How Leagues Cup reinvented Nashville SC’s season

After an average start to the 2023 season, Nashville SC went on a 10 games unbeaten streak. During the run, many saw them as the only contender to battle Cincinnati for the Supporters Shield. 

Unfortunately for the Boys in Gold, that run didn’t last. Sometime in the middle of June, the losses started coming. Nashville lost five out of the last six games before the Leagues Cup, and before they knew it, they were no longer a contender for the Supporters Shield. They received five red cards in those six games and morale was at an all-time low. 

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Then came the Leagues Cup, the highly marketed, but also highly questioned tournament. Not sure what to expect, Nashville SC entered the tournament with hopes of getting back into form. At the very least getting back to not averaging one red card per match. 

However, the Leagues Cup provided a lot more than just that.

Ahead of their big match against Messi and Inter Miami, we’re taking a look at what the Leagues Cup did for Nashville SC. 

Building back squad confidence and belief

Nashville had lost five of their six matches prior to heading into the Leagues Cup. It seems hard to remember that far back, but there were serious questions about Nashville heading into Leagues Cup. They’d dropped down the table, Mukhtar was struggling to have an impact, and the lack of secondary scoring felt as prominent as ever.

Now, they’ve made it to the first-ever cup final appearance as a club. In the process, they went to TQL Stadium and knocked off FC Cincinnati. More importantly, they pulled off huge victories against continental giants Club América and Monterrey.

The narrative that Nashville are purely a defensive team has been outdated for a while. This tournament has shown that to a much larger audience. They’ve taken risks in possession. They haven’t been afraid against some of the best teams on the continent. They’ve been dynamic while staying organized. They’ve finally played up to their potential.

Acclimating Sam Surridge

Nashville’s newest signing, Sam Surridge, was an unknown quantity in MLS. Whenever he was discussed, his success in the Championship in England was always coupled with his “struggles” in the Premier League. 

Nashville and their fans had high hopes for Surridge from the moment he signed, but new signings are always risky. Surridge came to Nashville after his summer holidays and without a preseason. His last competitive action was a two-minutes-cameo at the end of May. He played a total of 12 competitive minutes in May and his last start was in early February. 

At the time of his signing, it was expected for Surridge to take a month or more to acclimate to Nashville and get back into match fitness. The Leagues Cup provided that opportunity for the DP striker. 

With that said, not even the biggest optimist could’ve predicted a better start. After scoring a last minute equalizer in his debut, Surridge stepped up and scored in the penalty shootouts with a nice “panenka.” After a performance like that, he almost immediately earned legendary status with Nashville fans.

Things didn’t stop there, he also scored in his next appearance against Minnesota. Then in the semi-final when Nashville needed a goal, Surridge came in at half time and scored to give Nashville the lead.

Three goals in three substitute appearances turned Surridge from an unknown quantity to one of the hottest strikers in MLS. Not only that, his combination play with Hany Mukhtar seems to be off to a great start, with two of his goals assisted by the German.

Reenergizing Hany Mukhtar 

Hany Mukhtar only has two goals during Nashville’s Leagues Cup run, but he hasn’t been quiet. His five assists are second-only to Minnesota’s Emmanuel Reynoso, he has the second-most chances created in the tournament, and he had a worldie of a goal disallowed for… questionable reasons.

Mukhtar has been as influential to Nashville as ever. He orchestrated their 5-0 demolition of Minnesota United, was instrumental in their wins over Club América and Monterrey, and continues to be their most important player. 

But now, maybe for the first time, he has players around him who will consistently step up and take some of the burden around him. Surridge has been a massive, massive boost for Nashville. Jacob Shaffelburg and Fafà Picault have both stepped up. Even Teal Bunbury has chipped in with a goal. Nashville finally look like a more complete attacking unit, and Hany Mukhtar is the biggest beneficiary. 

Putting the penalty kicks “curse” behind 

Even before MLS, Nashville SC just couldn’t figure out how to win in penalties. They lost every single competitive shootout before the leagues cup, 2018 USL playoffs, 2019 U.S. Open Cup and of course 2021 MLS playoffs at Philadelphia Union. 

Nashville faithful were not optimistic seeing the game against Cincinnati head into penalty kicks, but the Boys in Gold proved that they’ve moved on from the curse. They scored all five penalties and advanced to the next round. 

Then came the Club América shootout, amidst all the craziness, retakes and pressure, the Boys in Gold were able to pull off another PKs win. These two results don’t guarantee Nashville to win in penalties every time, but the team will feel a lot more confident going into penalties in the future. 

Nashville SC: Rise of Panicco

Just like Nashville SC, “backup” goalkeeper Elliot Panicco didn’t have the best starts to the Leagues Cup. He started against Toluca in the group stage, but he didn’t look his best in the 4-3 loss. 

Then, to everyone’s surprise, Gary Smith decided to bring Panicco in for the PKs against Cincinnati, a fairly uncommon tactic with a high potential to backfire. That didn’t phase Panicco and he seized the moment by saving Matt Miazga’s penalty. 

A few days later, he was brought on for the same reason, this time against Club América. Another penalty saved in a consecutive shootout earned him the title of a “specialist.” Most importantly, he achieved hero status with #EveryoneN.

Things didn’t stop there for the helmet-wearing hero, while Joe Willis was out of the squad for a family emergency, Panicco started the next two matches in the Leagues Cup. He earned clean sheets against Minnesota and Monterrey and established himself as more than just a penalties specialist.

Panicco left his mark on the Leagues Cup and most likely will start in the final against Messi and friends. It’s unclear who starts for Nashville SC once MLS play resumes, but one thing we know is that Gary Smith is not going to have an easy decision to make.

Author: Valair Shabillamoved to Nashville as a refugee from Iraq at the age of 14. A fan of soccer from a young age, he used soccer to connect with a larger community in Nashville and adapt to life abroad. He's covered Nashville SC since 2019, co-hosting Pharmaceutical Soccer, and analyzing soccer from an audio/video perspective.

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