Nashville SC were in their Harvey Dent era in 2023.
Supporters’ Shield contenders in the season’s first half, they found themselves five points behind eventual winners FC Cincinnati with a second-best 35 points, averaging 1.9 points per game. Their 27 goals were the sixth-most in the league, and their +14 goal difference topped the table.
After a horrific trap laid by the Joker… sorry, a heartbreaking Leagues Cup penalty shootout loss to Inter Miami and Lionel Messi, they were a shell of themselves. In fact, it’s hard to overstate just how bad they were down the stretch: 11 points from their final 10 games and tied for the league’s worst attack with just eight goals. They crashed out of the playoffs against Orlando, failing to score in two legs and never looking a threat to do any damage in the postseason. It’s the type of fall that has led to sweeping changes in other situations.
“It really was kind of a tale of two seasons,” said General Manager Mike Jacobs in an interview with Speedway Soccer. “We learned some hard lessons. We talk a lot about trying to sustain success, and that’s not just season over season, trying to make sure we’re competing for cups, but even throughout the year. And I think the fact that we weren’t able to sustain the consistent play we had in the first half of the season was frustrating all around for fans and for us.”
Fans were certainly frustrated. 75% of fans who took part in Broadway Sports Media’s postseason survey said the 2023 season was a failure. Anecdotally, the mood among the most ardent supporters appears to be at its lowest point since Nashville entered MLS in 2020. To what does Nashville ascribe their failure down the stretch of the season?
“I think we just kind of ran out of gas,” said Jacobs, noting the Leagues Cup run that included seven games in 28 days. “There was a little bit of a hangover from an emotional or psychological standpoint, but physically also, it really wore our group down… The combination of players not being available with international call ups during the summer, you can’t underestimate and ignore something like that when you see the key personnel that we were without at different times.”
Another major factor? Hany Mukhtar. The 2022 MVP winner looked on pace to repeat, leading the league with 13 goals in the first half of the season, but scoring just twice in the second. One of those goals came from the penalty spot. The season lived and died with him, with reports of a rejected multi-million dollar transfer bid turning the star attacker’s attention.
“It saw us challenged to have us rely so much on his ability to create and finish scoring chances for us and to kind of dry up the second half of the season,” said Jacobs. “So much of the success of our team has come through Hany’s ability in the final third, and we’re going to need him to get back to the guy he was the first half of the season for us to be successful this year.”
So Nashville were physically and emotionally worn out, and they relied too much on Hany Mukhtar. What are they doing to fix things for 2024?
Their first step came last summer, signing striker Sam Surridge for a potential club-record transfer fee, and getting a strong return of five goals in his first few months with the club. They’re banking on an even better 2024.
“What people don’t realize sometimes was while Sam was adjusting to a new league, new coach, new teammates, he also was living in a hotel without his family, away from home, really for the first time out of his country,” said Jacobs. “I think you’re going to start to see maybe very similar to what you saw from Hany from year one to year two. I think that there’s a really high ceiling for Sam and what he’s capable of doing in this group.”
The other big change Nashville made came in midfield, turning away from 36-year-old veteran Dax McCarty and bringing in 24-year-old Dru Yearwood in an attempt to revitalize and re-invent a midfield that has remained mostly unchanged for the last four seasons.
“Having someone who we think can help link up with our front four, help get us into the final third, look to make more third man runs and chip in, maybe with goals himself, [Yearwood] fits more what we were looking for,” said Jacobs, declining to go into the details around McCarty’s departure. “Most of the first half of the season we had our success, you had Aníbal Godoy and Sean Davis there when Gary played in a diamond at times with both those guys, and we had a lot of success. But we think that Drew is just a very different player than the kind of guys that we had playing there last year… He’s younger than some of the other players here last year, and the reality is he has the opportunity to offer us things we’re missing at different times.”
Jacobs also added winger Tyler Boyd in a potentially sizable trade for the LA Galaxy’s 2023 top scorer, as well as signing journeyman McKinze Gaines as added depth. Both players are replacements, even upgrades, from players like Fafà Picault and Luke Haakenson, who departed during the offseason. They’re younger, more goal-dangerous threats.
Jacobs is also hoping for a long-awaited return to health for Randall Leal, who was signed initially as a Young DP, but who missed 25 matches in the last two seasons, playing just 710 minutes in all competitions for Nashville in 2023.
“This is an important next six months for Randall, for his future, not only for here, but with the Costa Rican national team and just his future in general,” Jacobs noted. His emphasis on the next six months certainly leaves the door open for a potential move, when the summer transfer window opens in six months time. “He’s got to be able to go from being a young kid to being a veteran. And that’s not just like in age, but that’s a maturity level as far as taking care of yourself, doing things you have to do on and off the field to make sure that you’re available for selection whenever you’re called on. A healthy Randall, I think, is someone who can still contribute an awful lot for our group.”
Essentially, Nashville are betting that the side we saw in the first six months of 2023 is their real identity, and the last six months was an aberration. They’re banking on the idea that a generally unchanged philosophy married with swapping out a few positions for younger and slightly different versions will be enough to return them to form.
It’s a risky bet. Nashville have generally been a very-good-but-not-great MLS club. They’ve been in the playoffs every year, but have finished in the top four just once, back in 2021 when Philadelphia Union edged them out for second place on tiebreakers. And while every side who makes the playoffs has a change (a “coin flip” as Jacobs has often called it), the reality is that sides who are elite in the regular season are usually much more elite in the playoffs.
No MLS Cup winner has finished the regular season outside the top four for the last nine seasons. It’s not enough to just make the playoffs, and the sides who win trophies have done more than just aspire to be above average.
With the rest of the league (and especially the rest of the Eastern Conference) taking big, ambitious swings with their roster building, squeezing every available cent from the various pools of resources MLS’s archaic roster rules provide, Nashville’s lower-spending, lower-risk strategy stands out.
Nashville should make the playoffs again in 2024. They have too much individual talent to be as bad as they were to close out last season. The Nashville SC we saw in the first half of the year is the real Nashville SC. Right?
It’s a huge question, one that can only be answered on the field. Nashville’s transfer strategy clearly shows which answer they believe in. But it’s a risky bet, one that seems destined to either succeed fantastically or fail spectacularly, without much margin for error.
For the first time since joining MLS, it feels like there’s real, tangible pressure on Nashville SC to get it right on the pitch.