Ivey’s Three Thoughts: Nashville SC’s loss to Real Salt Lake

Nashville SC lost a second straight match this weekend falling 2-1 to Real Salt Lake.  Here are my three thoughts on the match. 

1. Nashville needs to either find starts for Aké Loba or look to sell

Whatever patience Nashville supporters had left with Gary Smith over the Aké Loba situation has completely evaporated. The pre-match comments were heated, and the temperature continued to rise as Teal Bunbury delivered a disastrous fifty-seven minutes.

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Until now, Gary Smith could explain Loba languishing on the bench by pointing to C.J. Sapong’s goal-scoring form dating back to last season and a string of positive results. Those stated reasons no longer hold water. With Teal Bunbury receiving the starting nod Saturday night at Real Salt Lake, it is anyone’s guess as to when Loba may ever see the field with any regularity. 

It is abundantly clear that Smith does not view Loba as a focal-point striker within his system. Don’t take my word for it, Smith has alluded to it before.

“Listen, this lad’s got a tremendous amount of talent. He was in his offseason in Mexico, he’s come in, he’s worked very, very hard, he’s still trying to find his match legs and some sharpness and some fitness. But to your point about systems, listen, this lad’s capable of playing in just about any system. What I do think he will benefit from are the likes of CJ, Jhonder [Cádiz], Daniel – somebody who’s a more comfortable individual in their back to goal. 

Gary Smith, August 19 2021

Shout out to Tim Sullivan of For Club & Country for the transcription.

Read what Smith is implying. In Smith’s mind, Loba needs to play alongside a big-bodied, target forward. That leaves no room for Loba to play alongside Mukhtar as the two primary forwards. 

It begs the question, why did Nashville SC spend a club-record $6.8 million dollar transfer fee on Loba? Is there a disconnect between Smith and Mike Jacobs? Why spend the money on a striker that does not fit Smith’s preferred style? 

I am at a loss. 

The only way the Loba transfer makes any sense is if Hany Mukhtar has privately expressed a desire to return to Europe as soon as this summer transfer window. 

Barring that travesty, the Coyotes need to find a solution to the Loba situation. They are sitting on a rapidly depreciating $6.8-million-dollar asset whose continued presence on the bench will do nothing but divide the fanbase and waste a precious Designated Player slot. Wait any longer and the ability to move Loba dwindles. 

Of course, an alternative exists. Smith could ever so slightly deviate from his preferred set up by employing Mukhtar and Loba together. For a team that generates its most dangerous attacking opportunities in transition, a Mukhtar-Loba pairing could be a lethal combination. But we will never know for certain until the two get some on-field time together.

Whether it is a sale outside the league or an increase in playing time, something has to give before the end of the summer.

2. Set-piece defense is hard when you allow free runners

Nashville’s set-piece woes have been well documented. After conceding the most goals from restarts in 2021, Nashville failed to fix the issue over the offseason. They have already shipped two set-piece goals in the first four matches. 

On paper, this should not be a problem. Nashville features a bevy of strong aerial threats. But the issue isn’t height and strength, it is tactics and execution.

Let’s analyze Bobby Wood’s 2nd-minute goal for Real Salt Lake.

Nashville employed what appears to be a zone and blocking system. In the still image below, the zonal defenders are highlighted in orange and the blockers in blue. The orange-colored defenders are Nashville’s best aerial defenders. It is their responsibility to win one-on-one battles with anyone who enters their space. The blue-colored blockers must do everything possible, short of drawing a foul, to block and prevent RSL’s attackers from getting a free run into the box.

Aníbal Godoy, Randall Leal, and Eric Miller all do a fine job of triple-teaming Justen Glad. But they allow Bobby Wood an unimpeded run straight to the near post. One of those three, likely Godoy or Leal, must pick up Wood’s run and force him off his path. With a full head of steam, Wood easily beats Teal Bunbury to an advantageous position and flicks in a goal.

Bunbury certainly shoulders some of the blame. He is slow to recognize Wood’s run and is beat to the spot. But Nashville’s blockers did him no favors.

Hany Mukhtar looks as dangerous as ever

The 2021 Landon Donovan MLS MVP runner-up has yet to find the back of the net this season. But it is not for a lack of creating dangerous opportunities. 

Mukhtar tallied his second assist on the season by dropping an absolute dime of a corner for Walker Zimmerman to slam home.

Later, Mukhtar flicked a beautiful ball to put Daniel Lovitz open on net.

In the dying embers, Mukhtar nearly leveled the score with a lightning-fast turn and shot that barely missed the upper 90. 

Hany is once again putting Nashville’s attack on his back.

Bonus thought:

The beard is working for Hany.

Author: Chris IveyChris is a senior writer covering Nashville SC. His writings focus on the team at large and often navigate the complexity of roster building around the myriad of MLS rules. Outside of Broadway Sports Media, Chris resides in Knoxville and is a licensed attorney. Beyond NSC, he is always willing to discuss Tennessee football and basketball, Coventry City, and USMNT. Follow Chris on Twitter


  1. Hi RSL fan here. Thought I would give my perspective for you. Since Nashville was in the Eastern Conf hadn’t followed the team much…
    Friggin Mukhtar is a beast. What a player. I have serious envy. Maybe one of the most impressive players in MLS I have seen in the last few years. And it looks like maybe he was only a 2.5 mil transfer fee and 1.5 mil salary? If so, one of the great signings of MLS.
    Just my take, but as the game progressed Nashville played with a certain arrogance, like they deserved to win because they were Nashville, and when it wasn’t going their way, instead of bucking up and showing grit, they became frustrated, and this came out with their preoccupation with the ref and culminated with McCartey’s stupid red card. Its a little uncharacteristic of a Smith coached team, from what I recall…
    By the way, Nashville played much more watchable soccer than I expected. I hated the Smith coached teams at Colorado who just parked the bus and played stultifying anti-soccer, and I guess I assumed that Nashville played the same way, as I sort of remember they might have in last years game against RSL. But it’s definitely not the case with your team. Nice counter attacking transition team, more ala a lot of Bundesliga teams. As RSL under Pablo is playing an almost identical set up as Nashville, it was interesting to watch, and obvious that Nashville was better at it, at this stage. Of course, having Mukhtar can do that for you..man, I got a serious fan crush on him, if you haven’t noticed…. Anyways, good luck with the new stadium, enjoy, and don’t take for granted the well deserved success you have had. Take it from an RSL fan who thought RSL had built a long term successful over achieving small market organization, it can all go unexpectedly south. Cheers!

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