Philadelphia Union we’re tied on points with Nashville SC on Wednesday night. A second-half goal from Daniel Gazdag gave Philly a 2-1 lead in Minnesota. The live table showed both Philadelphia and Nashville tied on 49 points. The live table updated twice in the next 13 minutes of gameplay as the Union made costly mistakes to gift Minnesota a lead. Now, the Union sits three points behind Nashville SC for second place in the eastern conference and welcomes them to Chester for the first time ever this weekend.
The Union control their own destiny for 2nd place
This is the biggest regular-season match that the Union will play this year; the Union still controls their own destiny and could overtake Nashville with a win in the head-to-head match. A win will put them tied with Nashville on 49 points from 31 games; however, Philly would have two more wins (13 to Nashville’s 11) on the season. This would allow them to flip-flop Nashville in a playoff-seeding six-pointer match.
Since Philly controls this destiny, they’ll need to do everything in their power to win this match. How can they do this on the heels of a crushing loss that broke a 6 game unbeaten streak while beating a Nashville team that has only lost three times this year? There are many factors, but one of the most important is to limit those self-inflicted mistakes.
Limiting the pesky mental mistakes
This season the Union has not been as solid defensively as they have been in years past. While they still rank near the top in MLS in many defensive categories, this side has been prone to make costly mental mistakes. Giveaways, errant passes, overthinking, and slips have cost this team important points this season. Limiting these mistakes takes mental and physical training. It’s something that is of the utmost importance coming into a game like this one against Nashville.
For the mental training side of things, Philadelphia will need to do three things. Be a goldfish, See what’s there, and think less. If the Union can “be a goldfish” then they will be able to forget past mistakes. This forces the team to make changes to prevent the mistakes so that the game they’re in will be one where they can be better. It also helps set the team up for success in the future. So too does seeing what’s there.
Seeing what’s there can sometimes be an issue for the Union. When they play fast in possession, Philly can at teams be their own enemy by playing the ball the way they practiced it in training. The problem with that is that it causes Philly to force certain passes or plays. If they can stop and see what’s there in the moment, then the Union will be able to play the fast counter-attacking style of soccer they love to play. All of this mental preparation comes down to something that seems counterintuitive; thinking less.
The Union needs to think less to avoid mental mistakes. I know, I know, that sounds like the opposite of what they should do. How can thinking less help with making mistakes? In games, you can see some Union players lose focus and cause a mistake because they’re overthinking the way they want to play. In the loss to Minnesota, all three goals were caused by giveaways where the players seemed hell-bent on creating some spectacular pressing-counter-attack. It sounds like a cliche, but Philly needs to let the game dictate their pressing and passes; they need to let the ball do the work rather than working the ball. No more square peg dribbles that show a round hole to beat the defense.
All of this is good to look at and remember in theory, but it also needs to be put into action. What better way than to do that in training. Curtin has to have his side look at the mistakes and then go through the mental training while on the practice pitch. Run drills of how you want to play against Nashville, but blow that whistle loud when the players need to be a goldfish, see what’s there or think less. If Curtin did this in preparation for Nashville, then we should see an improved Union team play for second place Saturday night. This will also allow for a better look at who should start.
Finding the best XI that will see to the mental changes needed to make a physical change on the pitch is something that this week should have allowed for too. While Curtin doesn’t like to rotate his team too much, this match is for the second-best seed in the east. If there’s a player who just isn’t grasping the changes that need to be made to be the best version of themselves and to get the most of the team, then a change may be needed.
Once Curtin knows his XI that will take on Nashville they can focus again and again on their game plan. This will allow repetitions for the players who will know how to break Nashville down, without making the costly mental mistakes that the team had midweek.
While it will take both mental and physical preparation to beat Nashville, it’s also important to know the enemy’s ins and outs to get the best of them.
Nashville’s record-setting team
This 2021 Nashville SC side is one that is on the verge of making MLS history. They are on pace to earn the most ever draws in a season, 18, and tie the least amount of losses in a season with four. Currently, they sport a record with 11 wins, 16 draws, and three losses. Their mixture of MLS veterans and international signings, coupled with a defense-first mentality, and an MVP candidate playmaker has this team on the verge of their best season yet.
Nashville’s build into MLS was an interesting one as they came from USL up to MLS. The shift in the division didn’t faze them, as they made and won a playoff game in their first year. In year two they looked to build a roster that could compete for a playoff run, and they’ve done just that. MLS Veterans like CJ Sapong, Anibal Godoy, Dax McCarty, Alex Muyl, Alistair Johnson, Walker Zimmerman, and Joe Willis make up a good core for this team. Sprinkle in international signings like Randall Leal, Ake Loba, Daniel Rios, Jhonder Cadiz, and MVP candidate Hanny Mukhtar and this team is one of the most sounds in MLS. They’ve fought and earned everything so far in 2021 thanks to their coach Gary Smith’s defense-first philosophy.
Smith has instilled this defend-first mentality, but the attacking quality in the side is no joke. They have the third-most goals scored in the east with 47 and the second-best goal difference in the conference of plus 20. This is because they like to play with three at the back. They usually run a 3-4-3 or a 3-4-2-1 formation. It gives stability in the back while also allowing for creation upfront. Even though their attack is great, Smith will oftentimes set up his team for a clean sheet or a draw rather than a loss. That is something Philly will need to exploit if they want to overtake them for second place.
Now that the mental and physical preparation has been prepared, and an understanding of the opponent has been studied, it’s time to ask the question, how can the Union beat Nashville SC in this huge match?
How to beat Nashville
Nashville has only lost three times this season, but in all three of those games, there has been one constant. All of Nashville’s three losses have been on the road. In two of those matches, Inter Miami and Toronto FC were able to score first and also twice. Both of those teams needed to overcome a CJ Sapong equalizing goal for Nashville, and both did. The other team that beat Nashville this year was New York Red Bulls who blanked them 2-0 after pressing them for 90 minutes to control the game. All three of these games show the Union the blueprint in how to beat Nashville.
First, Philly will need to score first in the match. Nashville has struggled on the road when their opponent scores first. Second, the Union will likely need to score two goals in the game. They’ve scored two or more in their last four matches, they’ll have to do it for a fifth straight game to beat Nashville SC. Third, they’ll need to defend like hell. While Nashville’s attack won’t be at full strength Saturday night, it is still very lethal; limiting their shots and chances will be crucial. Fourth and last, Philadelphia will need to press for the full 90 minutes. It’s how the Red Bulls were able to completely shut down this strong Nashville side, the Union will have to take a page out of a rival’s book to do the same in this one.
Two things that will have great sway this match are the absence of a Nashville SC attacker and the comeback for a Philadelphia Union striker. Nashville’s MVP candidate Hanny Muhktar is out for this game due to yellow card accumulation. Muhktar has been a consistent threat in the 28 matches he’s played this year, scoring 14 goals and notching eight assists. His absence will be felt; even if his replacement is Nashville’s most expensive player Ake Loba. For the Union, coach Curtin confirmed that striker Sergio Santos will be back in some capacity for this match. The striker’s pace, flair, and skill in transition will give the Union a more dynamic attack. We’ll see if Santos will start the match or not, but his influence will be felt on this game.
Speaking of the impact could Sergio Santos bring, it will also be important to see how will Curtin utilize the rest of his squad to get a win.
Philly’s lineup and #PHIvNSH Prediction
In their last match, the Union played in what many call the Christmas tree formation, a 4-3-2-1. This allowed Daniel Gazdag and Jamiro Monterio to both plays at the number 10 position to link up the attack. In this crucial match that could determine who gets second place in the east, I wouldn’t expect to see that formation again. I’d also expect the Union to play their best XI, where the players are actually in their correct positions. Here’s what I think we’ll see:
- 4-4-2 diamond – Blake; Wagner, Elliot, Glesnes, Mbaizo; Flach, Monteiro, Bedoya, Gazdag; Santos, Przybylko.
This lineup and personnel will allow the Union to have the best chance to beat Nashville. The back four will be able to redeem themselves after a rough go in Minnesota. Flach as the six in front of them gives the Union the stability and a more calm head to break up a Nashville attack and get the ball forward to Monteiro, Bedoya, Gazdag, or the strikers. I do see Sergio Santos starting this match. His ability to stretch a defense is what this team needs right now in their biggest game of the season. Obviously, he will need to be monitored and should only play 60 minutes maximum to insure no aggravation of his injury. So this is the XI I see playing but what will the result look like?
I see a 2-1 Philly win. Danial Gazdag continues his hot streak scoring another goal in the first half of this match. Who else but CJ Sapong equalizes early in the second half for Nashville, but the Union rally late on. Przybylko finds the ball in the box and nets the winner. Union goes up to second in the east with three games to play!
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Mandatory Credit: Nashville SC