Last year, Nashville SC held opponents to one goal or fewer 16 times and earned points in 15 of those matches. Essentially, if you didn’t score more than a goal, you weren’t getting three points off the Tennessee side.
The only team to haul off a full set of points? Your Philadelphia Union.
LA Galaxy securing a 1-0 win over Nashville last weekend, then, was an exceedingly rare moment, and Gary Smith’s team will bring a chip on their shoulder to their inaugural GEODIS Park match on Sunday.
The Union, meanwhile, have given up the lead in their past two matches as their energetic opening halves have not generated the goals their pressing and chance creation have deserved. In the second half of last weekend’s match, Philly struggled in the final third, leading team captain Alejandro Bedoya to promise fans that the team still recognized how good it was and would sand off the rough edges in training this week.
Bedoya and the Union will need to be sharp up top against Nashville because nothing comes easy against Smith’s defense. Walker Zimmerman helps control the box and all eleven players are committed to minimizing space both between the lines and in behind. The Union will need to be direct and creative whenever they force a turnover in their own half and have an opportunity to run at Nashville.
The key matchup on the day will not be player-specific. No matter which player on which team receives the ball after a turnover and has a chance to look upfield, the quality of that first ball out will determine the danger of each side.
Both squads feature excellent defenders in space, but create enough 1v1s and an attacker will find his breakthrough. That first ball out after a turnover needs to be into space or into feet in a way that allows for a layoff and a direct attack so defenses can’t retreat and get set in their sturdy shapes.
For the Union, the other big defensive emphasis will be focus in tight spaces. Prior to their loss to Toronto, Philly was exceptional at preventing dangerous players from getting good looks in the box. Now three straight goals have come from those situations and Jim Curtin will likely emphasize fearless, aggressive defending in training.
The final area where the match will be decided is on set plays. Both clubs have players capable of wonderful deliveries and big bodies that can punch the ball into the net.
More intriguingly, though, these teams are smart enough to create transition moments off of defensive set plays so watch for the players sneaking upfield after corners and dead balls — they could turn out to be the most dangerous even if they are furthest from the box.
The Union and Nashville SC open GEODIS Park for the first time ever on May 1 at 4:00 p.m., live on ESPN.