Fafa Picault has 2 goals
Teal Bunbury has 1 goal and 1 assist
1-1 draw versus the Music. The Black & Red have started to play with confidence and fun, and can play with anyone, but scoring consistently is still not there. The team has picked up a few nicks again, and will again be without a couple of starters, but playing at home should be helpful. Expect DC to get a single goal, but not be able to keep a clean sheet.
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Written by: RJ Rolsen