Nashville SC’s 3-1 win over Atlanta United was their 10th match of the 2023 MLS season. With about 29% of the season in the books, we’re looking back at 10 statistics that help explain the first part of the Coyotes’ season. Let’s dive in.
1: Six goals conceded
Through 10 matches, Nashville’s defense has conceded just six goals. They’re tied with LAFC for the fewest goals conceded in MLS, despite having played two more matches.
Four of the goals they allowed have come in their final three matches. Despite this, their 0.60 goals conceded per game has them on historic pace.
In 2022, Philadelphia Union set the record for the best defense in a 34-game season, allowing just 26 goals (0.76 goals per game). Real Salt Lake’s 2010 side still holds the record for fewest goals allowed in a single season, conceding just 20 goals in 30 games (0.67 goals per game). If Nashville maintain their current form, they’ll finish 2023 with just 20 goals conceded through 34 games.
2: +3.5 PSxG-GA
A massive part of Nashville’s defensive success is down to Joe Willis. The 34-year-old ‘keeper is in the best form of his career, leading MLS in post shot expected goals minus goals allowed.
What does this mean? If you’ve been around soccer in the last decade, you’ve heard of expected goals, This metric simply calculates the odds of a shot scoring based on where it was taken from on the field and how it was taken (regular shot, header, free kick, counter attack, etc). Post shot expected goals factors in what happens after the shot was taken. Was the shot miss-hit and it rolled out of play for a goal kick, or did the striker put it in the top corner?
Using this metric, Joe Willis has been the best in MLS. Based on where the shots he’s faced have been placed, he’s saved three-and-a-half more goals than expected. While there can also be an element of luck to this, it also shows just how impressive his early-season form has been.
3: 36% possession in wins
Nashville have never been a side that wants to break teams down with the ball. In fact, in their 101 regular season matches in MLS, they’ve only won the possession battle 28 times. And of those 28 matches, they’ve won only eight.
Through 10 games in 2023, only St. Louis City SC (43.3%) and Minnesota United (44.5%) have less possession than Nashville’s 44.5%. In the Coyotes’ four wins this season, they’ve averaged just 36% possession (38% vs NYCFC, 34% vs CF Montréal, 36% vs Orlando and 34% vs Atlanta). That’s despite playing three of those four matches at home.
Possession on its own is a really poor way to look at who controlled the game, and Nashville have a +1.4 expected goal differential from those games. But it’s a clear indicator of how Gary Smith likes his sides to play. Nashville do better when they can play against the ball. Low possession isn’t a bug for Nashville; it’s a feature.
4: 204 crosses
So far in 2023, Nashville have attempted 204 crosses. That’s the fourth-most in MLS, behind only Sporting Kansas City (239), Vancouver Whitecaps (237) and Charlotte FC (226).
This shouldn’t surprise long-time fans of Nashville. Since joining MLS in 2020, Nashville have attempted the fourth-most crosses in the league, behind only New England, Seattle and Real Salt Lake. The problem is that crossing is an inherently low percentage method of creating chances.
A 2021 story from The Athletic‘s Tom Worville noted the following:
The average cross from open play creates a goal just 1.3 per cent of the time, so once in roughly 76 crosses.
Look at goals (and own goals) created within a six-second window of a cross and that jumps up to two per cent and therefore one in every 50.Worville, Tom. “We need to talk about crossing.” The Athletic. April 16, 2021.
Crossing results in a goal between 1.3% and 2% of the time. Nashville rely on crosses to generate a huge bulk of their chances, and certainly for the chances their strikers get. Which leads me to my next point.
5: One goal scored by a striker
Before getting into this point, it’s important to point out that “striker” here refers to CJ Sapong, Teal Bunbury, and Ethan Zubak. The three have each seen minutes for Nashville up front, and while Hany Mukhtar nominally plays as a forward, he’s much more of a “second striker” than a traditional no. 9, like the other three.
Sapong, Bunbury and Zubak have played a total of 897 league minutes in 2023. The three have combined for a single goal – Bunbury’s rebound against Atlanta. It’s not like they’ve had chances and failed to finish, either. They’ve taken 15 total shots and put just five of them on target.
Contrast that to Hany Mukhtar, who has 30 shots, 11 on target and three goals in 857 minutes. Nashville certainly could use a high end option up top, but getting better service to their forwards has to be a priority.
6: Eight combined goals and assists from Hany Mukhtar
While Nashville’s strikers have struggled, their MVP hasn’t. Despite not starting the first two matches of the season, Mukhtar is off to his best 10-game start to an MLS season.
Mukhtar hasn’t dropped off since his MVP-winning campaign in 2022. In fact, you could argue he’s improved. So far in 2023, he’s averaging 0.92 goals and assists every 90 minutes. Through 10 games in 2022, he averaged just 0.61. For a player with a history of slow starts, as well as a history of taking off down the stretch, Mukhtar has been ahead of schedule this season.
7: 1.83 points per game at home
Nashville’s form at Geodis Park in 2022 was disappointing. That’s probably putting it kindly. The ‘Yotes won just six of 17 matches at their brand new stadium, averaging 1.41 points per game.
Their form at home has improved in 2023. The ‘Yotes have already won half as many games at Geodis Park as they did in 2022, and they’ve only played 35% of their home matches.
Their loss to FC Cincinnati and draw with Toronto FC were poor, but they’ve had strong showings otherwise. With a much easier schedule for the rest of the season, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that Nashville will finish with a significantly improved home record in 2023.
8: 29.9 average age
Nashville have fielded the oldest lineups in MLS. The average age of players to see the field for Nashville is 29.9 years old, the oldest team in MLS.
This isn’t a new phenomenon – they lead MLS in this category in 2022. But Fafà Picault and Ján Greguš, the two new additions who have seen the field this season, are both 32. That, along with the fact that the rest of the roster is a year older, has increased their average age from 28.7 last season to 29.9 this year.
9: 21 players used
Through 10 matches, only 21 players have seen the field for Nashville. That’s the lowest number in MLS.
It’s not a wildly low number, with the median number of players used at 23. But with just 16 players having started a match for Nashville this year, I think it shows two things.
First, Nashville have a core that has been relatively unchanged for four seasons. Of those 16 players who have started in 2023, 10 of them were on the roster in Nashville’s expansion season. Mike Jacobs and Nashville have avoided roster turnover and maintained essentially the same team for four seasons, with a couple of key additions.
And second, it’s really hard to break into Gary Smith’s preferred group. Only three players who weren’t on the roster at the start of last season (Shaq Moore, Jacob Shaffelburg and Fafà Picault) have started a match in 2023. Nashville seem poised to make additions in the summer transfer window. How quickly those additions can break into the team will be a significant storyline to watch.
10: 4.62 strength of schedule
According to our Overall Performance Index model, Nashville have played the fourth most difficult strength of schedule in MLS thus far. Their strength of schedule score is 4.62, up 151% from the league-average 3.06.
Only Portland (5.96), Salt Lake (5.62) and Cincinnati (4.71) have played a more difficult opening 10 games than Nashville. And of those four, only Cincinnati have taken more points (21) than Nashville’s 15. The ‘Yotes have weathered arguably the most difficult part of the season. Whether or not they will take points from lesser opposition is the question.
Bonus stat: 400 career starts
Against LAFC, Dax McCarty became just the third outfield player in MLS history to start 400 career regular season matches. Only MLS legends Kyle Beckerman and Chad Marshall started more games in their careers.
It’s a major milestone for not just one of Nashville’s most important players, but a player who will eventually end his career as one of the best to ever do it in MLS.