1.) Even a few weeks ago, Nashville was one of two teams in the Eastern Conference that people felt comfortable betting on to reach the playoffs. How has that lack of pressure impacted the team as the rest of the East fights for ground, and even looks to overtake Nashville?
I think the fact that Nashville feels pretty comfortable about its playoff position goes a long way toward explaining recent results, combined with a back-loaded away schedule. Simply put, Gary Smith and his team have felt like that second-place standing is fairly safe as long as they continue to earn road draws. Of course, a home draw against Columbus at the midweek throws a bit of a wrench into that plan. I would expect against Philly, Smith will see a draw - less about the point gained in the standings than about preventing the Union from making up any ground - as a reasonable goal. Gunning for wins against FC Cincinnati and New York Red Bulls to close the year should mean locking down second if the Boys in Gold have just enough intensity to earn road draws against their nearest competitors in the table.
2. Hany Mukhtar and Luke Haakenson will both be suspended for the match against the Union. How will this impact how the team performs as well as their playing style?
Haakenson’s absence is largely going to be irrelevant: it’s not that he lacks talent, but he plays a position with a little bit of a logjam, so dropping one winger/attacking mid (he generally plays wide, but is versatile) simply means that a different body will be plugged in to fill the gap. That may be former Red Bull Alex Muyl (a defense-first option), midseason DP signing Ake Loba, or someone who’s been more of a depth piece previously. Of note, Haakenson wouldn’t generally be starting anyway, but rather coming off the bench.
Mukhtar is the big one. Capable of playing as a No. 10, a second striker, or a winger (and in recent weeks, a bit of a hybrid role where he’s doing some of each), he’s Nashville’s best bet for a true League MVP candidate. He’s scored 14 times and assisted eight more - 22 total goal contributions out of NSC’s 46 total goals. Without him, the offense will likely have to run through Randall Leal (who’s playing the other hybrid wing/AM position in Nashville’s fluid 3-4-3/3-5-2 of late), and Loba will probably get one of his longest run-outs of the year. The finishing, however, will come down to either Walker Zimmerman on set pieces, or former Union striker CJ Sapong to put the ball in the back of the net.
3. What is Nashville’s main strength/weakness?
Nashville’s strengths and weaknesses have really changed over the course of the year (and since the previous season, with mostly the same personnel, as well). This is largely a team that’s going to be defensively solid, though one of the fairly consistent weak points has been set-piece defense. It’s become a much stronger side in terms of scoring output, but you could fairly say that a recent run of draws has seen chance-creation dry up to a much greater extent than anyone in Nashville is happy with.
4. Who’s going to be missing Saturday’s match + lineup and score predictions.
The only absence other than Haakenson and Mukhtar could be left back (and ephemeral US International) Dan Lovitz, who’s missed the past two games with a foot injury. He has been involved in training despite being listed as “out” on both injury reports, so he’s been close to a return - and I would imagine if he’s even close to healthy, he’s not going to miss a chance to shine in his hometown. Or home metro area, as it were.
So with that said: GK Joe Willis. D (L-R): Dave Romney, Walker Zimmerman, Jack Maher. WB/M (L-R): Dan Lovitz, Aníbal Godoy, Dax McCarty, Alistair Johnston. W/F (L-R): Randall Leal, CJ Sapong, Ake Loba.
I think Nashville manages to come out and do what Gary Smith tends to try for in road matches against top competition: earn a point. A 1-1 draw with Nashville’s goal coming on a set piece is what I expect.