Match Preview: Union visits Music City seeking 3rd consecutive win

Union, MLS
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

A 2-0 win against Minnesota United at Subaru Park last weekend with goals from Union’s most reliable in Daniel Gazdag and Julian Carranza keeps Philadelphia as one of Major League Soccer’s unbeaten teams to start the 2024 season – and suddenly this team doesn’t seem to be in as bad of shape as we thought following that 6-0 loss to Pachuca in the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Now, the Blue and Gold will look to extend their win streak to 3 with a visit to the Music City to take on a struggling Nashville SC, a matchup that’s seen success for Union in recent years.

Union, MLS
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Union vs Nashville History

Since joining Major League Soccer in 2020, Union and Nashville have met a total of 6 times, with a record of 2W-3D-1L for Philadelphia. Well, actually – one of those draws came in the 2021 playoffs, with Union advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals on kicks from the Penalty Spot, so if you count that as a win – it’s really 3W-2D-1L for Union.

The Blue & Gold’s lone loss to NSC came in the two teams’ first meeting back in 2021, with former Union player CJ Sapong being the lone goalscorer in a 1-0 game. Union’s only two trips to Geodis Park – Nashville’s newest venue – resulted in a 2-0 win with 2 PK goals from Daniel Gazdag last season, and a 1-1 draw in which Mikael Uhre made history by becoming the first goal-scored at Geodis Park.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Season So Far – Nashville

While the start of the 2024 season for Nashville could easily be much worse than their current record of 1W-4D-1L through 6 games, I think Gary Smith and the players would tell you themselves that they haven’t kicked off the campaign in quite the style they were hoping to.

Nashville’s lone win of the season came against Charlotte FC with a scoreline of 2-1 at home, but have drawn against Red Bulls (0-0), Colorado Rapids (1-1), LA Galaxy (2-2), and Columbus Crew (2-2). Nashville’s only loss – but probably their biggest humbling of the young 2024 season thus far – was a 5-0 loss on the road to LAFC.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

NSC Struggle to find offense early in 2024

Nashville comes into this match with 7 goals scored across those 6 games (3rd lowest in MLS), an Expected Goals total of 6.1 (6th lowest in MLS), and a Non-Penalty Expected Goals total of just 4.5, the 2nd lowest total in MLS. Teal Bunbury leads the team through 6 games with 2 goals, and 5 other players (including both Hany Mukhtar and Sam Surridge) scoring 1 goal each.

To add on to that, Nashville ranks in the bottom 4 teams in the league in the following stats, once again showing their struggles to create offense early in the season:

Total Shots (50 – 3rd lowest)
Shots On Target (16 – 2nd lowest)
Expected Assisted Goals (2.9 – 1st lowest)
Passes Into the Final Third (112 – 3rd lowest)
Passes Into The Penalty Area (25 – 2nd lowest)
-Key Passes (33 -2nd lowest)
-and Shot Creating Actions (85 – 4th lowest).

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Nashville’s Defensive Woes

Nashville’s strong point has never been their attack, but their solidity in defense. In years past, they soak up any pressure thrown their way and then hit on counter-attacks that pick apart tired legs venturing too far up the pitch – oftentimes finished off by a Hany Mukhtar goal. But they’re just not seeing that same sort of structure from their backline yet this season.

After conceding a league-lowest 32 goals (or an average of 0.94 goals per game) throughout the 2023 season, Nashville has already let in 11 goals through 6 games in 2024 – an average of 1.84 goals per game, almost double their average from a year ago, though the sample size is pretty small. Through 34 games in the 2023 season, Nashville faced 137 shots on target or an average of 4.03 shots on target per game. Through 6 games in 2024, Nashville has faced 34 shots or an average of 5.67 shots on target per game – an increase of over 1 and a half shots on target faced per game.

Much of their struggles – both in the attack and in the backline – can be attributed to battling injuries early on in the season. Both Hany Mukhtar and Sam Surridge, the gears to Nashville’s attack, missed the first 2 games of the season due to injury. Walker Zimmerman, the glue to Nashville’s defense, has not played since March 2nd and surely is the biggest miss to Nashville’s plan of defense until the other team is tired and bored, and then hits them on the counter. You can’t hit the other team on the counter if you’re giving up goals.

Just for housekeeping purposes, here’s what I believe to be Nashville’s status report heading into the weekend based on Gary Smith’s press conference – though the league has not posted their official report:

OUT: Randall Leal
OUT: Walker Zimmerman

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Union start to find footing after CCC Crash-Out

Since their 6-0 humbling by Pachuca in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, Union has responded better than I think most of us thought they would – a 2-2 draw in Austin, a 3-1 win with a short-handed lineup in Portland, and a 2-0 win at home against Minnesota – an unbeaten team up to that point.

