A new stadium, an MVP and… a step backwards?

A GIF is worth a thousand words:

The ‘Yotes are the latest in a long string of MLS teams to open the season with a long road trip, barely survive it, and then spend the rest of the year playing like it sapped every single shred of energy out of them. If it wasn’t for Hany Mukhtar putting in an all-timer of a regular season – he’ll be a worthy MVP, and this was clearly a top-10 individual season in league history – Nashville wouldn’t even have made the playoffs.

“If not for their best player being great they’d have been worse” is a bad way to frame a season retrospective, but man, I’ve got no other way to look at this one because there were so many other points at which this team, from which we’ve grown to expect consistency of effort if not always execution, fell short.

Formation and Tactics

It was mostly a 5-3-2, though sometimes it was a 4-2-3-1 and other times it was a 4-4-1-1, and always it was both deep and against the ball.

There are a lot of numbers to put to it, courtesy of TruMedia via StatsPerform:

  • Their possession of 45.8% was 24th in the league.
  • Their possessions won in the attacking third (142) was 19th.
  • Their possessions won in the middle third (701) was 22nd.
  • They hit the fewest through balls in the league (29) and the fifth-most crosses (680).

But here are the two that really explain it:

  • More than 30% of their final third pass attempts (30.6%, to be precise) were crosses. That’s the highest in the league.
  • Their field tilt of 41.9% – i.e., the share of final third passes they hit – was by far the lowest in the league.

All of these numbers, save for possessions won in the attacking third, show regression from last season. What I’m saying is you’d be understating things if you called this year’s Nashville side “one-dimensional.”


What a dimension it was, though! Mukhtar was excellent in literally every phase of the game – he is the closest thing I’ve seen in this league to prime Landon Donovan when he’s able to get out on the counter, and both the speed and precision of his runs make him damn near untrackable in the open field.

He was great at this all year long, but both his best run and the team’s best run came in a four-game, late-summer stretch following consecutive home losses. Those losses were bad, and Dax McCarty let the team know it after the second of them.

“On the attacking side of the ball, we have to figure out some way to get secondary scoring other than Hany. It’s just a fact,” McCarty said after Mukhtar’s goal was canceled out in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota in August. “If we’re going to be successful, we cannot have him shouldering the burden and the load that he’s shouldering right now. It’s unsustainable in my opinion.”

Dax was wrong – at least in the short term – because this is what happened next:

Armchair Analyst: Hany Mukhtar summer 2022 reel

That was the very best stretch of one of the best individual seasons in league history, and that – combined with the past two years of playoff excellence – is what convinced me to pick Nashville to come out of the West.

Notice, by the way, how many of those goals didn’t come off the counter? How many actually came from pressing or some possession? Those were rare this season.


Turns out Dax was right in the long run, because Hany couldn’t actually sustain that pace. After 10 goal contributions over that four-game stretch, he managed just two more in the final four games of the season, during which Nashville went 1W-1L-2D and dropped down to fifth in the West.

The lone loss of that run, 2-1 at home to Houston, wasn’t really the lowlight of the year – I’d argue it was the Minnesota home loss that prompted McCarty’s postgame presser – but it’s the one that most obviously cost Nashville home-field advantage.

I’m not sure it mattered all that much since Nashville were actually better on the road (7W-5L-5D) than at GEODIS Park (6W-5L-6D), but it was pretty emblematic of this team’s yearlong inability to consistently keep things at a level that could produce the results they expected. So they were either sleepwalking through another disappointment and looking very ordinary or scrambling for their lives and looking spectacular.

It was the opposite of last year in so many ways.


Jacob Shaffelburg, with 2g/0a and lots of running in his 500ish minutes upon moving from Toronto on loan, was pretty good, but not good enough to be called a revelation.

And so the only real thing I can put here is the revelation that this team’s nickname, in certain corners of the fandom, is the ‘Yotes (as in Coyotes). Which I love.

I know it’s not universal, but I had nothing besides “Nashville” to call this team in my column for the first two-and-a-half years of its existence. So you won’t take ‘Yotes from me.


It’s an even year, which meant C.J. Sapong was not going to be as productive as he was last year (this pattern has held true for almost a decade, so I guess we should’ve seen it coming). He didn’t score after May.

Teal Bunbury was good and productive in limited minutes, but he’s also a limited player who doesn’t do the hold-up work Sapong does. Ethan Zubak looked like what he is: a career-long deep reserve.

Any of those three guys would’ve been fine as a backup No. 9. All three of those guys, at this stage of their careers, really only are backup No. 9s. For a good team, anyway.

And so the biggest disappointment was obviously that Ake Loba didn’t make this discussion moot. But Nashville’s record signing, the guy who’s supposed to be the guy up top, managed just one goal in 300 minutes on the dot. He has been a massive bust.

2023 Preview

Five Players to Build Around

  • Mukhtar (AM/SS): Assuming some Bundesliga club doesn’t come in with an offer they can’t refuse, anyway.
  • Walker Zimmerman (CB): Not as great as his two previous seasons, but clearly still one of the very best CBs in the league.
  • Daniel Lovitz (LB): Steady and reliable at a position that’s hard to fill.
  • Shaq Moore (RB): Didn’t cover himself in glory in the playoff loss at LA, but was mostly very good upon his arrival.
  • Dave Romney (CB): Still solid.

Offseason Priority

The obvious thing is Loba. Nashville’s got to find a taker and then use the open DP slot to bring in a high-level No. 9 who can actually be a high-level No. 9, and who can do some of that stuff Dax was talking about to lighten Hany’s load.

But there’s an even bigger threat elsewhere: central midfield. A big part of what made the ‘Yotes better in the second half of 2020 and all of 2021 than they were in 2022 was that they still had Dax and Anibal Godoy as 90-minute, week-in and week-out metronomes. Dax’s ability to play third-line passes to feet in the pockets is unparalleled in MLS history, while Godoy hits inch-perfect left-footed diagonals that crack the field wide open.

Neither guy started the playoff game. Whether this was age-related (Dax is 35, Godoy 32), injury-related (both have had knocks), or a tactical decision (gulp)… not good, man, because Sean Davis and Brian Anunga are merely functional. Neither do the type of things with the ball McCarty and Godoy have done for years.

So whether it’s finding the fountain of youth or making a trade or a signing or whatever, Nashville have to get some sort of in-possession dynamism back into central midfield this winter or they’ll be further from title contention in 2023 than they were in 2021 no matter how they resolve the Loba issue.