Following a four-game homestand that saw seven points garnered out of a possible 12, Chicago Fire FC now takes a three-match unbeaten streak to music city to take on Gary Smith and Nashville SC.
Nashville are a strong, organized defensive unit that are finishing up a five-match homestand of their own. Like the Fire, Nashville play in an NFL stadium and will be on the road for the majority of the second half of the season. They’re just as keen on gathering as many points as possible at Nissan Stadium.
Here’s what to look for as the Fire search for that ever-elusive road win...
DUTY (still) CALLS
As international football has reigned supreme all over the world over the past month, The Concacaf Gold Cup has pulled away two significant pieces from Nashville SC: Reigning MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman and Panamanian veteran Anibal Godoy.
Zimmerman is a beast, and was clearly the best defender in MLS last year. Nashville has only lost one game through their first 12 games, and have five clean sheets.
Godoy is nothing flashy and typically flies under the radar, but anyone who watches Nashville closely understands how important he is to the defensive structure of the side. He screens passing lanes, picks up second balls, and doesn’t need the ball at his feet.
For a team that is predicated on their defensive prowess, missing these two makes Nashville a different proposition. It will likely be David Romney and Tah Anunga who replace these two on Saturday night.
That’s A LOBA $$$
Last week, Nashville SC announced their third designated player and club-record transfer Aké Loba of Liga MX side Monterrey.
Loba was signed for $6.8M after a long pursuit from the Nashville front office, led by Mike Jacobs. Loba is from the Ivory Coast and can play a true No. 9, but is also capable of playing on either wing. He scored a goal against Columbus in the quarterfinals of CONCACAF Champions League earlier this year.
This is a massive signing for Nashville and the type of attacking transfer that could propel them to new heights coming off of a conference semifinal appearance in their first season in MLS in 2020. He is only 23 years old, and scored seven goals in 16 starts for Monterrey. It is still unknown just exactly the role he will play on Saturday (if any), but the idea of him and Hany Mukhtar running at any backline in MLS is a scary prospect.
Nashville have only lost one game this year and have put together their best performances against the likes of Philly and New England. They’ve had some late drama over the recent weeks, including come-from-behind results at home against Toronto FC and CF Montreal (shoutout to Canadian teams returning home).
They’ve also been a bit shaky opening up games as of late, conceding the first goal in five of their last six matches.
Dax McCarty and (most likely) Tah Anunga will hold it down in the midfield but given Álvaro Medrán’s form and the Fire’s cohesion in the middle of the park, I would certainly give the edge to Chicago as far as the midfield goes.
Defensively, the Fire will be the most concerned with Mukhtar. He is a very intelligent and skilled attacker who can play in between the lines and is devilish with his movement. The three-back system for the Fire that has been so effective will come in handy as some extra cover will be required to account for Mukhtar and his movement. In general, the front three for Nashville are pretty fluid and like to rotate.
At the back, Nashville will miss Zimmerman and then some, but they’ll still have their own version of a three-back that looks like a 3-4-3 and will potentially feature Romney, Jalil Anibaba and Jack Maher, who is playing some good football after a brief loan with Landon Donovan’s San Diego Loyal in the USL Championship.
Obviously, the middle is the most important part of the field in any match, but for these two teams, I think the battle of the wing-backs will be something to keep an eye on and could be the difference. Starting position for wingbacks is crucial. Boris Sekulić and Miguel Navarro have really been pinning back the opposition as of late. They’ll be squared up against Daniel Lovitz and Alex Muyl. Lovitz is technical and sharp on the ball, while Muyl has a third lung and just doesn’t seem to stop. He comes from the New York Red Bulls so you know he’s fit. These are two matchups to really watch throughout the game.
The Fire are riding a ton of momentum and enter Nashville with a boatload of confidence. Smith’s group is sharp and extremely tough to beat, as their record shows. This will be an interesting fixture that finished 1-1 last year.
Tony Meola and myself are on the road again after getting the green light to travel, and we’ll be live from Nissan Stadium at 7:30 p.m. CT on WGN and CFFC Live. Talk to you then.