Ivey’s Three Thoughts: Nashville SC’s victory over Verde

Nashville SC kept its winning streak alive with a 3-0 home win over Austin FC. It was a statement win for the Boys in Gold on a national stage. An hour-long weather delay cleared the MLS schedule providing a solo stage for the two brightest stars in the league.  

Here are my three thoughts on the match:

Mukhtar seizes control of the MVP race 

The pre-match playbill highlighted the MVP battle between Hany Mukhtar and Sebastián Driussi. With the stage set under the bright lights of GEODIS Park, Mukhtar’s star shined brightest on Saturday night. 

Mukhtar bagged two goals, one to deliver the knockout punch and another to pad the scoreline in the final minutes. The German forward looked lively throughout the match sparking attacking sequences for himself and others. 

In seven days, Mukhtar scored five goals and assisted two others while leading Nashville to a triplet of three-goal victories. You cannot draw up a better week than that. At a certain point, I’m going to run out of superlatives to describe the brilliance of Hany Mukhtar. 

Following a week for record books, Muktar overtook Driussi in the one-on-one battle for end-of-the-season accolades. 

The most fascinating part of this MVP race is that we get a grudge match in just two weeks. Nashville will travel to Austin on September 17th in a return leg. I expect more fireworks. Verde is excellent at home and Driussi is the catalyst for Austin’s attack. 

While I will stan all day and night for Mukhtar to win the MVP award, Driussi is a worthy adversary. But with Mukhtar’s two-goal performance setting the bar, the Argentine may need to produce a hat trick of goal contributions to reclaim the lead.

Jacob Shaffelburg’s pace was the missing ingredient

It is no coincidence that Nashville’s season-altering win streak has come on the heels of Jacob Shaffelburg’s insertion into the team. Since he made his first appearance in a bright gold kit, Nashville has won four straight and ripped opponents apart with blistering counterattacks. 

Nashville has always relied on finding goals from set pieces and counterattacks. When the latter becomes too slow or gets bogged down, scoring draughts and poor performances often follow. With Shaffelburg occupying the left wing, Nashville no longer needs to worry about its counterattacks lacking pace. 

While Shaffelburg did not find the back of the net against Austin, his speed caused numerous problems for Verde. It was an excellent performance from the loanee that increases the likelihood that Mike Jacobs will trigger his purchase option, no matter the price tag.  

Shaffelburg’s impact started early for Nashville and continued the rest of his shift. He is such a weapon as his pace allows teammates to play balls out into space and trust that he will win the footrace to the ball. 

Starting in the 22nd minute, Shaffelburg served as the focal point for three successive attacks for the Coyotes. With only a few games under his belt, he has already become a key, secondary piece to Nashville’s offense. 

Shaffelburg can count himself unlucky to not grab an assist. In the 60th minute, he again exploited the space behind Austin’s backline and played a tasty ball into C.J. Sapong. 

It is not just offense where Shaffelburg’s pace stands out as a difference maker, it aids him defensively as well. He made this dispossession look deceptively pedestrian. But his speed and acceleration allowed him to establish the position and win the ball for Nashville. It was no small feat. Jon Gallagher is plenty fast in his own right.

In the last four weeks, Shaffelburg is in the 93rd percentile in Goals Added (g+) per 96 minutes among players with at least 100 minutes played during that span. He trails only Mukhtar and Randall Leal among Nashville players in that statistic. 

I get it. It is an extremely small sample size that falls in the middle of Nashville’s best run of soccer. But let’s revisit something that I wrote back when Nashville made the trade for Shaffelburg:

According to American Soccer Analysis, Shaffelburg produced 0.26 goals added (g+) per 96 minutes in 2021. Among all qualifying MLS wingers, it was the 18th best mark in the league. This season, deployed in a more defensive role, his numbers have dropped to 0.10 g+ per 96 minutes. 

Shaffelburg’s impressive numbers as a winger do not stop there. In 2021 among wingers with at least 1,000 minutes logged, he finished 12th in xG; 10th in xA; and 24th in Key Passes (all measured on a per 96 minutes basis). It is really quite baffling that Toronto would let him go. But when you sign a bunch of sexy Italian wingers in their prime, I guess there is no use for talented homegrowns. 

The underlying numbers have been screaming for Shaffelburg to take on a larger role. Kudos to Nashville for recognizing the talent and understanding how his pace would add a new, dangerous element to the squad.

Warm up those vocal cords for a playoff clincher

Start warming up those vocal cords and be prepared for 90 minutes of unrelenting support for the Boys in Gold. Saturday’s date with the Los Angeles Galaxy is a playoff clincher. 

Okay, well a win would not mathematically lock Nashville into the playoffs. But Nashville would widen the gap to nine points with just five matches remaining for the Angelenos. Barring an epic collapse coupled with a historic September from the Galaxy, the Coyotes will be in the playoffs with a win on Saturday. 

As is, FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model gives Nashville a 94% chance of making the playoffs with the current six-point gap. A win will inch the playoff odds ever closer to 100%. 

Even if you don’t have the same level of confidence, you can recognize Saturday’s affair as the most consequential match remaining on the schedule. 

Sure, there are entertaining ties away to Austin FC and LAFC still to play. But Nashville can’t catch LAFC and won’t top Verde in the standings. Houston comes to Nashville as well, but the Dynamo will likely be eliminated before kickoff. 

The Galaxy match, on the other hand, is a certifiable six-pointer. To the victor goes three points and denying the opponent from the same.

Beyond clinching playoffs, Nashville remains in the race for a top-four finish and a home playoff match. A win over the Galaxy will keep Nashville in fourth place for the time being. If you want to see playoff soccer at GEODIS Park in October, Nashville SC needs your full-throated support on Saturday.

Bonus thought

A shoutout to Felipe Hernández for helping to deny the Los Angeles Galaxy of all three points. His goal, along with Chicharito’s disastrous panenka, ensured that the final result ended in a draw. 

Born in Colombia, Hernández grew up in the Nashville area and attended Blackman High School. While Nashville and the entire state of Tennessee have produced little pro-level soccer talent to this point, Hernández proves that are nuggets of quality to be mined in the area. 

With the club establishing a reserve team in MLS Next Pro in Huntsville, we will assuredly see Nashville SC’s first homegrown signing in the coming months. A first-team debut may be a couple of years off, but the signs of progress are there for the club to identify and develop the next Felipe Hernández.

Author: Chris Iveyis a senior writer covering Nashville SC. His work includes his "Three Thoughts" piece after every Nashville match that highlights the important storylines and incorporates key video clips from the match. Chris' other articles often navigate the complexity of roster building around the myriad of MLS roster rules. Outside of Broadway Sports Media, Chris resides in Knoxville and is a licensed attorney serving as in-house counsel for a large insurance company. Beyond NSC, he is always willing to discuss Tennessee football and basketball, Manchester United, Coventry City, and USMNT.

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