The intersection of soccer and music took center stage on the opening weekend of the 2023 MLS season, as Nashville SC kicked off their campaign with a resounding 2-0 victory over NYCFC. The Apple TV era began with a bang for both the league and the Boys in
Gold Black who put on a show for a national audience.
Dressed in black, as a tribute to a local musical legend, Nashville’s players delivered a performance that blended their city’s signature styles: a rock-solid defense, electrifying attacking moments, and a touch of creative flair. The result was a statement win that showcased everything that makes Nashville SC unique, both on and off the field.
Here are my three thoughts on the match.
Defense as stout as ever
The story of Saturday’s match was a defensive masterclass by Nashville SC. The Coyotes stifled NYCFC’s attack, allowing just two shots on target, a handful of touches inside the box, and a mere 0.4 expected goals. While no defensive performance is perfect, Nashville showed their resilience and ability to weather the storm when things got tough.
In the 48th minute, Nashville was nearly punished. Braian Cufré played a perfectly weighted through ball to Thiago Andrade, who broke through the backline and found himself one-on-one with Joe Willis. Andrade’s darting run split Jack Maher and Walker Zimmerman with the center-back pair failing to properly handoff responsibility for Andrade.
It was a fire that required rapid extinguishing. Joe Willis quickly closed down Andrade’s angle, forcing him to cut back and play a pass to Matías Pellegrini. With four Nashville defenders converging on him, Pellegrini could only send his shot over the bar. It was a crucial moment highlighting Nashville’s ability to prevent one mistake from compounding into a goal.
NYCFC’s best chance may have come through a growing pain in the partnership between Maher and Zimmerman, but on the whole, the pairing showed well together.
The ‘Yotes parted ways with Dave Romney this offseason. In Nashville’s first three seasons, Romney played more minutes than any other outfield player. With Romney with the Revolution, Jack Maher stepped into the first-choice role.
Maher has had plenty of starts over the last two years, but only three of those have seen Maher partnered with Zimmerman as part of a traditional back four. It is not a new partnership per se, but it does have some newer elements. Keeping a clean sheet in Week 1 establishes early confidence that Nashville will remain a defensively stout team and made the correct decision to trade Romney.
A winning formula of set pieces and counterattacks
Nashville’s season opener against NYCFC saw them score twice with an expected goals (xG) rating of 1.3, utilizing their two primary strengths – set pieces and counterattacks. The team’s renewed dominance in attacking set-piece opportunities was reflected in Walker Zimmerman’s goal, which closely mirrored his goal against Atlanta United in Nashville’s inaugural MLS match. Such goals could prove crucial for Nashville, especially in the absence of dependable secondary scorers beyond Hany Mukhtar.
In open play, Nashville capitalized on their other strength, counterattacks. Throughout the week, I expected that NYCFC would control possession. It was my “bold prediction” in our game preview article. New York proved me correct. The Pigeons finished with a 62%-38% possession edge over Nashville
As New York crept up, Nashville found space to create pressure through quick counterattacking play. When they won the ball, wingers Jacob Shaffelburg and Fafà Picault looked to get vertical quickly. The passing map highlighted their forward play when the Coyotes were in possession.
Nashville nearly scored early on in the match with a lightning-quick counterattack that turned a loose pass from the visitors into a dangerous opportunity. A pocket between NYCFC’s midfield and backline was found by Randall Leal, who received the ball from Zimmerman. He turned, progressed forward with the ball, and slipped in Shaffelburg as he sprinted toward the space vacated by Thiago Martins. Shaffelburg failed to beat Luis Barraza, but Nashville sounded an early warning bell.
The clincher came on another quick transition opportunity. Teal Bunbury intercepted a pass and laid it off for Mukhtar, who went downhill and drew the attention of the entire NYCFC defense. Just as Mukhtar sucked in four defenders boxing him in, he laid it off to Shaffelburg, who had made a lung-busting run in the 80th minute to provide Mukhtar with an outlet.
The entire sequence took just 10 seconds, and despite NYCFC’s long spells of possession, it was Nashville’s fast-break attack that created the best goal-scoring opportunities.
Gary Smith and Nashville SC’s calling card is a compact and organized defense that feeds blistering counterattacks. Shaffelburg and Picault are valuable acquisitions who may not be the sexiest names, but they can be devastatingly effective in this group. While a star striker to pair with Mukthar is still needed for Nashville to become a serious contender for silverware, as long as they continue to stick with their winning formula of strength in set pieces and counterattacks, making a fourth-straight playoff appearance should not be an issue at all.
A new era with Apple TV
Saturday marked the beginning of both the 2023 season and the Apple TV era for MLS. It is no hyperbole, MLS Season Pass on Apple TV is already a game changer.
The level of coverage is a night-and-day difference from what fans of the league suffered through for the first two and a half decades
The large contours of the MLS Season Pass have been well covered. Crystal clear picture, consistent match windows, pre and post-game shows, and a whip-around show similar to the NFL’s acclaimed Red Zone channel.
Frankly, I was a big believer in the move to Apple TV from day one. A relentless optimist, such as myself, could always imagine the possibilities. It is a whole other thing to see the production in the flesh. MLS finally feels like it is receiving the coverage and display of a truly major sports league.
Personally, MLS 360, the league’s whip-around show, transformed my three-hour commute home to Knoxville following Nashville’s match. Instead of listening to stale NPR podcasts, I clicked into the Apple TV app and tuned into the MLS 360 broadcast all the way home.
The four-person crew (plus the Week 1 addition of Taylor Twellman due to the El Tráfico cancellation) kept me updated on goals across the league and provided in-depth conversation about the various matches. If I was watching at home, I may want a heavier focus on live, in-match viewing (similar to NFL RedZone), but my audio-only stream was perfect for the trip home.
A serious shoutout needs to go to those supporters that designed, painted, and rigged the tifo. In this one man’s opinion, the Hany Mukhtar “Man In Black” display was, by far and away, the best tifo that Nashville’s supporters’ groups have created.
The Slack and Discord chats of a few of the supporters’ groups this week made it clear that this was no easy task. Beyond the massive undertaking to paint the mammoth tifo, it also required a band of volunteers to conduct a Thursday-night test of GEODIS Park’s new tifo rigging system.
Kudos to all involved. It was a thing of beauty.