Nashville SC has taken Major League Soccer by storm this season, with the expansion side punching its ticket to the final eight in emphatic fashion. Gary Smith’s men put a depleted Inter Miami CF side to the sword on Friday, overcoming them 3-0, and will now shift its attention to perennial contenders Toronto FC.
TFC will welcome Nashville SC into its temporary home at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut, on Tuesday (6p.m., FS1). The Canadian outfit has made the MLS Cup finals in three out of the last four seasons, winning the ultimate prize on one occasion.
Greg Vanney’s men will be hoping their MLS pedigree will be the difference against a resolute Nashville side. The expansion side has built its team out from the back, conceding a mere 22 goals in league play. Only the Philadelphia Union boasted a better defensive record across Major League Soccer.
Led by the MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman, Nashville SC has proven incredibly difficult to break down. Smith’s side also demonstrated its offensive potential in the play-in round, erupting for three goals against fellow expansion side Inter Miami CF.
Toronto FC struggled with injury problems towards the tail end of the season, losing out the Supporters Shield, but are heading into Tuesday’s clash well-rested and fully fit.
Here is a closer look at the TFC-Nashville SC playoff matchup:
The unique circumstances in 2020 have meant Nashville SC and TFC have yet to play each other. If Nashville’s debut season in MLS is anything to go by, expect a tight affair on Tuesday.
Players to Watch
The Spanish playmaker has been at the heart of Greg Vanney’s attack since joining in 2019, pulling the strings in the final third. Pozuelo capped off yet another impressive campaign last season, registering nine goals and four assists in 20 appearances, and was named to the MLS Team of the Season for the second consecutive year. The former Swansea man will need to be at his best in TFC’s playoff opener to carve out an opening against a compact Nashville SC side.
Nashville SC first designated player, Hany Mukhtar will be raring to go on Tuesday following his impressive display against Inter Miami. The German kept his composure from the spot and doubled his side’s lead to put the tie to bed. Mukhtar put in a dominant display, beyond his goal, and was a constant menace in the final third. Nashville SC has proven they can keep goals out of their net, but it will be up to Mukhtar to spark the side’s offense, once again.
Matchup to Watch
Jozy Altidore vs. Walker Zimmerman
Nashville’s success this season has largely been due to their ability to maintain clean sheets and will need much of the same against Toronto FC. Zimmerman has led the rearguard admirably since making the move from LAFC and will now shift his attention to Jozy Altidore.
The powerful striker missed the last weeks of the season, nursing a hamstring injury, but is reportedly set to make his return. Ayo Akinola deputized to devastating effect in Altidore’s absence and will be a handful for Zimmerman and co if he takes the field.
Nashville’s attack may have led them to victory over Inter Miami CF, but it will be the performance of their backline that will determine if they progress on Tuesday.
The 20-year-old may not feature from the start for Greg Vanney’s men, but expect the young striker to play an important role nonetheless on Tuesday. Akinola will be eager to stake a claim for a bigger role after scoring nine goals in just 11 starts in 2020. The Detroit native took the MLS is Back tournament by storm, netting five goals in three games, and will be eager to translate his impressive exploits in knockout play to the post-season.
The Red Bull academy product may be a traditional winger, but it was his defensive work rate that stood out against Inter Miami, stifling Rodolfo Pizzaro in the play-in round. Muyl has since emerged as one of the league’s more reliable two-way wingers this season and will need to be defensively aware against Richie Laryea, a fullback who loves to get forward. Muyl has demonstrated he is a willing runner, offering Nashville’s trio of Designated Players the freedom to attack.
Toronto FC’s experienced core will be hoping its MLS pedigree can make the difference against a tricky Nashville side. Smith’s men may be in their debut season, but they have demonstrated they can compete with Major League Soccer’s best with a clear system in place.
The game is likely to be won or lost in Nashville’s defensive third. If TFC’s high-powered offense can find an early breakthrough, Vanney’s men are primed to progress. It would be foolish, however, to reduce Nashville to its solid defense alone.
The club’s three Designated Players started their first game together in Nashville’s play-in round and demonstrated they have firepower of their own. Smith will likely give them their second consecutive start alongside one another, hoping he’s found the formula for a deep post-season run.
The contrast in experience gives Toronto FC the slight edge going into Tuesday’s clash, but Nashville has all the makings to emerge as this season’s darkhorse team. The expansion side head into this one in fine form fresh off a comprehensive victory, boasts one of Major League Soccer’s best defenses, and are slowly finding their feet in the final third.
TFC will have to overcome Nashville in order to book a ticket to a fourth MLS Cup final appearance in five years. The Canadian outfit may have the experience, but in a season unlike any other, Nashville SC may just spring an upset.