For the first five months of the 2021 Major League Soccer season, Nashville SC were one of the best attacking sides in the league. In their first 25 matches, their 43 goals scored were tied for the second best record in the league. In September, though, their attack suddenly cooled off.
After a 5-1 win in Miami in mid-September, Nashville scored just three goals in their next six matches, the worst total in the league. With the playoffs quickly approaching, their floundering attack was a significant concern.
Then came a 6-3 breakout in Cincinnati, where they scored five unanswered goals to come back and earn three points. While the win officially secured a postseason berth, it could prove to have even more significance.
“We’ve found a new way to win a game,” said head coach Gary Smith after the match. “There were two all-important factors tonight. The first was that we win the game, and we’ve done that. The second one when we prepared for this was to change the shape a little bit, add a more attacking look to it, and try to be more aggressive.”
Smith opted to move away from the back three system he had utilized for the previous 15 matches, moving back to the 4-4-1-1 he had used to start the year. While Nashville did score twice in the first half, the attack didn’t really hit its stride until Aké Loba entered as a halftime substitute, earning a goal and an assist in a runaway 45 minutes.
“I’m trying to get the right balance to integrate him into the group, to keep his confidence moving, and to make sure that an important player to us is continually progressing, that he’s not regressing,” said Smith. Loba had been limited to just 380 minutes in 15 prior appearances, but pushed for a larger role with an excellent showing.
The playoff system in MLS doesn’t always favor the best team over the course of the 34 match regular season. Instead, teams who round into form heading into the postseason tend to make deep runs. Seattle Sounders have been the masters of peaking at the right time, qualifying for the playoffs in every season since their 2009 expansion team.
“The main focus of any team, of any coach is to be in the postseason,” said Smith. “The second focus is going to be, ‘do we go into the postseason with some confidence and some belief and some momentum’.”
Nashville still have two difficult matches to play against Orlando City and New York Red Bulls, both vying for a playoff spot. While a blowout win against a historically bad Cincinnati side probably isn’t a reliable measuring stick, Nashville badly needed a confidence boost. They got one, especially for their attackers. Randall Leal, CJ Sapong, Hany Mukhtar and Aké Loba combined for five goals and five assists, revitalizing a struggling attack.
“To have clinched for our second year, two seasons, the history of the club looks good already,” said Smith. “The foundations are strong. The progression of this group has been great. We can be excited about what comes next.”
Regardless of the opponent, that kind of emphatic attacking showing came at a crucial time. With a playoff spot already secured and one hand on second place, Nashville need to continue that attacking form in their final two regular season matches.
Because if Nashville find form heading into the playoffs, they’ll be a team no one wants to play.