Los Angeles Football Club and FC Austin are in a class of their own when it comes to the Major League Soccer's Western Conference so far this season, but through 20 games, Nashville SC (8-6-6) sits firmly in third place behind the two conference leaders. Nashville got there by being one of the more difficult team's in the league to break down defensively.
The club's backline, anchored by former LAFC defender and 2022 MLS All Star Walker Zimmerman, has allowed 25 goals this season, just four more than LAFC. German attacker Hany Mukhtar (11 goals, 3 assists in 20 matches) paces Nashville's attack, which thrives on counterattacks and set pieces. Nashville represents challenges for LAFC on all three levels, and LAFC will need to find balance in attacking and defending in order to avoid getting caught up chasing the ball.
“This is going to be a physically demanding game in Nashville,” Cherundolo said. “We are aware of their strengths and we are going to be ready to look for some solutions against them.”
EYE TOWARD IMPROVEMENT
LAFC's 3-2 victory against the Galaxy on July 9 was one of the Club's biggest victories of the season, but there were still moments within it that LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo is able to show the players in terms of where the club can improve. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Cherundolo specifically referenced a period early in the second half in which LAFC's inability to advance the ball cleanly lead to multiple Galaxy attacks, as well as several moments throughout the match in which LAFC's final pass or shot attempt were not as sharp as they needed to be.
"There were an array of unforced errors in our counterattacks that just went back and forth, and the game was still tied at that moment,” Cherundolo said. “That can't happen, especially in big games like that. Those are things we've been talking about. Playing more responsibly. At times that means playing more horizontally. I know it goes a little against what we want to do in playing vertically and pushing the tempo of games, but we have to do a better job of recognizing when it's a little out of hand and when we can remain in control to do that."
In order to secure three road points in Nashville, LAFC will have to tighten up its passing to contain Nashville counterattacks and be more clinical with its opportunities in the final third against Nashville's stout defense.
INJURY UPDATE – MOOSE ON THE SIDELINES
LAFC forward Danny Musovski was forced to leave LAFC’s win over the Galaxy on July 8 with a leg injury in the 43rd minute. The Las Vegas product has turned in a solid season so far, making 16 appearances and six starts scoring two goals. He has been ruled out by Cherundolo for this week’s match-up, and Brian Rodriguez is still listed as questionable as well. Diego Palacios is slated to miss the game Sunday due to yellow card accumulation – meaning LAFC will be forced to rely on Mahala Opoku again, and perhaps Ismael Tajouri-Shroudi who has been out since April 17 with a left quadriceps injury but is back to full-strength and available for action.
“Managing players and their minutes for the entire season is difficult and something you need to keep an eye on to be in a good place at the end of the season,” Cherundolo said. “I think we have done a good job so far – we’ve done pretty well at rotating guys, and in the summer months here we are planning on doing more of that.”
Like Bob Bradley before him, Steve Cherundolo looks at the MLS season as four separate seasons: the beginning, the summer, the home stretch and the postseason. Each phase has its keys to success, and in this second season within the season, as the dog days of summer take their toll on players, roster rotation is essential to maintain the momentum established in the first half. This is true for both LAFC and Nashville. LAFC heavily rotated against Vancouver on July 2 to be ready for the challenge posed by the Galaxy.
This week, it's Nashville that will be playing on short rest, having just defeated the Seattle Sounders 1-0 on Wednesday, July 13. Cherundolo admitted that LAFC lost a gear towards the end of the Vancouver match, but because Nashville's attackers don't drop down into defense as much as other teams, he believes their high-sitting attack has a chance to shrug off the quick turnaround without serious deterioration.
NEW PLAYER WATCH
Giorgio Chiellini looked like he was moments away from making his LAFC debut against the Galaxy on July 8, but Cristian Arango's game-winning goal late kept the veteran defender on the bench. Welsh striker Gareth Bale joined Chiellini and the rest of LAFC in practice this week, and both will travel to Nashville with the team and be available to see their first minutes in Black & Gold. Cherundolo said both have practiced well so far, and first time MLS All-Star Diego Palacios told the assembled media that has already been impressed with the former Juventus defender.
"Adding new players in the summer transfer window is tricky,” Cherundolo said. “These players are coming off of an offseason. They are doing their preseason during our season. They are being integrated as fast as possible, but I think it's also smart to give them time. Cherundolo did not commit to playing either vs. Nashville, but given Musovski's injury and Cherundolo's desire to rotate, both Bale and Chiellini will travel to Nashville and have legitimate chances to make their LAFC's debuts this weekend in some capacity.
“If you are able to travel – then you are capable of playing and making a difference and there is always a chance you are going to play,” Cherundolo said.
CIFUENTES TAKES THE SPOTLIGHT
During his Friday media availability, Cherundolo was asked about the progression and current form of LAFC midfielder Jose Cifuentes, who was not named to the MLS All-Star game but has played like one for LAFC at times this season. Cherundolo praised ‘Cifu’ for being "arguably LAFC's best player" last season, but even on the heels of his brace against the Galaxy, LAFC's head coach wants to see more from his new #20.
"This year, we've challenged Cifu to play consistently well,” Cherundolo said. “We all know what Cifu looks like on a good day, but can he reduce the amount of games where he's not helping affect the game or isn't winning a lot of balls in the middle of the park like he does. Playing more consistently, getting his stronger attributes more consistently on the field [has been our challenge to him] and so far he has responded. That is the next step in his career."