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Decision Day Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Nashville SC

The Red Bulls will have to send midfielders forward to contend with the absence of Patryk Klimala and beat Nashville’s low block

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SOCCER: JUN 18 MLS - Nashville SC at New York Red Bulls
Fabio challenges for the ball against Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman earlier this season.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.

Against Atlanta United, the New York Red Bulls came out the gate with the passion of Peter Clemenza in a bakery. Unfortunately, all the effort was for naught, as the single point gleaned from the scoreless draw will likely prove unimportant when the dust of the Eastern Conference playoff race settles. Clinching at Red Bull Arena simply would have been too easy for a team that has enjoyed waiting for the last moment to come good.

The regular season closes on a trip down to Tennessee for a line dance with Nashville SC. Gary Smith’s squad is a curious beast, registering only two wins – against Inter Miami and FC Cincinnati – in the last ten matches. At third place in the Eastern Conference, this is either a paper tiger or a tiger hiding behind a piece of paper, only to be revealed by the fire and flame of postseason competition.

The match promises to be fierce and close. Nashville has but a single multi-goal defeat this season, losing 2-0 to the Red Bulls all the way back in June. Many fans have spent months planning their Major League Soccer Decision Day watch parties, agonizing over the perfect menu and couch set-up for the dozens of guests surely to be populating homes across America. These two teams might provide the tension and drama to actually justify the thousands spent per household for this holiest of high holidays.

Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch.


Nashville has surrendered a mere 32 goals this season, which is tied for best in the league. Switching from the four-player back line to a more fluid-three player set-up has paid dividends. Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney are the regulars, playing next to a rotating cast that includes Jack Maher and Eric Miller.

The defense plays deep, giving space and allowing the opponent to penetrate the final third. Instead of the valor of diving into tackles, the discretion of maintaining a solid defensive shape wins the day. There is little need for early engagement when the center backs let few opponents past and goalkeeper Joe Willis is untroubled by longer shots.

This second-half sequence against New York City FC sort of demonstrates the general idea (via Major League Soccer YouTube channel). Not a single defender dives in or makes a challenge on the ball. Keeping the blocks in order and the ball in front is more important than being a hero. The opponent can pass and dribble around the box for as long as their little hearts desire, but there will be no easy break-ins.

If Nashville has a true weakness, the back line struggle winning headers; although even then few goals are surrendered. This is a curious flaw considering how deep the team sits back to defend. Other than aerial attacks, the best course of action is quick and vertical play, racing down the field before seven or eight defenders can get behind the ball. NYCFC had some success with longer passes and winning second balls, but, again, couldn’t score.


Nashville’s defense deserves any and all available praise, but the attacking group was almost better for most of the season. Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal, and C.J. Sapong have combined for 35 goals and 21 assists. As far as MLS, there is hardly a more balanced, dynamic, and well-fitting trio outside of the New England Revolution, if one can ignore being shut out four times in the past eight matches.

Leal benefited greatly from the formation change. He has thrived with a more fluid role under Smith, who was previously associated with a stodgier, Mesozoic Era playing style that delivered an MLS Cup to the Colorado Rapids over a decade ago. The Costa Rican breaks lines whether by dribbling or playing long balls, the kind of attacker that can single-handedly demolish the Red Bulls’ high press.

When firing on all cylinders, the Six-Strings manage to find the back of the net in every possible way. Sometimes Sapong wins a header. In other cases, the more dynamic forwards strip an opponent and quickly transition into the final third. Maintained possession in the attacking half is punctuated by a series of give-and-go (or one-two) connections, moving straight through the middle or wings of the formation. Long balls are also frequent because there is an idea of a Nashville SC, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real identity, only an entity, something illusory.

Having comfortably qualified for the playoffs, Smith may opt to rest a few players. However, after an entire week off and with an international break on the horizon, there is little need other than extreme injury-related paranoia. The Red Bulls should expect the full might of the opponent’s attacking forces in a final tune-up before the end-of-season cup competition.

With only four losses this season, Nashville should have far more points than the current 53. The team lacks a certain killer instinct, and this inability to put away opponents has resulted in an astounding 17 draws – one short of the league record 18 set by Chicago Fire FC in 2014. A definitive win against the Red Bulls would set a better tone heading into the playoffs.


Patryk Klimala started all but one match since May, shortly after his arrival. The most recent fixture contested largely without his presence was the recent 1-0 victory over NYCFC on October 17th, decided by a third-minute goal from Cristian Cásseres off a free kick. Without the Polish striker, Struber deployed a 5-4-1 formation and utilized Omir Fernandez in a two-parts attacking midfielder, one-part striker role.

Despite triumphing over a local rival, results were mixed and the attack disjointed. The team registered one of the lowest shot totals of the season, completed the third-fewest passes, played few crosses, and rarely established any meaningful standing in the final third. Whether an observer rates Klimala or not, the team is more dangerous with him on the field, as was apparent following his insertion into the match.

There will be no appearance from the cavalry to provide a second half boost. After an up-and-down season, Fábio will have to put in his best performance at a position for which he may not be best suited. Despite standing 6’4”, the Brazilian has never looked quite comfortable in a target forward role, whether winning headers, chasing long balls, or maintaining possession with back-to-the-goal hold-up play.

If Struber elects to play Fábio as a lone striker and not utilize Tom Barlow or Daniel Royer, then his attacking midfielders will have to push very high up the field and stay involved. Instead of hoping for chances to magically be created, allow the temporary Red Bull to play his game of supportive link-up play. Fernandez likely won’t be available, which indicates the continued inclusion of Caden Clark or a return to the starting lineup for the enigmatic but inconsistent Wikelman Carmona, either of whom can provide the dynamic verve and incisive touch that often eludes others in the final third.

What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.