The Tampa Bay Rowdies will put their unbeaten record on the line against Nashville SC at First Tennessee Park in the Championship's Game of the Week on ESPN2 on Wednesday night. | Photo courtesy Nashville SC
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When the USL Championship announced its ESPN Game of the Week schedule back in February, there would have been a fair number of people that circled May 8 on their calendars.
Wednesday night’s contest between Nashville SC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies at First Tennessee Park (8 p.m. ET | Match Center) is not only a marquee matchup, but also marks the first regular-season game in Championship history to be broadcast nationally on ESPN2. The only other Championship match to previously air on the network was the 2018 USL Cup between Louisville City FC and Phoenix Rising FC.
Before the Eastern Conference rivals battle it out under the bright lights, here are three storylines we’re keeping an eye on going into the first and only ESPN2 broadcast of the season.
DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE: The Rowdies enter Wednesday night’s matchup as the last remaining unbeaten team in the Eastern Conference and much of that has to do with the team’s stability on the defensive end. Goalkeeper John McCarthy has come in and solidified a position of need for Tampa Bay and the early results have been stellar. The Rowdies boast the league’s top defense, having conceded just four goals over their opening nine matches.
“I think the biggest really credit we can give to the group that Neill’s offered up is that they’re very well organized, they’re very determined, and they are incredibly tough to play against because of that,” Nashville SC Head Coach Gary Smith said of his opposite number Neill Collins on Tuesday.
The home team isn’t exactly a picnic to play against either though, as Nashville has conceded just seven times over its opening eight games. Both teams are allowing just under four shots on target per 90 minutes, so chances will be at a premium and finishing will be key to getting a result.
OFF THE MARK: Speaking of finishing, the Rowdies will have to vastly improve their quality in the final third if they want to extend that unbeaten run to 10 games. Tampa Bay took 15 shots last time out against 10-men Indy Eleven but failed to hit the target with any of them, marking the first time this season the club had failed to test the opposing goalkeeper.
On the other side, Nashville has managed 13 goals over its opening eight matches – an improvement from the seven it tallied in the same span last season – but still ranks near the middle of the league in offense. Given all the attacking additions the club made this offseason, NSC should be one of the highest-scoring teams in the Championship. A nagging injury to 2018 Golden Boot Winner Cameron Lancaster has certainly stagnated things going forward, but Smith feels the former Louisville City forward is getting close to showing off his best form again.
“He’s in a good place, really pleased with him,” said Smith. “I’m looking forward to getting him out there, I know that he’s absolutely jumping to get on the field and to show everyone what he’s about. After such an exciting year last year, it’s been incredibly frustrating for him, so I know that he’ll certainly be in the right place when he’s called upon.”
BACK IN TOWN: Brandon Allen hasn’t been called upon consistently during his first season in Tampa Bay, but the forward will surely be looking to make an impact on Wednesday night against his former club. Allen tallied eight goals in 2018 during his lone season in Nashville but has mostly occupied a rotational role this season behind Rowdies veteran Sebastian Guenzatti. The 2016 USL Cup winner with the New York Red Bulls II has made three starts and six appearances for the Rowdies, netting a diving header in the club’s 4-1 victory over ATL UTD 2 on April 24. Don’t be surprised if Tampa Bay Head Coach Neill Collins gives him a run out given the extra motivation of facing his old teammates.