Nashville SC ended the 2023 season by crashing out of the playoffs. They failed to score a goal in five of their last six matches.
It’s not a huge surprise for those of us who have watched this team in the second half of the season. While there were some glimpses of positive play, things have been largely dire for the Boys in Gold since their loss to Inter Miami CF in the Leagues Cup final.
If you go for a quick browse on your favorite social media platform, you’ll see most of the blame is being put on Gary Smith. While the front office and the players are being mentioned, Smith is taking the brunt of the online criticism.
This isn’t surprising; it’s a common theme in soccer (and sports in general) to blame the manager or coach first. After all, it’s much easier to “part ways” with one guy than to replace 11 players. This isn’t going to be a “defend Gary Smith” type of piece, but it’s a deeper dive into, what I believe, is Nashville’s first season to end in failure.
We’ll break this into two parts, looking at the roster building side of the equation today and rounding things out with a look at coaching and player performance tomorrow.
Let’s start with player recruitment. We’ve all heard it; Mike Jacobs’ domestic scouting is outstanding. I don’t doubt that one bit. Jacobs has been able to secure top talent for relatively cheap prices, both in acquisition costs and salary.
However, I think where Nashville fell short was with the quantity of talented players. Every successful team in MLS or otherwise has three tiers of players: the starters, the challengers and the rotation/squad depth.
Three tiers of players
In 2023 Nashville had the starters. Hany Mukhtar, Walker Zimmerman, Shaq Moore, and others were all above-average performers at their positions. They also had the third tier players, players like Brian Anunga, Luke Haakenson, and Taylor Washington who provide occassional fill-in minutes at a cap friendly budget hit. However, the big missing piece was tier two players, “the challengers.”
The role of tier two players is to push and compete with the starters. In 2023, Nashville SC only had real competition in two or three positions. At the wing, Fafà Picault and Jacob Shaffelburg were in a constant battle to earn starting minutes. Similarly, Jack Maher and Lukas MacNaughton had a competition to partner Walker Zimmerman at the back. You could maybe include Elliot Panicco and Joe Willis in this category in goal.
Other than those mentioned above, everyone in Nashville’s starting lineup was obvious. When available, Lovitz, Moore, Zimmerman, McCarty, Godoy, Leal, Mukhtar, Surridge were almost guaranteed to start. They had zero competition and at no point were they challenged by another member of the squad, coming out of the lineup only when rotation was mandated by the schedule.
Sean Davis played almost 2,500 minutes in all competitions, but if Smith had the option to play Dax McCarty in front of him every game, he would have. Players filled in for Zimmerman and Randall Leal when they were injured (they missed a combined 27 games this season), but they both reclaimed their position upon returning from injury.
If you want to take this tiers theory a bit further, tier three players rarely pushed tier two players. At no point in the season did Ethan Zubak truly compete with Teal Bunbury, not even for the backup spot. In fact, Zubak played just a single minute after Sam Surridge joined in the summer, and that came in a 4-0 loss to Atlanta. Zubak didn’t even make the bench for eight of Nashville’s final 10 games.
The lack of true competition for meaningful minutes made the squad complacent. Most importantly, Nashville became very predictable for opponents. To me this is the biggest shortcoming from Jacobs and co.
Questionable transfer moves
I understand that MLS roster rules make it very difficult to have quality non-starters, but this is supposed to be Nashville’s strength. Which brings me to my next point, questionable dealings. The obvious one is the signing of a DP striker, who later turned out to be Surridge.
Nashville’s insistence on waiting until the summer to replace a vital position has come back to haunt them again. In 2022 they didn’t sign a right back to replace Alistar Johnston until the summer, and in 2023 it was the same story but with the striker.
Again, I understand that they are limited by roster rules and top talent is more available in the summer. However, deciding to play the first half of the season with CJ Sapong and Teal Bunbury as your strikers is a puzzling decision. What’s even more puzzling is trading one of those strikers a couple months into the season and not replacing them.
I will admit, getting MacNaughton and $200k in GAM for CJ Sapong is one of the best deals I’ve ever seen. Not replacing Sapong is where Nashville fell short.
Then there was the midfield issue. Starting a new season with four defensive midfielders as the only options in the center is never a recipe for success. They also chose to do that knowing McCarty’s age, Godoy’s international duty and Anunga’s limitations.
To make matters even worse, they signed a solution in midfield, then traded him away a few months later. I am not the biggest believer in Ján Greguš, but with how things turned out, Nashville could’ve certainly used a midfielder with his passing ability as the season went on.
An aging core
The last point I have on the front office is the lack of risk taking and failing to make the squad younger. Nashville has struggled to make expensive international signings work (see Aké Loba, Rodrigo Piñiero and Miguel Nazarit).
This seems to have turned them off from taking a chance on younger players, especially from South America. I am not as passionate about the need to make U22 Initiative signings as my colleagues at Broadway Sports are, but I do think that is a missed opportunity. Nashville fielded the oldest, least rotated squad in MLS this season.
While Nashville did bring in younger players, they loaned them to Huntsville or directly signed them to the North Alabama side. Those players’ impact on Nashville’s season was minimal at best. That might not completely be the fault of the front office. Which brings me to my next point: coaching.
We’ll dive into that tomorrow with a look at Gary Smith and the coaching staff.