Last night, Nashville SC smashed and grabbed its way to a memorable road win in Seattle. Here are my three thoughts this morning looking back on the match.
Nashville SC brought their brand of soccer to the Western Conference
Nashville’s statement win in Seattle was a quintessential Gary Smith victory. Nashville remained compact when the Sounders sustained possession but found times to press the opposition further up the pitch. This game plan has worked well for Smith’s side throughout Nashville’s time in MLS. The Coyotes allowed aimless passing of the ball around the perimeter but rarely allowed the Sounders to threaten with attacks originating from the middle of the pitch.
Save for a 41st minute awkward moment where the ball ricocheted off Dax McCarty back to Alex Roldan, the Sounders’ most dangerous moments largely came from Seattle’s left flank. Whether from Nouhou crosses or a Léo Chú run and shot from the corner of the box, the Sounders had very few moments that genuinely made Nashville worry. Beyond closing down the central areas of the pitch, Nashville limited Seattle’s star attackers. Jordan Morris, Albert Rusnák, and Nicolás Lodeiro were absent all night as Nashville’s midfield and defense limited their touches.
The win in Seattle puts Nashville ahead of schedule for this 34-game season. Before the season, my colleague, Ben Wright and I assigned an expected points amount to each match on Nashville’s schedule.
We approached the assignment in different ways. Ben came away with a season expectation of 62 points, a total that would assuredly see Nashville finish in the top three of the Western Conference. I manipulated the season total to hit 54 points, the same amount as last season. I wanted to monitor Nashville’s progress using last season as a benchmark. I predicted a loss for last night’s away match in Seattle, assigning zero expected points (Ben optimistically predicted a draw). By that metric alone, I have Nashville three points ahead of last year’s points pace. There is still a long way to go, but you cannot ask for a better start to the season.
Gary Smith’s tactical curveball won the midfield
Gary Smith surprised everyone with a tactical curveball. Rather than deploy the three center-back formation that Nashville used throughout the second half of 2021 and all throughout preseason, Smith set up his squad in what could be described at various times as a 4-3-1-2, 4-1-3-2, or 4-4-2 Diamond. But regardless of how you count it, the tactical goal was clear. Club captain Dax McCarty served as a screen in front of the center backs while Aníbal Godoy, Sean Davis, and Randall Leal created a narrow and crowded midfield, forcing the Sounders to push the ball wide.
For all the preseason talk about which two of the three central midfielders (McCarty, Godoy, and Davis) would get the first start, Gary Smith found a way to get all three on the field without it ever feeling like they were stepping on each other’s toes. Kudos to Smith for finding the flexibility to make it work.
Smith’s role for McCarty was not exclusively as cover for Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney. Instead, Smith gave McCarty the freedom to find the game in spots knowing that one of Nashville’s other center midfielders could drop deep to provide momentary cover. That freedom gave us this little moment of brilliance from McCarty.
One last thought on the midfield structure; Godoy will get man-of-the-match plaudits for his goal, but his work in Nashville’s pressing sequences was quality. Nashville would often set up in a 2-2-2-4 structure when Seattle possessed the ball deep in its own half. Below, Godoy reads the miscommunication between two Sounders players and pounces on the wayward pass. The interception immediately leads to a Hany Mukhtar shot.
Here, Godoy covers ground like a roaming free safety denying service out wide to Seattle’s wingback.
Aké Loba remains on the bench
Aké Loba’s 2022 season began in the same place it often started during the 2021 season; on the bench.
Loba made only two starts across nineteen appearances last season. The hope among a large contingent of supporters was that Loba, with a full preseason, would wrestle away a starting spot in Nashville’s preferred XI. That has not occurred.
This preseason, there were signs that Gary Smith was tinkering with a three-man attack featuring Hany Mukhtar, C.J. Sapong, and Loba across the front. But when push came to shove, Randall Leal earned the starting nod.
Loba’s start on the bench by no means should have fans writing Loba off or demanding a change from Smith to give Loba a chance to find his way with a few starts. Instead, Loba watching this one from the sidelines may have just been a reflection of the matchup. The MLS schedule makers did Nashville no favors for Week 1. Seattle away is arguably the most challenging match of the season. Leal’s added defensive value and ability to play more as a midfielder than an all-out attacking piece was undoubtedly needed on a night when facing Seattle’s dangerous trio of attacking midfielders.
There will be plenty of opportunities for Loba this year. But the current problem is that Gary Smith views Loba as someone best suited for the Hany Mukhtar role, not as the principal striker. There is no room for both of them in Nashville’s current setup. Unless there is a formation change to find space for Mukhtar and Loba to start together, Loba seems destined to continue as an expensive super-sub.