Nashville SC are four games into their 2022 season, and the outlook from vocal corners of the fanbase seems pretty bleak. The Coyotes have taken four points from as many matches, but after suffering two consecutive losses for the first time since August 26, 2020, 570 days ago.
Part of this negativity is simply because Nashville fans have been spoiled by an incredibly successful team. Nashville’s unprecedented success as an expansion team has been widely documented, but the team lost just four matches in total all last year. They’ve hit 50% of that within four games.
Part of it is also in how the two losses came about. Nashville were absolutely dominated by Dallas in their 2-0 loss. Even though it took a questionable penalty to break the deadlock, the Boys In Gold were fortunate to keep the score level as late as they did.
Their loss to Real Salt Lake was an entirely different match. Nashville put in one of their better attacking performances since they entered Major League Soccer (that’s not hyperbole), but their confounding issues defending set pieces left them with nothing.
It’s easy to get caught up in the wave of negativity surrounding the last two matches, but context is important. To put things into perspective, let’s look at how Nashville started their other two season in MLS.
|Year||Points||xPoints||Goals for||Goals against||xG for||xG against||Minutes behind|
In 2020, Nashville lost their first two games of the season. Although the advanced metrics say they were the better team, they lost 2-1 at home to Atlanta United and 1-0 to Portland on the road. After a five month break due to Covid, they returned with two away matches against FC Dallas. They won the first in a match where Dallas dominated, and drew the second 0-0, despite outshooting the home side 21-12.
In 2021, Nashville started the season off with a rare four match home stand, all four against teams who finished below Nashville in the previous table. Nashville gave up two goal leads to both Cincinnati and Montreal before fighting back to 2-2 draws. Gamestate is important here, the Coyotes outshot their opponents 49-16 in their first to matches. Nashville then drew an awful Miami side 0-0 at home, giving fans a week long existential crisis before bouncing back with a dominant 2-0 win over New England, who went on to win the Supporters Shield and set the single-season points record.
In 2022, Nashville started the season with a win against perennial contenders Seattle Sounders, who were in the midst of a difficult stretch in Concacaf Champions League. They then drew Minnesota United, another playoff team, before losing to FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake.
Nashville have consistently under-performed to start the season. They’ve taken less than their expected points in the first four matches of each year, they’ve scored below their expected goals, and they’ve dropped points in games where the eye test says they were dominant. In all three seasons, they’ve given up goals because of sloppy defensive mistakes and missed chances they should have scored.
The difference in 2022 is that they’re on the road for the first eight matches. This horse has been beaten to death many times over, but it’s a necessary point to make. It’s harder to win on the road in MLS than it is anywhere else in the world.
Since 2001, MLS teams have averaged just 0.90 points on the road. Nashville are currently ahead of that pace.
Playoff teams have averaged 1.08 points on the road. Nashville are nearly on track for that.
Teams finishing in the top four have averaged 1.2 points on the road. Nashville aren’t far behind, and could well finish their eight match road stretch at that pace.
Before the season began, I predicted Nashville would finish with nine points from their first eight matches, and despite losses in their last two matches, they’re still well within reach of that mark.
It’s not an excuse for their results, but it’s simply a fact; winning on the road in MLS is incredibly hard.
Are Nashville underperforming?
Here’s a cop out answer. Yes and no.
Yes, they should have won in Salt Lake, probably by multiple goals. In expected goals terms, it was their third most dominant performance ever in MLS, adding to the sting of the result. And while their defensive performance especially was frustrating, it’s worth knowing that RSL scored with their only two shots on target. Performances like that from Nashville will result in three points more often than not.
Yes, the 2-0 loss to Dallas was one of their worst performances in MLS, but Dallas have proven to be one of the hottest teams in MLS through four games. They beat the 2021 Western Conference champions 4-1 on the road this weekend.
No, Nashville did not underperform in Seattle. They didn’t underperform in Minnesota, and with a correct call on Hany Mukhtar’s penalty shout, they could have taken two more points.
Let’s remember how Nashville started 2021 and how they finished. After drawing three home matches against three non-playoff sides, they finished the season tied on points for second place, putting together one of the best defensive seasons in league history, with an MVP candidate leading the way. It’s also worth pointing out that Hany Mukhtar, who emerged in 2021 as one of the league’s best players, started the year incredibly slowly, even getting dropped in their fifth match.
As frustrating as the last two weeks have been for Nashville SC fans, it’s important to keep perspective. By the time they play their first home match of the year on May 1, they’ll have played 47% of their road matches in just 24% of the season. They’ll close out the season with 17 games at home and nine on the road, more than enough time to gain ground on teams ahead of them. Averaging a point a game on the road over the next four games may well include another frustrating loss without indicating excessive problems at the club.
Yeah, they need to clean up set piece defending. And yes, I have legitimate concerns with how they have integrated Aké Loba and plan to use him. But talk of hitting the panic button or parting ways with Gary Smith is a wild overreaction.
Despite the two consecutive losses, Nashville aren’t close to being in trouble yet.