First expansion team in MLS history to win a playoff game during each of their first two seasons.
A gif is worth a thousand words:
There are a lot of ways to improve year-over-year, but the two most obvious ones are to collect more points per game, and to play better soccer. Nashville checked both those boxes, earned themselves a home playoff game in the process, won it and then gave a full-strength Union side hell before getting Andre Blake’d in the PK shootout.
They did it all by playing a wildly unbalanced schedule (almost everything at home in the first half of the year and, subsequently, a lot of time on the road in the second half) and while fighting through a weird propensity for conceding early goals and set-piece goals.
It was a really good year for Nashville, a clear step forward.
Formation and tactics
One of the most significant adjustments of the year, from anyone, was Gary Smith’s decision to scrap the 4-2-3-1 – which his team had spent damn near every single moment of their debut season playing out of – for a 3-5-2. It came about a third of the way into the season, in the midst of a stretch during which Nashville were playing well, but were conceding too many soft goals.
The 3-5-2 helped on that side of the ball (just getting another center back out there is often a good move). It also helped put Hany Mukhtar into more of a free attacking role rather than pinning him to one of the wings or making him dictate the game as a No. 10.
And tactically, a lot of what Nashville did flowed from that. Mukhtar likes to drift over to the left, so there were a lot of overloads out there with left wingback Daniel Lovitz and central midfielder Randall Leal joining Mukhtar, trying to slip the No. 10 through the lines or get him on the ball in the half-space.
Defensively, Nashville didn’t take a lot of risks and were one of the best teams in the league in organized defense. That’s a good recipe for losing very few games and, well, they tied the league record with just four losses all season. And even their playoff “defeat” goes down in the books as a draw.
Just really, really tough to beat.
They had a few attacking explosions throughout the year – starting in July they’d have one game a month where they went absolutely bonkers, dropping at least five goals (the victims, in order: Chicago, D.C., Miami and finally Cincinnati). There were long unbeaten runs, as befitting a team with so few losses, the best of which was the shortest: A five-game stretch from mid-August to mid-September in which they went 4-0-1 with each of those results coming against teams that were seriously in the playoff hunt.
If you do that well in your late-summer six-pointers, you’re probably going to end up in a good spot come autumn. And that’s how it went.
But let’s not fool ourselves: The highlight was the playoff win over Orlando City. Nashville, in their typical fashion, went down 1-0 early off a set piece, then just started plugging away. Mukhtar equalized within seven minutes and, midway through the second half, he and CJ Sapong contrived this 2-v-6 winner:
This is some Clint Dempsey/Obafemi Martins sh**. It’s glorious.
A week after that they went to Chester, scored a beautiful team goal that came after a 16-pass build-up, and generally bottled up the Union for the first 45 minutes. Then Philly got a corner just before the half and, to paraphrase from The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal, farted home the equalizer.
Two playoff games, two goals conceded off of corners. I have no idea why Nashville were so soft on restarts this past year, and judging by the quotes, neither does two-time Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman, neither does Gary Smith, neither does Joe Willis, neither does anyone involved.
Given their defensive ethos and personnel, it’s supremely weird.
It takes a lot for me to list a DP as a revelation, but Mukhtar cleared that bar. He had just 5g/4a in all competitions last year and just wasn’t that effective on a moment-to-moment basis.
Now he’s the poster child for “even with DPs you should probably be patient and wait a full year before passing judgment,” because he was absolutely brilliant in 2021: 19g/12 in about 2700 all competition minutes, including three goals in two playoff games. He was a top-three MVP candidate – for me it was basically a coin toss between him, Joao Paulo and eventual winner Carles Gil. (No, I don’t have a three-sided coin, but you get what I mean)
He’ll be at the center of everything the Six Strings* do over the next half-decade at least. He could end up being their Diego Valeri.
* I like this nickname a lot even if it’s divisive among the fanbase. We’ve just got to find another name for this team besides calling them “Nashville” every time, and no, “The Boys in Gold” ain’t it.
As of now, the disappointment is Mukhtar's the only big-name import Nashville can say that about. I’ll let Ben’s tweet do some work here:
Obviously, Mukhtar’s breakout campaign should inform our thinking here. Ake Loba and Rodrigo Pineiro almost certainly aren’t going to be MVP candidates in Year 2, but massive year-over-year improvement would not be shocking, right?
Still, it’s disappointing only one of the big-money signings has hit thus far. If it’d been more than that then Nashville might’ve turned a few of those record-tying 18 draws into wins, and instead of going to Chester they’d have hosted the Union.
And if that was the case, well, I think things would’ve turned out different.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Mukhtar (AM/SS): I think he’s better as a second forward, and thus I suspect the 3-5-2 is here to stay.
- Zimmerman (CB): I didn’t have him as my Defender of the Year, but I won’t argue too hard against him winning again, and I don’t have any issue with calling him the league’s best center back.
- Leal (AM): Not a pure playmaker, but he was productive going forward and an asset defensively, making him a very snug fit in that 3-5-2 ahead of the veteran central midfield and behind Mukhtar and whoever happens to be the target man.
- Alistair Johnston (RWB/RCB/RB): Johnston was great for club and country in 2021 no matter where Smith or John Herdman slotted him into the XI. I think I like him best as a RCB in a back three, but he’s an asset no matter where he plays.
- Jack Maher (CB): Nashville took a lot of understandable shtick for drafting Maher ahead of Daryl Dike last year, but he gave them 1800 good minutes as a 21-year-old CB and has the look of a guy who will stay in that starting lineup for a decade.
Getting either Loba or Pineiro to become contributors would be nice, and obviously a big part of what’s to come has to be internal development aimed at those two guys, and maybe Jhonder Cadiz (should he be brought back). There is also the case of the likely-to-be-open DP slot, though my guess is the front office won’t choose to fill that until the summer window.
And now we get to the elephant in the room: A ton of this team’s success over the past two years has come from absolutely crushing it with their intra-league signings. Anibal Godoy was amazing in 2021, as was his central midfield partner Dax McCarty and left wingback Daniel Lovitz. Goalkeeper Joe Willis put in another very good year, as did Sapong at center forward
Those guys will respectively be 32, 35, 30, 33 and 33 next season. None of them look like they’re coming to the very end of their respective runs, and there are clear succession plans in place at a couple of spots, but the clock is ticking. And that central midfield duo, in particular, is irreplaceable.
Finding the next Dax McCarty is sure to be hard. But they should be trying to do that.