5 game draw streak? Snapped. Union took all 3 points at home on the back of their front 3 against Atlanta United, with Daniel Gazdag, Mikael Uhre, and Julian Carranza all getting on the score sheet in the same game for the first time since last season. The win knocks Union up to 3rd place in the Eastern Conference on 54 points, 3 points behind #2 seed Orlando. Now Union is preparing for their final regular season home game of the year against Nashville SC. With a win on Saturday night and a Columbus loss, Union would clinch at least a top 4 spot in the East, promising them a home series in the first round of the playoffs.
2023 season so far
Nashville has had a streaky season. Between Late April and mid-June, Nashville went on a 10-game streak where they failed to lose, collecting 7 wins and 3 draws for a total of 24 points. Since that span however, Nashville has just 2 wins in their previous 13 games, with a total record of 2 wins, 4 draws, and 7 losses for a total of 10 points. Those back-to-back streaks of inconsistent form have Nashville on 45 points, good enough for 7th in the East.
When talking about taking the next step as an MLS club, the question in Nashville has always been this – Who is going to score goals other than Hany Mukhtar? And the answer this year was…no one, really. Unsurprisingly, Hany Mukhtar leads Nashville SC in both goals and assists, with 15 and 10 respectively. The next highest goal scorer on the team is Fafa Picault with 5.
Teal Bunbury, Randall Leal, and Jacob Shaffelburg all have 3 goals. Over the Winter transfer window, Nashville took another stab at fixing their #9 problem and spent a reported $6.5 Million dollars to acquire Nottingham Forest’s Sam Suridge. Unfortunately for Nashville, the move hasn’t worked out so far with Suridge having 0 goals and 0 assists in 6 MLS appearances with the club this season.
Because of that, you probably wouldn’t be shocked to see Nashville near the bottom of the league is stats like Goals Scored (35 – 6th lowest), Shots on Target (98 – 3rd lowest), Shot-Creating Actions (587 – 6th lowest), and passes into the final 3rd (271 – 1st lowest). What keeps Nashville in games and hanging around in the standings though, is their defense.
Nashville has one of the best defenses in MLS, conceding the least amount of goals in the league with 29. Nashville is the only team in the league that’s allowed less than 1 goal per game (0.94/game). Another reason Nashville succeeds at keeping teams off the board is their goalkeeper, Joe Willis. Willis has faced the 6th least amount of shots in MLS and has the highest save percentage of any keeper in the league. Willis has also stopped the most crosses in the league with 41. It’s going to take some of that good link-up play we saw from the front 3 on Wednesday to break this Nashville team down.
Like Atlanta, It’s pretty easy to pinpoint which player from Nashville is most likely to have an impact on the game. Personally, I don’t think there is a team in the league that would be affected by missing their star player as much as Nashville would. Hany Mukhtar is this Nashville team, at least from an offensive standpoint. With 15 goals and 10 assists for a total of 25 goal involvements this season, the next closest player on Nashville’s squad is Fafa Piacult with 5 goals and 1 assist.
Hany Mukhtar also leads Nashville in stats such as Expected Goals (12.6), Expected Assists (8.7), Progressive Carries (89), Progressive Passes Received (174), Shits (103), Shots on Target (37), Key Passes (60), Shot Creating Actions (136), Goal CreatingActions (23), and Crosses (139). When comparing Hany Mukhtar to the rest of the midfielders in the league, Hany ranks in the top 90% percentile of midfielders in stats such as Non-Penalty Expected Goals, Total Shots, Assists, Expected Assisted Goals, and Non-Penalty Expected Goals + Expected Assisted Goals.
The X-Factor for Union in this one has to be Kai Wgner for me. Whether this is really his last regular season home game for Union or not, fans should treat it as such and I know Wagner is going to be up for the task. Since his contract fiasco has gone more public, Wagner has barely put a foot wrong for Union, doing everything he can to prove he’s worth the money he’s asking.
