Ivey’s Three Thoughts: Nashville SC’s playoff exit

Nashville SC crashed out of in the first round of the MLS Playoffs after falling to the Los Angeles Galaxy. It was a loss that really epitomizes the entire year for Nashville.  

Unlike most weeks, I have highlighted just two thoughts exiting this match. As the offseason progresses, there will be plenty of time analyze and discuss the 2022 season and look ahead to 2023. 

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Here are my thoughts:

Gary Smith’s gamble 

Gary Smith threw out a pair of October surprises prior to the match. 

In came Jack Maher and Brian Anunga and out went Jacob Shaffelburg and Dax McCarty. Saturday’s match was the first time Nashville started with three centerbacks since an August 27th road trip to Vancouver. It was also the first start for Brian Anunga since an early August match at Portland. 

Smith bet that Nashville’s exceedingly defensive posture would shut down Ricky Puig and the Galaxy attack, while not being so limiting as to stifle the Coyotes’ own offense. While risky, I am not sure that the alternatives were more palpable. 

In the previous two meetings between LA and Nashville, the Galaxy dominated possession and the attacking opportunities. The Californians averaged 67.8% possession, 19.5 shots, 7 shots on goal, and 1.8 xG. Nashville never could get its attack clicking in those contests finishing with just 3 total shots on target across both games.

If Nashville was to survive and advance, it could not allow a similar game model to play out. Instead, Smith looked to force a cagy affair where a single goal would likely decide the contest.

The defensive solidity, of course, came at price. Anunga and Sean Davis are not as offensively adept as Dax McCarty or Anibal Godoy. Rather than build through the midfield, Nashville utilized their wingbacks and pumped long balls down the pitch. The passing network map visualizes this well. Sean Davis is on an island with hardly any service from the defensive line. 

For the first half and beyond, Smith’s gamble paid off. Nashville conceded possession but cut out Los Angeles’ final balls into the box. 

However, a gameplan predicated on limiting opportunities for both sides places outsized importance on not committing mental mistakes. Defenders must be locked in for all 90 minutes. When Shaq Moore took a second too long to recognize the danger, Julián Araujo made Nashville pay.

Once the Galaxy found their goal, Nashville faced an uphill battle to find the equalizer. LA sat deeper and protected their much-maligned backline. For a team like Nashville that struggles mightly to break down a compacted defense, the challenge felt insurmountable. The Coyotes found a couple quarter chances, but never tested Jonathan Bond. 

In the end, I don’t think Gary Smith’s formation gamble is to blame for the loss. Nashville were the team that made the one execution mistake. It could have just as easily been the reverse.

The quarterfinal hurdle

For the first time since 2018, Nashville will not reach and end its season in the conference semifinals. 

In each of the three years since the inaugural season as a professional club, Nashville won at least one playoff game but were stonewalled in the quarterfinals. Even this year’s U.S. Open Cup campaign fell apart in the quarterfinals. The quarterfinal exits started taking on a feeling of Groundhog’s Day

Nashville’s 2022 playoffs won’t conjure up feelings of deja vu. Although, I would gladly trade away this first round exit for a sense of history repeating itself.

The real takeaway thought / point is that there is an uncleared hurdle that Nashville cannot seem to overcome. For all the talk that Gary Smith sides are tailor-made for a deep playoff or cup run, we have yet to see it across five seasons. 

It is fair to wonder if they will ever make it over the hurdle. 

My Broadway Sports Media colleague Ben Wright brought up an interesting point on this past week’s episode of the Nashville Soccer Show.

This is probably going to sound weird about a third-year team, because in a lot of ways it’s insane that Nashville have qualified for the playoffs three years in a row, especially given the expectations going into MLS. But at what point does the conversation also start to be, if you don’t win now, when do you win?

Ben’s question was premised on that reality that Nashville’s core may be headed for a seismic shakeup. Hany Mukhtar’s stellar play over the last two seasons will garner European interest. Walker Zimmerman is set to feature on the world’s biggest stage next month and could attract similar suitors.

Both have seemingly enjoyed their time in Nashville but have notably left the door open to a transatlantic moves, mentioning their desire to test themselves in Europe over the last several months. Couple those with the Coyotes’ aging midfield, and there is a non-zero chance that Nashville’s roster looks drastically different to start 2023. 

Ben’s comment has been percolating in the back of my mind all week. 

Even if no massive overhaul occurs this winter, the title contention window may be starting to slowly close. Gary Smith fields the oldest roster in MLS. 63% of the total minutes available were filled by players age 29 or older. Father time eventually wins all battles. No one can say for certain when victory wil be had. But it is coming. 

If Nashville is to overcome the quarterfinals hurdle, this team needs a few more difference makers. As we enter the offseason, the discussion and analysis of Mike Jacobs’ moves will be viewed through that prism. 

Broadway Sports Media will be there to cover the evolution every step of the way. 

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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