Yesterday, I looked at how Nashville SC’s limited roster contributed to their disappointing 2023 season. Today, I’m rounding out the two-part series with a look at the issues with coaching and player performances on the field.
Gary Smith and coaching staff
It’s hard for anyone outside of the locker room to argue that certain players should get more minutes when you aren’t seeing them in training every day. With that said, I think it’s fair to be disappointed with the lack of minutes for Huntsville players in gold.
It was the first year for the team, so Nashville deserves the benefit of doubt here. It’s a new process with a new roster, and things might settle in better next year. With that said, 14 open cup minutes for Joey DeZart shouldn’t be all of what Nashville gets from their second team.
Huntsville City serves multiple purposes, and their first season was a massive success for soccer in the area. However, the primary goal of the team has to be developing talent for Nashville SC. It’s a double-edged sword, though; Smith has to be willing to give the Huntsville players more chances.
This stems from a deeper problem Nashville has struggled with. Gary Smith has “his guys.” Once a player is in Smith’s good graces, it’s very hard for them to fall out. It is also generally difficult for new signings to break into the team, a pattern we’ve seen repeated multiple times. Honestly, I don’t have an issue with a coach trusting and believing in a group of players, but it could become an issue for those outside the circle.
In MLS, Huntsville players combined for zero minutes. Ethan Zubak was limited to 135 minutes and Ján Greguš started only one game. While the players mentioned aren’t necessarily top talents (see yesterday’s part one), new faces in the lineup or even more substitution cameos might have helped integrate some of these players into Nashville’s rotation.
Regardless of personnel, the team’s ideology and identity on the pitch comes almost entirely from the manager. Earlier in 2023, I praised Smith for his tactical flexibility, especially for the transition to a midfield diamond.
After Nashville’s 10 match unbeaten run, the diamond was found out. Not only that, but Nashville’s diamond was held together by a strong base of Dax McCarty who started eight of their ten unbeaten matches, and Aníbal Godoy who started seven. Once Godoy went on international duty and the heavy schedule caught up to McCarty, the diamond ceased to function effectively.
The Leagues Cup offered a nice mix of a mostly healthy squad for Nashville and new opponents who were willing to go for it, even if that meant neglecting the defense. The open games played into Nashville’s hands, and they were able to find success.
Following the Leagues Cup, the diamond was no longer sufficient. This is where I think Smith could’ve and should’ve been tactically stronger. Nashville played in multiple shapes and formations to try to find success in the last period of the season, but none of them proved fruitful.
Not being able to find the right balance of personnel and shape cost Smith and Nashville dearly down the stretch, especially whenever Nashville found themselves chasing a goal. The lack of an established plan B was painfully apparent as the Coyotes launched cross after cross into the box in hopes of a route-one stroke of luck.
What was also apparent was the players frustration with the situation they found themselves in, understandably so. That frustration bled into the pitch and affected the way the games were approached.
Smith’s man-management comes into question here, could he have done better to motivate the players when things weren’t going well? Possibly. But Nashville’s issues weren’t all down to him.
This is the most sensitive category of the three mentioned. Fans love players. They buy their jerseys, get their autographs and even line up at Lowe’s just to get a picture. Of course, fans can also have the inverse effect and make certain players a scapegoat for more widespread issues.
With all that said, when you love a player, it’s harder to criticize them. The rose (or gold)-tinted glasses of the fans sometimes make it hard to admit that certain players are falling short of their target.
Following the Leagues Cup conclusion, Nashville played 12 matches. They were only able to score eight goals in that period. 11.2 expected goals in 12 matches is not ideal, but that has historically been enough for Nashville to scrounge out results. In the 24 MLS matches before the Leagues Cup, Nashville scored 31 goals from 32.1 xG.
The inability to finish chances in the final stretch falls on the players. Attacking players falling out of form or never catching form to begin with is a big storyline of Nashville’s season. The excellent defending on the other side of the pitch makes the attacking incompetencies worse, and also means that even a semi-functional attack could have carried Nashville a long way into the postseason.
With the exception of one or two matches, Nashville were always “in the game.” In the final 12 matches, they were shutout eight times. In four of those, one goal would have secured a draw. In three of them, a single goal would have even secured a win.
The longer Nashville struggled, the more frustrated the players appeared. In the 2023 MLS season Nashville players received six red cards. In the previous three MLS seasons they received four red cards combined. 2023 was also the most yellow cards Nashville players have received with 80.
For a squad known for their experience and composure, 2023 left much to be desired. Meaningless second yellows, unnecessary retaliation and getting a little too excited when talking to the referees should not be how an experienced squad acts. Too often, Nashville’s veteran experience never made a difference.
Obviously all three categories are intertwined, and there’s no easy answer to “who takes the blame for Nashville’s season?”
Mike Jacobs, Gary Smith and the players are all partially responsible. For some, it’s clear which party is the main culprit, for others not so much.
If you look at problems from the top down, you might think the front office takes the lion’s share of the blame.
If you are more into the beautiful game and how it “should” be played, then you probably think Smith is the issue.
Many folks will also think that it is mostly the players responsibility. Ultimately they are the ones out there capable of making a difference. Whether it is a lack of effort or ability, they came short.
No matter where you stand, I think it is fair to call Nashville’s season a failure. It feels weird to write this less than six months after the Leagues Cup final, but that night against Messi can only take Nashville so far, I guess. Nashville need to take a step forward in 2024, and each of these facets need to improve next season.