When? Tuesday November 23, 5 p.m. PT, 8 p.m. ET and 01:00 GMT (24/11).
Where? Nissan Stadium, Nashville, TN.
How can I catch the action? The game is being broadcast on Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes, TVA Sports and TSN4 for residents of the United States. The game is being broadcast on FreeSports (FreeView channel 64 and via the FreeSports app) for us UK folk.
There's a Star Wars quote (shock) that perfectly summarises my feelings towards Orlando City's play-off tilt in recent weeks. 'Why do I get the feeling you're going to be the death of me?' mused Obi-Wan Kenobi during Attack of the Clones, as Anakin Skywalker threw himself into more shenanigans. That is exactly how I've felt about Orlando City in recent weeks. There's never a dull moment is there? Nevertheless, despite Orlando's ham fisted attempts at securing an invitation to the post season, the Lions have secured a second straight play-off berth.
The comfortable nature of their win in Montréal will doubtless have fans dreaming of MLS Cup glory. I would certainly advocate for the tempering of such expectations at this point. Nashville are going to be no cakewalk, especially if recent clashes are anything to go by. This is a tie that could go either way, and club bias aside, this is arguably the most intriguing tie of the round.
All that being said, I feel this is a more than winnable game for Orlando. It will certainly be a tough test for the Lions. Nashville have only lost 4 times this season. Whomever handles the occasion better will be the one to advance. In that respect, Orlando being the away side could work in their favour.
An expectant Nashville crowd will be baying for blood. As such, there's a very real chance the home team could become swept up in the occasion. This is their first home play-off (I don't think we can count the Inter Fort Lauderdale game for obvious reasons), so it promises to be quite the occasion underneath the lights.
In spite of all that, when you strip it back, this is a game of knockout soccer and anything can happen. With that in mind, let's delve into what promises to be a pulsating encounter.
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Nashville are a very good team, even if the form book would seem to suggest otherwise. On the face of it, a run of 1 defeat in 10 suggests a team full of confidence. But scratch beneath the service and you'll see that 8 of those games were draws. It's 1 win in 10 for Gary Smith's team. Don't be duped into thinking this will be an easy game though. This is a team with a clear identity, and in Hany Mukhtar they have one of the league's best forwards. They're not without their issues right now, though.
It might seem something of an oxymoron, but Mukhtar could be seen as part of a larger problem for this team. Bear with me here. Of the 9 outfield players who have played more than 2,000 minutes, Mukhtar ranks 7/9 in terms of passes attempted. He also leads the team in dribbles with 1.3 per game. What does this suggest? Mukhtar tends to hold on to the ball for too long. Now this can be interpreted one of two ways, 1; he's greedy, 2, he's the danger man and teams know that. I lean towards the latter. Teams tend to double up on the German forward (figure 1). And, simply put, some of their other attacking players aren't stepping up. That may seem disingenuous, particularly when you consider their 'goals for' column is comparable to every other team in the top 7, but there's method to my madness.
The rest of Nashville's attack needs to step up and shoulder some of the attacking impetus. Mukhtar leads the team in goals and assists by a distance. His 16 goals has him clear of CJ Sapong (12) and Randall Leal (8). The rest of the team? Next on the list is Alex Muyl with 3. Interestingly, Sapong has only scored in 2 of his last 13, and Leal in 1 of his last 10. It really is all on Mukhtar right now. What they do have, however, is a clutch of players on 2-3 goals. It's good that most of the rest of the team are chipping in, but when their star man has an off day, there just isn't enough coming from Leal et al. I'm sorry, but there isn't. Which is a big part of why they aren't getting victories right now.
Figure 1 is a game still from Nashville's game in New Jersey on October.
Mukhtar aside, this is a team that likes to attack down the flanks (figures 2 and 3), particularly with their full-backs Alan Johnston and Daniel Lovitz (figure 4). You'll see the likes Leal and Muyl cut inside and play in those inside forward spaces, whilst Johnston and Lovitz provide options on the overlap. Obviously Orlando's wide players operate in a similar fashion, so that could be an intriguing facet to this game, in terms of how each team reacts to the other in those wide areas.
Figure 2 shows Nashville's average attack areas.
Figure 3 shows Nashville's average positioning map from their game against the Red Bulls.
Figure 4 shows Johnston and Lovitz's touch map from the game against the Red Bulls.
According to the MLS injury report, at the time of writing, Taylor Washington will sit for Nashville. Aside from those two it's a clean bill of health for the home team. Daniel Rios is now listed as questionable.
As for Orlando City, only Jordan Bender is listed as out. *Joao Moutinho is questionable. There were concerns, during the international window, that Pedro Gallese may have to follow Covid-19 protocols and isolate for a period of time. However, the Peru stopper has had several rounds of tests and is negative.
EDIT: as of 11/22 only David Loera is listed as out. Moutinho is expected to be fit. No update on Bender.
Possible starting XI
Gary Smith utilises a fairly settled XI, so expect to see something similar to what we saw in Orlando a few weeks ago. I think they'll line up as so, in their favoured 5-3-2 formation:
The German's 16 goals and 12 assists have placed him firmly in the hunt for the MLS MVP award. Bizarrely, he's probably over performed on both counts. He has an XG of 10.71 and an XA of 6.02. These statistics probably only serve to highlight just how clinical the Nashville front man can be.
We've already touched on Nashville's form. In spite of that, they're finished 3rd with a 12-18-4 record.
Orlando City, on the other hand, finished 6th following something of a late season collapse. The Lions were 13-12-9 on the season.
Game still courtesy of the FreeSports network.
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