Sunday is one of the biggest days in Nashville sports this year. The Titans face off against the Colts in a tight battle for the AFC South while Nashville SC will face the Columbus Crew in the MLS Eastern Conference semi-final.
Nashville SC vs Columbus Crew:
In the first round of the 2020 MLS playoffs, Nashville SC defeated Toronto FC in a thrilling extra time match. The match was back and forth but ultimately, Nashville played the more complete game and Nashville generated many chances.
In the first half, Nashville dominated the first 15 minutes, Toronto dominated the next 20, and the rest of the half was mixed. Toronto had a few key chances but Nashville goalkeeper, Joe Willis, came up big.
The second half contained many chances for Nashville that they struggled to put away. Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal, and Alex Muyl all had prime scoring opportunities but were unable to convert. Nashville was certainly the better team and frankly, should have put the game away in many instances.
Extra time was strenuous but like the second half, Nashville seemed in command. Once again, Nashville had a goal called back, this time from Hany Mukhtar. Mukhtar received a through ball and scored a fantastic left footed chip. Finally, in the 108th minute, Daniel Rios gave Nashville a 1-0 advantage. The goal came after a fantastic show of skill by Hany Mukhtar:
Nashville had an amazing 21 shots but just 6 were on target. They had 3 goals ruled offside and many misses which should have been goals. Against Columbus, these errors will cost Nashville the match.
Columbus has had recent issues involving Covid-19. Over the last week, 6 players have tested positive which could greatly affect the match. The league confirmed that the match will go on as scheduled, despite some positive tests coming back as recently as Friday. The players who tested positive have not yet been announced.
In Nashville's only match against Columbus, they fell 2-0. At the time, Columbus was atop the MLS and playing extremely well. Nashville were able to generate many chances but were unable to put any away. The match was a physical one as each team finished the match with 3 yellow cards and 17 fouls.
Columbus completed the season with the 2nd least goals against in the league as well as the 3rd leading goal scorer in the league, Gyasi Zardes. Columbus is 4-2-4 in there last 10 matches compared to Nashville's 6-2-2.
Columbus has many dangerous players. Obviously Gyasi Zardes is a threat uptop and is clinical in front of net. Midfielder, Darlington Nagbe is among the best midfielders in the league and was injured for Nashville's September 19th match against the Crew. They also have forward Pedro Santos, who scored against Nashville and totaled 7 goals and 8 assists on the season.
Importantly, Nashville's Aníbal Godoy is OUT and won't play in Sunday's match. Godoy has been among Nashville's most important players but Tah Brian Anunga, who started in Godoy's place last week against Toronto, played a solid game.
My keys to the game:
1. Continue to Get the Ball to Playmakers
When Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar get the ball in the attacking third, it always feels like something will happen. Leal has pace and the ability to beat defenders while Mukhtar has incredible ball control and vision. There were some miscommunications between Leal, Mukhtar, and ST Jhonder Cádiz but if these are resolved, Nashville can generate many scoring opportunities.
2. Get the outside backs involved
The outside backs, Daniel Lovitz and Alistair Johnston, were critical in Nashville's win over Toronto. Each player was able to get forward and play some very good crosses. Ultimately, these crosses did not end in goals but Jhonder Cádiz, Hany Mukhtar, and Alex Muyl were able to get on the end of many of them. If they can do the same against the Crew, there is a good chance one will result in a goal.
3. Stick True to your Identity
Nashville's identity includes consistent defense and generating high quality scoring opportunities. While Nashville often trails in possession, they also generate better chances as they did last week. Against such a well rounded team like Columbus, Nashville must stick to what they do best.
I have no doubt that Head Coach, Gary Smith will produce another strong performance. I liked their strategy against Toronto as they did not simply sit back and allow Toronto to attack. Nashville has momentum and may be the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference.
Amazingly, if Nashville wins and New England beats Orlando, Nashville will host the Eastern Conference final next week. My prediction for this match is a 2-1 Nashville win that will come down to the wire. I think Mukhtar will have another exceptional performance.
Titans vs Colts:
The Titans fell to the Colts just 2 weeks ago. The first half was an even, back and forth game but took a bad turn in the second half after Titans' punter, Trevor Daniel, punted the ball just 30 yards then had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown on the ensuing possession.
The special teams ultimately cost the Titans the game but the defense was not giving the team much help. The offense also struggled, especially in the second half, as Ryan Tannehill had his worst statistical performance of the season.
This week's matchup is among the most important games of the season. Both teams sit at 7-3 and are tied for first place in the AFC South. Since their last matchup, the Titans won a big game in Baltimore, defeating the Ravens in overtime, 30-24. The game was well-rounded for the Titans and there were no cavernous hole.
Following the game against the Titans, the Ravens have had a spur of positive Covid-19 tests. The night after the game, running backs Mark Ingram II and J.K. Dobbins tested positive. Dobbins had 15 carries and was obviously in close contact with many Titans. Notably, Raven's QB Lamar Jackson tested positive on Thursday bringing the total positive count to 12.
For the Titans vs Colts matchup, there is some important injury news. Adoree Jackson, Adam Humphries, and MyCole Pruitt are OUT, Ben Jones and Roger Saffold are Questionable and Kenny Vaccaro could be returning this week after missing last week with a concussion. Brett Kern returned to practice and looks like he may play on Sunday.
For Indianapolis, there is some very significant Covid related news. Defensive Tackle DeForest Buckner tested positive and will miss Sunday's game along with LB Bobby Okereke, who is out with an injury and RB Jonathan Taylor, who was also placed on the Covid-19 list. Buckner is the most important player on the Colts defense, especially when it comes to stopping the run, so his absence is very significant.
In order to win this pivotal game, the Titans must do a few things:
1. Run the Ball
This is a key every week for one reason: Derrick Henry. The Titans Offensive Line is banged up, but Buckner's absence gives the Titans a good opportunity. Henry is one of the few players who practically does not have bad games, even when the odds are stacked against him. As the run game gets going, play action will improve and the offense will put up points.
2. Minimize Mistakes on Special Teams
After special teams flipped the script in Week 10's matchup, minimizing mistakes will be crucial. If Kern plays, I have few concerns in the punting game but there is chance he will not be ready. The kicking game has been extremely inconsistent. Stephen Gostkowski has a field goal percentage of just 65, the lowest among starting kickers.
3. Put pressure on Rivers
Philip Rivers has struggled to take care of the ball over the last two seasons. If the Titans can pressure him, something they have struggled to do for multiple years, the Titans defense could generate turnovers. Pass rush has obviously been a huge problem for the Titans for many seasons but if Harold Landry III and other defensive players can pressure Rivers, he will make mistakes.
This matchup is pivotal. However, a loss would not be season-ending as both teams are capable of coming back and at least earning a wild card spot.
This week in the NFL brings many attractive matchups in addition to Titans vs Colts. The Broncos vs Saints game became very interesting after every Quarterback on the Broncos roster was deemed a close contact to someone who tested positive for the virus. Now, they are left without a quarterback and may look to WR Kendall Hilton, who played QB for 3 years at Wake Forest.
Additionally, the league has struggled with positive Covid-19 cases as of late. In addition to the Ravens and Colts, the Ravens Week 12 opponent, the Steelers, have also had many positive tests.
Sunday, November 28th is a massive day for Nashville sports. Nashville SC will look to advance to the Eastern Conference Final and the Titans will attempt to secure first place in the AFC South.