The 2 consecutive wins bring Union to 3W-3D-0L and 9 points on the season, which keeps them just 3 points off the Supporters Shield lead with a game in hand.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Union Attack Catching Heat

Union head down to the Music City having scored 10 goals in 5 games, the 3rd highest total in MLS only behind Inter Miami and LA Galaxy – who have played 7 and 6 games respectively. Despite playing fewer games than all the teams that rank above them, Union sits in the top 6 in MLS in attacking stats such as:

Expected Goals (9.0 – 6th highest), Non-Penalty Expected Goals (8.2 – 6th highest), and Expected Assisted Goals (7.3 – 6th highest). In all but one game this season (SKC), Union have scored at least 2 goals, and are being led in the attack by their front 3 to no surprise (Carranza – 3, Gazdag – 3, Uhre – 2).

An interesting stat that caught my eye, was Union‘s amount of Carries into the Penalty Area through 5 games this season. In 2023, Union totaled just 96 Carries into the Penalty Area through 34 games, an average of 2.82 per game.

Through 5 games in the 2024 season, Union has totaled 27 carries into the Penalty Area, averaging a total of 5.4 per game, an increase of over 2.5 Carries into the Penalty Area averaged per game, which could be a reason why Union is seeing an increase of Non-Penalty Expected Goals Per 90 this season. The Culprit of that change? Quinn Sullivan. Sullivan has registered 11 Carries into the Penalty Area through 5 games, an average of 2.2 per game – just 0.62 per game lower than the entire team’s average in 2023.

How does that play into things? Sullivan is getting Union much higher up the pitch, and putting balls into dangerous positions for his Union’s front 3. Think of the goals Union has scored this season – outside of set pieces, it’s been a lot of tap-ins and runs to the near post. His final ball failed him a few times against Minnesota, but if he can get that reeled in – we’ve got a really dangerous piece on the right side of the midfield on our hands.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Union Getting Back to Priority #1 – Keeping Clean Sheets

In 5 games played Union have conceded a total of 6 goals for an average of 1.20 Goals Allowed Per Game, which is almost identical to their average from last season (though I think Union would like that number to improve some).

5 of the 6 goals Union has conceded came in the first 3 games, with Union letting in just 1 in their previous 2, signs off improvement post-CCC. Jim Curtin once again reiterated after the 2-0 win against Minnesota that priority #1 for this team is getting back to keeping clean sheets, and hopefully getting the first of the MLS season under their belt can give the back-line some confidence moving forward.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Lineup Prediction

With Union now competing in just one competition, the lineups are getting a bit easier to predict – especially when the team is winning. First things first – Andre Blake’s status. As of now, Major League Soccer has not released its Status Report for Matchday 8.

When Jim Curtin spoke to the media on Thursday afternoon, he said that Andre Blake has been going through concussion protocol. Per Curtin, Blake has been training on the side the last few days and is close to being ready to go – we’ll just have to see if Saturday is a bit too early or not for Union’s keeper, but Oliver Semmle will be ready to go if needed.

Apart from Blake’s status, I’d expect to see the same XI we saw against Minnesota – it’s probably Curtin’s best lineup at the moment. A 4-4-2 Diamond with Kai Wagner, Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, and Nate Harriel in the backline.

Jose Martinez at the bottom of the diamond with Jack McGlynn and Quinn Sullivan as the two shuttlers on either side of him, with Daniel Gazdag as the #10. Mikael Uhre and Juliana Carranza will man the attack, looking to keep the front 3’s solid form to start the season going.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Score Predictions

If don’t you remember what Jim Curtin said after the two drew 0-0 at Subaru Park last season, I’ll jog your memory:

“Nashville’s tough to break down – they’ve given up the least goals in the league, they don’t give up many chances. Conversely, we didn’t create a ton either, so unfortunately we cancel each other out. I hope we don’t play Nashville in a 3 game series because you guys will fall asleep”

Head Coach Jim Curtin on Union’s 0-0 draw with Nashville in 2023

It’s true, sometimes games between these two can be a bit boring to watch. Neither team values possession and both rely on a defense-first mentality. But the reality for Nashville right now is that they’re struggling to perform under the way Gary Smith wants them to operate, and whether a lot of that can be attributed to injuries or not – results have been disappointing and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a plan B outside of hoping for an eventually healthy squad to work their way through this slump.

And on the opposite side of the ball, Union is picking up momentum. While their 2-0 win against Minnesota last weekend wasn’t the most impressive win this team could put together, it’s the first sign of a full 90-minute performance for this Philadelphia Union team this season. The defense looks to be more compact and on a better wave-length, the midfield is getting further up the field and providing service in much more dangerous positions, and the front 3 is doing exactly what you need them to do – score goals.

Getting a result on the road in Nashville isn’t an easy feat, but I think Union will pull out a 2-1 victory on the road on Saturday night.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union