As reliable as he’s been defensively, ranking in the top 87% percentile of fullbacks in stats like Interceptions and blocks, it’s his game going forward that makes Wagner one of the best Left Backs in MLS. When comparing him against other fullbacks, Kai Wagner ranks in the top 95 percentile of plates in stats such as Assists, Expected Assisted Goals, Non-Penalty Expected Goals + Expected Assisted Goals, and Shot-Creating actions.
Union is getting healthy at the right time and only has one questionable player heading into Saturday’s match. Jesus Bueno suffered a knock against Atlanta that saw him leave the game 10 minutes in after some severe swelling. Tests came back showing no break for Bueno, and he was almost feeling good enough to train on Friday, but Jim and the rest of the staff decided to hold him back, and I’d be surprised if he was involved in more than a role off the bench against Nashville.
With that said, I think Union will stick with a 4-4-2 diamond after finding some attacking success against Atlanta, why not try and keep that momentum building? Andre Blake in net, Kai Wagner returns to Left back after his suspension, Jakob Glesnes and Jake Elliott as the CB duo, and Nate Harriel out right. It’s a toss-up between Mbaizo and Harriel for right back, but Harriel has played really well lately and deserves another start if he’s fit enough.
Jose Martinez returns to the starting lineup at defensive midfield for the first time in a number of games due to injury. With Buneo’s absence, I think Jack McGlynn and Ale Bedoya will get the start on either side of the diamond, and the attacking presence will be brought by the front 3 that all got on the scoresheet Wednesday night – Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza, and Mikael Uhre.
I think this is going to be a tough game for Union, but I think the result against Atlanta has instilled a bit of confidence in this team moving forward. The attack looked much more congruent than it has in a long time and that lethal-ness is starting to come back, the type of finishing that can punish even the most organized defenses.
Nashville has maybe the most organized defense in the league, but they seem to be lacking a bit of confidence going forward, and maybe Union can use that to their advantage. Here’s what Jim Curtin had to say on facing Nashville in his press conference yesterday:
“Yeah, look, we’re at home. So we have to be the team that’s proactive. You saw us when we went to Columbus, right? We approached that game a little differently, where we sat deep, played a different formation. And then at home against Atlanta, I think you saw us play pretty, still aggressive. You know, we knew they would have the ball and put together a ton of passes, but our goal is always to have teams go around us and never through the middle, and really protect the middle part of the field. I think we did that. So with Nashville, again, starts with Mukhtar coming off of that line, and we have to do a good job protecting against him. You’re right, they don’t concede a lot. But their offense isn’t firing on all cylinders right now, but they have a group that can break out at any moment. When you talk about Bunbury, Fafa, Schaffelburg, and Mukhtar leading the line for them, when they get going, they’re as hard to play against as anybody in the league. So their foundation, similar to us, is defense first. I think that’s clear. That’s what makes it difficult, because I always say, when the weather gets cold and the games get hard, Nashville is one of those teams that can roll up their sleeves and can match the intensity. That’s why they’re successful and really good at what they do. So similar to us in that regard, and it’s gonna be a really tough test. I think there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for both teams as well right, we’ve had brutal schedules, you now play each other and then that international break before the final game of the season is probably welcomed for both teams even though we’re both missing some players to the national team.”Union Head Coach, Jim Curtin
If Union can stay patient, force Nashville into giving up the ball while they’re going forward, and hit them with direct balls going the other way to spring the attack, Union might be able to poke a few past Nashville. But of course, the danger in that is Nashville’s offense clicking, and Union’s defense hasn’t been as strong as they’d like this season for one reason or another.
Regardless, I think the Union is starting to put it all together just before playoffs, and a win against Nashville in their final home game could be the exact spark they need to peak at the right time.
For the final time this regular season, get down to Subaru Park to catch Union take on Nashville SC at 7:30 pm or watch all the action via MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. And as always, stay up to date with all things Union by following PSN’s coverage.
Best Philadelphia Union Bets
Be sure to return to Philly Sports Network for more Philadelphia Union and other soccer content!
Follow our Union team on Twitter:
Doop on Union fans!
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union