Nashville SC returned to training for the first time in 2021 today. The Boys In Gold took the field together for the first time since their playoff loss to eventual MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew on November 29.
For head coach Gary Smith, it was a chance to get a first look at several new players.
“The first impressions of the group have been fantastic,” he told reporters on a conference call. “As expected, the vast majority of the guys, if not all of them, have kept themselves in wonderful condition. I know for sure that there’s been a very large group of the guys that have been getting through a reasonable amount of work leading into this opening day.”
Nashville’s captain Dax McCarty will turn 34 just two weeks into the season. He’s gone out of his way to make sure he hits the ground running and starts the season in prime condition.
“I know that myself personally, I was involved in a fairly large group of players that came back into Nashville relatively early on in our offseason to try to get in some individual work, and try to maintain our fitness out on the turf field at Currey Ingram,” he said. “In my mind, getting up there in age a little bit, I wanted to make sure that I still was doing everything that I could to stay as fit as possible. As you get older, you have to continue to try to raise the bar. You have to work just a little bit harder to try to keep up with these young bucks.”
Defender Walker Zimmerman is into the season with high expectations of what Nashville’s already elite defense can achieve. A top five defensive unit last year, the reigning MLS Defensive Player of the Year believes they can do even better.
“I think that’s a massive goal for me every year, is can we allow the fewest goals in the league and can we get the most shutouts in the league?”, he said. “Because if you do those two things you’re making the playoffs.”
At an individual level, Zimmerman was candid about areas of his game he’d like to improve.
“For me, always improving my passing and ability on the ball and decision-making,” he admitted. “I look at a couple of individual mistakes that cost us goals, and ultimately cost us results. Eliminating the turnover in Columbus, eliminating the turnover in Atlanta. Those are two goals that were on me 100%. The goal is always to have zero of those.”
Nashville have placed a heavy emphasis on improving their attack this offseason. Players like CJ Sapong and Rodrigo Piñeiro have been brought in to complement attackers like Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal, Jhonder Cádiz and Daniel Ríos. While some might view Nashville’s depth chart as a logjam, Smith likes having options.
“There’s no doubt that we’re constantly on the lookout for individuals that are going to improve the team, that are going to raise the bar,” he said. “Were we somewhat lightweight in that area and department [last season]? I would say yes… I think all the players need to be pushed, they need to know that there’s someone breathing down their neck. We’re like every other team. We have players that when they’re in that position, we’ll get more out of them.”
It’s not a secret that Nashville’s attack struggled for long stretches of 2020. Their 24 goals were among the lowest in the league, and although their output improved down the stretch, improvements are needed for this team to take the next step.
“We saw in limited playing time when our three more designated individuals in the attacking half of the field played together, there was some very nice reward,” said Smith. “If you’ve got the opportunity to rotate, it’s beneficial not only for the group, but for performance. If the front line can stay sharp and it can stay active, then it certainly drags more out of the individuals, and it pulls the team higher up the field.
“You see many, many times where you have fatigued forwards, and the group plays too deep, whatever group that is. And our aim, as much as we possibly can, is to keep that bright and buoyant and effective, and I think we’re in a much better position to try and do that and achieve that this year.”
McCarty was more concise.
“We know where our foundations are defensively. We want to continue to build off those, but in the attacking half of the field, I think if we can improve on that, and if we can add more danger and more goals to our repertoire, we’re going to be very good next year.”