Abu Danladi celebrates - Nashville SC - September 12, 2020

Nashville register the performance of the night, Gyasi Zardes is an MLS star and D.C. are not in as bad a spot as their results might lead you to believe.

Expect more winning from Nashville

As bad as Atlanta United have been lately, I just didn’t see this result coming: a 4-2 loss to Nashville SC.

All credit to Nashville for putting in the performance of the day. A few days ago when the Seattle Sounders smashed San Jose 7-1, a lot of people were debating whether that scoreline was a sign of how good the Sounders were or how poor San Jose were. The same questions will be asked here, but I always like to give the winning team credit. No matter how bad, or low on confidence the opponent is, you still have to be able to put them to the sword, and that’s exactly what Nashville did.

But it was still surprising mainly because nothing I’ve seen this season suggested that Nashville could score four goals in a single game — this was the first time they’ve scored more than one goal in any game! Although Atlanta out-possessed and outshot them, the key to Nashville’s win was their efficiency. Four goals from six shots on goal is a recipe for success in any game.

Highlights: Nashville 4, Atlanta 2

Nashville are still a game-changing attacking player from being able to put this kind of performance in consistently — their signing this week of Designated Player Jhonder Cadiz could turn into the solution — but what they did well in this game was to play to their strengths. Two goals came from crosses and two came from direct balls over the top. In Dominique Badji and Abu Danladi, who scored their first goals for the club, they have players who are dangerous when running in behind and that’s what Nashville need to focus on: playing a little direct and forcing opposing defenses to deal with aerial balls, balls in behind and pressure from the forwards.

I don’t expect four-goal games to become the norm for Nashville. They’ll still win more games 1-0 than 4-2, but this is the kind of performance that can spark a run of good results. The spine of their team is actually pretty solid for this league — Walker Zimmerman, Dax McCarty, Hany Mukhtar and Badji. In this game, all of those players played well and that’s what Nashville will need going forward. When your most experienced and capable players are all playing well at the same time, you give yourself a chance to win every game you play.

Zardes has become Mr. Reliable

A few days ago I declared that Jozy Altidore is still the best USMNT forward when healthy. If the USMNT were playing a World Cup Final tomorrow, Altidore would be my No. 9 striker.

While I stand by that, that opinion is as much about Jozy’s ability as it is about the inability of other forwards in the pool to step up and knock him off that perch. A lot of people disagreed with me and I suspect that Gyasi Zardes might be one of them, and I wouldn’t blame him. He scored a goal and caused the other in Crew SC's 2-2 comeback draw against Chicago.

In the last 18 months Zardes has arguably been in the best form of his career and he is a big reason why the Crew are marching towards the Supporters’ Shield and he's in the running for the Audi Golden Boot. He’s always been strong and fast, but his inconsistent first touch and finishing meant that some coaches felt he was more effective on the wing than up top. He even played briefly as a right back. These days there is no question that his best position is at forward.

Watch: Zardes highlights vs. Fire FC

So what’s changed? Honestly, on the surface, not that much. His goal-scoring record for the Crew has been fantastic from day one and he is on track to record his third consecutive season scoring double-digit goals. It’s when you look closely that you begin to see some of the improvements he has made.

For one, his efficiency in 2020 is staggering. Heading into the game against the Chicago Fire, he had seven goals from just 15 shots, 10 of them on target. That’s an exceptional return. His link-up play, his movement in the box, and his ability to get on the end of crosses are all on a different level right now. So many of his goals are one-touch finishes inside the 18-yard box with either foot or his head and he’s a perfect fit for the Crew’s system.

He’s not even someone who needs to be involved in the build-up: He’s content to stay high and apply the final touch to a 10-pass move. As for his first touch, it’ll never be the strongest part of his game, but when I watch I him now I can see the improvement in the way the ball sticks close to his body a little more than it used to in the past.

The Crew are excellent at working the ball out wide and getting good service into the box, and in Zardes they have the perfect No. 9 to get on the end of those deliveries. Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelayaran are the two best attacking players on this team, but on a day when neither one played, Zardes firmly established himself as someone the Crew can rely on to show up when needed.

Time for D.C. players to step up

Nashville are building something special, Zardes is a star and DC are better than you think | Steve Zakuani - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/olsen.png

A pensive Ben Olsen on the sidelines of DC's home loss to NY Red Bulls | Leah Stauffer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not a fun time to be a D.C. United fan — they have only one win in nine matches since coming back to play in July — but let me attempt to offer a silver lining.

First, the brutal truth: Unless several players up their performance level significantly, DC will not make the playoffs. They are a team with proven MLS talent, at least on paper, but right now they are producing way less than the sum of their parts. It’s hard to know exactly what the issue has been — Coaching? Underperforming players? Injuries? It’s probably a little bit of everything.

In their 2-0 home loss to the NY Red Bulls in Week 11, they actually played quite well in the first half and should have scored at least twice if not for the exploits of Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara. Aaron Long’s goal came against the run of play and there were positive signs as to what this D.C. team can be if they perform at their best. Coming off a game in which they didn’t record a single shot (a 0-0 draw vs. NYCFC), this performance was a significant improvement.

Watch: DC's attacking moves vs. RBNY

Kevin Paredes was a livewire all evening. He showed great ability to turn in tight spaces, he was a great link between the holding midfielders and the forwards, and he was behind most of the good from D.C. in the first 45. In Julian Gressel and Ola Kamara they have players who have proven they can be successful in MLS, but they are not playing up to their level right now. On the bench they have Federico Higuain, who isn’t exactly a bad option to throw on late in games. There’s more than enough there to be better than what they have been.

The easy thing to do would be to place all the blame on head coach Ben Olsen, but I’m a firm believer that players have to first look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are happy with what they are doing week in week out. For most of the D.C. squad that answer should be a resounding no. That’s not on coaching, that’s on the players.

D.C. are not on the same level as the Crew or Toronto, but they do have the players to at least be competitive in the East and so this is why it’s so perplexing to see them struggling to score. Some teams struggle to score because they have a hard time creating chances, while others have no problem creating chances but just can’t finish. Before Saturday, D.C. were in that first group, but against the Red Bulls they showed that they have the quality to create really good chances and that’s the silver lining — the chances are there, now the issue will be converting that attacking play into goals.

Fans should only be worried when a team isn’t even capable of creating chances. That’s not D.C.’s problem: They worked the ball into dangerous situations several times against the Red Bulls, but one of their main issues is that they lack players who can consistently create their own shot from nothing and so an obvious solution would be a Designated Player signing who can create chances for himself and galvanize his teammates. Someone like Gonzalo Higuain would have been ideal, but he’s about to sign with Inter Miami although the discovery rights reportedly belong to DC.

Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization