For the first half of the year:
- Hany Mukhtar is a Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate again. I can’t believe how good this guy’s been for three years running.
- The defense doesn’t look quite as good as last year but hey, they’re doing ok.
- Man, they sure could use a DP No. 9. They’ve got that spot open… when will they make the move?
For Leagues Cup:
- Hany’s not scoring much but damn, this guy’s so good!
- The defense doesn’t look as great as last year. I’m sure it’ll turn around.
- Dax McCarty, fighting off Father Time one game at a time! It looks like 2013 again with this guy.
- Guys, I think they finally found their DP No. 9. Sam Surridge looks LEGIT!
- Damn, Messi’s unbelievable but I think this is the real version of Nashville.
- Uh, is Hany broken?
- The defense just isn’t as good as last year.
- Dax and Godoy logged a lot of miles in Leagues Cup, so they understandably lost a step here.
- Uh, is Surridge broken?
So in the end, the Leagues Cup form we saw from the ‘Yotes was, sadly, the outlier. They were so damn good in that tournament – much of it, as always, coming on the break or against the ball, but with lots of it coming from really nice moments of sustained possession – that it felt like they’d turned the corner and become the kind of “bend you with Plan A, break you with Plan B” team that does murder down the stretch and into the playoffs. McCarty and Godoy running the show from deep, Hany dropping in under a truly goal-dangerous No. 9, the center backs spraying passes and the fullbacks getting forward…
Nashville had all of that: the best low-block counterattacking team in the league, but also an ability to play straight through your press with energy and precision, and just rip you apart with the ball.
For whatever reason – maybe it was dead legs, maybe it was the emotional toll of coming so close to Leagues Cup glory, maybe it was a game model that’s tilted pretty heavily toward sitting deep – they never brought that to bear on opponents during the regular season. It just didn’t work.
Formation & Tactics
As mentioned, Nashville were primarily a counterattacking team. That’s Gary Smith’s bread and butter and I don’t think he should toss it in the bin just because this season ultimately had a disappointing conclusion.
The one stat that really tells the story is field tilt, which is the share of final-third passes a team hits. Nashville were down to 41% this year, dead last in the league and well under their mark of 45.3% from two years ago.
They are effectively trading possession and field position for space to attack into. Here is the issue, though: Nashville’s direct speed of 1.36 meters/second was only 17th in MLS. In 2022 they were 1.5m/s, and in 2021 they were 1.54m/s.
So as they’ve shifted deeper and deeper they also become slower and more ponderous. I think this speaks directly to McCarty spending more time on the bench (injuries & rest) this year – he remains the best d-mid on the team at playing the ball quickly and accurately upfield to get the attackers on the ball in spots where they can just go. I’m talking third-line passes up the gut, and I’m not sure I can name two d-mids in league history who’ve been better at those.
Anyway, they struggled to marry their personnel to their game model, though as always Smith deserves credit for having a team well-drilled enough defensively to flit from one shape (4-4-1-1 is his favorite) to another (he used the 3-5-2 really well to effectively mirror teams like Cincinnati) to another (4-4-2 diamond always makes an appearance) to another (we even saw a 4-3-3 with Hany inverted once or twice).
Whatever the formation, though, the Achilles’ heel that’s been a part of Nashville since their arrival in MLS four years ago remained apparent: If you scored first on them, they had very few ideas for how to claw back into the game. Lots of launch and pray.
After a kind of meh group stage, Nashville beat Cincy on PKs in the Leagues Cup Round of 32, then got past Club América on PKs in one of the wildest games you’ll ever see.
The quarterfinals came and they stuffed a previously red-hot Minnesota team in a locker, winning a 5-0 laugher. But up next, in the semifinals, were Monterrey. And MLS teams don’t beat Monterrey.
Nashville hadn’t gotten that memo:
Look, there are some caveats here (the main one being Monterrey had been on the road for three weeks at this point). But this is still a monumental win.
Coming off that Leagues Cup run they had 10 more regular-season games, more than enough to make a push up the standings and get home-field advantage for at least one round of the playoffs.
They won just two of those 10. They scored in just four of them.
Then they went into the playoffs, got shut out twice and it was one-two-three Cancun.
Smith doesn’t play young guys, so you don’t get a lot of the traditional candidates for “revelation” status here. The closest, I guess, would be 24-year-old center back Jack Maher, the former No. 2 overall pick whose development has been slow-played. He's now probably one of the 10-12 best center backs in the league and was basically an every-game starter this season.
The biggest disappointment was Surridge couldn’t keep his Leagues Cup form going into the regular season. He was supposed to lighten Hany’s load, but by September the reigning MVP had as much work to do as ever.
Five Players to Build Around
- Hany (AM): I’ll be genuinely shocked if he’s not still Best XI-caliber next year.
- Walker Zimmerman (CB): When healthy, he remains one of the best in the league.
- Maher (CB): Was very good, and has the potential to be even better.
- Surridge (FW): Strong David Gass Theorem candidate. The dude can play.
- Daniel Lovitz (LB): Even as he peers at his mid-30s, he remains one of the steadiest two-way left backs in MLS and a true ironman.
1 – Get a playmaking winger/wide midfielder who can bring a third heat to the attack, preferably someone with the 1v1 and final-ball ability to take advantage of the space Hany’s gravity opens up.
2 – A succession plan for Dax (and to be clear, I’m not even sure he’s going to be back in Nashville next year, so succession planning now might be too late).
I know that mistake against Orlando in Match 2 of Round One (which turned into the final game of the season) left a bad taste for some folks, but the last time the ‘Yotes won a game he didn’t start was June 4, and the best stretch of the season – that Leagues Cup run – coincided with Dax getting on the ball and ton, turning back the clock and balling out.
Sean Davis and Brian Anunga are solid, no-frills ball-winners, and Godoy still covers ground and hits a killer diagonal. But it’s Dax who sets the tempo (or quickens it) with those third-line passes up the gut, and there’s been no replacing that for this side since they came into MLS.
3 – Just more depth overall, and a big part of this will come down to Smith’s willingness to play a few more kids. This season they had their oldest roster ever, used the fewest players in MLS and were absolutely wiped out by September.
Well, guess what? Next year they’ll have even more on their plate, as their Leagues Cup run also qualified them for the Concacaf Champions Cup. By the time it’s all said and done, 2024 will see them take the field something like 50 times. Maybe more.
It’s on the front office to bring in more talent, but it’s on the coach to keep this group fresh and humming.