Five thoughts as Nashville SC’s second season in MLS comes to an end

Nashville SC’s second season in MLS came to an end last night as the Boys in Gold fell on the road to the Philadelphia Union

Taking stock of the season as a whole, here are my initial thoughts as the 2021 campaign comes to a close.

1. This was a wildly successful season

After the sting of yesterday’s loss to Philadelphia wears off, Nashville supporters should be extremely proud of what this team accomplished in 2021.

Only the most optimistic of preseason prognosticators picked Nashville to finish in the top four, and I cannot imagine that anyone would have predicted that the club would finish tied for the fewest losses in a season in MLS history. Nashville even managed to qualify for the 2022 Leagues Cup. 

While Nashville certainly would have liked a better finish in the playoffs, I wholeheartedly believe the vast majority of supporters would have eagerly signed up for these results back in April. 

With the success of the first two seasons, you can officially remove the label “expansion club” from Nashville SC. Such monikers are befitting of those still struggling to get off the ground in Miami and Cincinnati, but the label “expansion club” no longer fits Nashville SC. This is a club that is ready and able to compete for trophies.

2. Set piece defending was this team’s achilles heel

In a way, it is fitting that Philadelphia’s game-tying goal came from a corner kick. Set piece defending was Nashville’s achilles heel all season. 

In 2021, Nashville conceded 15 goals from set-piece situations, one of the worst marks in the league.

The good news for 2022 is that Nashville may have just been extremely unlucky. Nashville gave up significantly more goals from dead ball situations than the underlying numbers would suggest they should have conceded. I would expect a regression back toward the mean next year. 

The following two graphs show Nashville’s shot attempts and goals conceded directly from a dead ball pass for both the 2021 and 2020 seasons. To be clear, FBRef defines these dead ball pass statistics as shot attempts and goals that come directly off the dead ball pass. This includes goals such as Daryl Dike’s header against Nashville in the first round of the playoffs, but would not capture Philadelphia’s goal last night as the ball took a few touches following the corner kick before finding the back of the net.

In 2021, Nashville allowed the sixth fewest shots from dead ball passes but the most goals from those same dead ball passes. This suggests that Nashville may simply have been unlucky as a greater percentage of shot attempts found their way into the back of the net.

Despite the underlying numbers being kinder to Nashville, I do wish we would see Walker Zimmerman man-marking the opposing team’s best aerial threat. It is not fair to ask Daniel Lovitz to try and body out Daryl Dike.

3. The midseason formation switches freed Hany Mukhtar

One of the big questions entering the season concerned whether Hany Mukhtar would establish himself as a player befitting his status as Nashville’s highest paid player. Mukhtar resoundingly answered the question. He finished the season as a MVP finalist after leading the league in combined goals and assists. One of the keys to unlocking Hany Mukhtar was Gary Smith’s change in formations. 

Nashville entered the season playing in the same 4-2-3-1 system as the 2020 season. But like the broader soccer world, Gary Smith transitioned to a three center-back lineup midway through the season. 

Nashville’s transition away from the 4-2-3-1 that served as the base formation for Nashville’s inaugural MLS season began as a two-striker, 4-4-2 formation while Hany Mukhtar dealt with a minor injury. When Mukhtar returned to the lineup, Smith allowed Mukhtar to play with a little more freedom as a secondary striker rather than a creative fulcrum as a center nexus of the 4-2-3-1 formation. 

The move yielded immediate dividends. In Mukhtar’s first start following his return from injury, he delivered two crucial goals in Atlanta in a memorable come-from-behind draw. The second goal came from Mukhtar being given the freedom to sit on the back shoulder of the last defender. It put him in position to pounce on a rebound attempt and slot home his second goal.

The switch to the three-defender formation finally came in an early July victory against Philadelphia. Just two weeks later came Mukhtar’s brilliant hattrick against Chicago that vaulted him into the MVP conversation.

Allowing Mukhtar to play with more freedom in the attacking third unlocked his potential to be the game changer that Nashville desperately needed following its first season struggles to score with consistency. The tactical switch spurred Mukhtar’s MVP finalist campaign.

4. Nashville needed better production from their high-priced attackers

Whether due to personal shortcomings, failure by Gary Smith to integrate new players, or some combination of a lot of various factors, Nashville SC needed better production from Aké Loba, Jhonder Cádiz, and Rodrigo Piñeiro. 

Combined, Nashville pays $2.69 million in salary and spent a reported $8.6 million in transfer fees to acquire the attacking trio. Mike Jacobs invested a significant amount of financial resources in these three.To whom much is given, much is required. These three failed to deliver in the 2021 season based on the money spent. 

But with the season on the line in Philadelphia, none of these three high-priced attackers were selected to take a penalty kick against Andre Blake. Two of them didn’t even see the field.

In 2021, the trio played only 1,089 minutes and scored just four goals. If Nashville wants to get over the hump and truly compete for a MLS Cup, it needs greater production from its most highly paid attackers. 

5. The attendance numbers show strong support for the club

Strong attendance numbers were never a given. While Nashville supporters universally thought it was a bad take, there was a prevailing question nationally about the level of support Nashville would enjoy. 

It is safe to say that Nashville SC supporters and the larger public have laid those concerns to rest.

Nashville finished the regular season with the league’s seventh highest attendance.

The average attendance figure looks even better when you consider that 2021 was still a very odd year for sporting events. The on-going global pandemic certainly suppresses attendance figures. Regardless of the pandemic affecting attendances, Nashville finishing in the top ten for average attendance is a significant accomplishment for the club. It demonstrates that the club is establishing a foothold in the market. 

The attendance numbers should rise next season as the club moves into their new home at the Fairgrounds.

With more than five months until the first home match in 2022, there is still plenty of time to add even more season ticket holders. I would be completely shocked if the final season ticket numbers do not finish well north of 20,000. Early returns point to Nashville being a strong MLS market that will support this club. 

These are just my initial thoughts as the season comes to a close. During the winter offseason, we will discuss a lot more in depth about where this club is and where it needs to go. After all, there really is no offseason for Nashville SC. The roster decisions made in December and January will reverberate throughout 2022.

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