Especially with a home-heavy remaining schedule at brand-new GEODIS Park, Nashville SC are expected to challenge for one of the Western Conference’s top Audi MLS Cup Playoffs spots come the end of the 2022 campaign.

But on Saturday night at Houston Dynamo FC, head coach Gary Smith made clear the Coyotes fell far short of the standard they’ll need to meet.

Playing up a man for 55 minutes after Dynamo defender Adam Lundqvist was shown a red card, Nashville lost 2-0 and landed just two shots on target at PNC Stadium. It came in sharp contrast to their thrilling 3-2 comeback victory midweek over Atlanta United, which booked a Round of 16 spot in their US Open Cup debut.

“The display from an awful lot of individuals that were on the team is nowhere near the standard that we’ve been able to set time and time again,” Smith said. “Is that because of the exploits of Wednesday night, the emotions? Maybe. Was it for a lack of consistency from some of the guys that have come in? Possibly. Was it the changes and the lack of connection in the group? Also maybe.

“I think you’ll understand I’m going down a route of making excuses there and the simple fact is against 10 men for [55] minutes we were unable to show enough cutting edge, enough quality, enough good choices or inspiration. … The only thing I can say is I’ve not seen a performance like that before and I truly hope I don’t see one again.”

Nashville, juggling fixture congestion ahead of the June international break, brought on all three of their Designated Players at various points in the second half: center back Walker Zimmerman, midfielder Hany Mukhtar and forward Ake Loba. But even with that increased firepower, Smith didn’t see the conviction necessary to get a road result.

Phrased another way, the English manager felt the Boys in Gold didn’t have enough players – starters or substitutes – who “made a difference creatively.”

“There’s a lot of players that should be offering more than they have,” Smith said. “That’s not just the guys that started. It is the guys who came into the game, they were unable to lift the group on the field and with an extra man. That always makes life and emotions that much more pointed because you played against 10 men and we really haven’t done enough to question that group.”

The loss at Houston is perhaps a reality check, with Smith feeling it’s more an “anomaly” than revealing deeper issues for a team with big ambitions this year.

“​​I’m having a conversation here with you guys today that I don’t normally have and this is not very enjoyable, as you can well imagine,” Smith said. “I’m pleased that I don’t have to sit here too often and talk in this manner and feel this way. But today was the first time I’ve seen a group of players that we’ve put on the field who have been nowhere near the task at hand, nowhere near it. There was no urgency, there was no drive or ambition about our play.

“… We paid a price for that. You cannot compete in this league and come in below par. Teams will beat you and they have tonight.”

Nashville will need a big response this coming week, hosting CF Montréal on Wednesday evening (8:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+) before welcoming Atlanta United back to their 30,000-seat venue for a nationally-televised encounter on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes).