“If you watch Nashville SC play and you can’t tell which team is the expansion team and which is the one that has been around for a while, we’ve probably done a good job to start our first season.”
Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs set this goal before their expansion season began, and it’s hard to argue that Nashville have looked out of place. In every match they’ve played this season, Nashville have held their own. In fact, they’ve often looked like the better side.
They were the better side for long stretches of their 1-0 loss in Portland back in March. They dictated the game in their 0-0 draw in Dallas in August. On the road to Columbus, and elite side in the East, they not only held their own, but controlled the game for 60 minutes before eventually losing 2-0. At home against Minnesota United, they created chances at will in the first half, but only managed a 0-0 draw. And last night against Sporting Kansas City, truly one of the top sides in the league, they controlled the first half and took a one goal lead, only to collapse in the second half and lose 2-1.
There are going to be growing pains as an expansion side. Some of them, such as the struggle to score goals, have been well-documented, and rightfully so. Expansion sides who haven’t been in the upper echelons of league spending have typically ranged from “mediocre” to “record setting bad.” Nashville aren’t in the latter category, but right now it’s hard to make a convincing argument that they’re much more than mediocre.
In fairness to Nashville, it’s been an unusually difficult first year. Tornadoes and a pandemic took their toll and out a damper on what should have been a season-long “welcome to the league” party.
This Nashville side was always going to struggle to score goals. The forward corps had been inconsistent at best, and just as Daniel Ríos began to emerge, a string of injuries left Nashville without a natural striker for several weeks. Nashville recognized the issue and addressed it, signing Jhonder Cádiz as a designated player. Cádiz just begun training with Nashville this week. He’s yet to take the field in gold, and will hopefully fix some of these issues in the final third.
Defensively, Nashville is objectively very good. Well organized, athletic, and shielded by one of the better midfield pairings in the league, the defensive unit is as solid as it gets. But while collectively they’ve been very good, individual defensive mistakes have taken a dent from their point total this season.
One could make a case that at least five of the sixteen goals they’ve conceded have been down to individual errors. Each of those goals contributed directly to dropped points.
This isn’t to say that it’s time to say that Nashville are in a defensive crisis. They’re not. They’re on pace to to put together one of the best defensive records we’ve seen from an expansion side, and in Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney, they have a center back pairing to build on for several years.
But for a team that struggles to score goals, giving away needless goals is becoming a worry.
The worst of this was on display last night. Up a goal against Sporting Kansas City, Nashville conceded a goal and went down to 10 men in the space of 60 seconds. Poor individual defending and a rash decision from a rookie (one who will be in the running for the rookie of the year award) threw away 45 minutes of unusually strong attacking play.
The potential has been there in spurts. Hany Mukhtar has shown flashes of being a high-level playmaker, able to open up games on the half turn and be dangerous in transition. Randall Leal is never shy to pull the trigger, and has come closer in recent games, running the show for the first half against Sporting.
Alex Muyl, acquired in mid-season from New York, has become an integral part of the attack, and has been better than advertised in combination play. Similarly, Daniel Rios, always solid holding the ball up, started to show the finishing that was routine for him at the USL level (judging by goals added, he’s quietly been very, very good).
Nashville are in 11th place after 16 matches, just one spot out of playoff contention. With a game in hand and just one goal behind Atlanta United, the playoffs are well within reach. Frankly, the playoffs should be an expectation for this side.
Goal scoring is an issue. It may improve with Cadiz on the field, but it’s hard to see the issue completely resolving this season. It’s not a death sentence for Nashville, who have the defensive potential to live with low-scoring games. But if Nashville want to not just qualify for the playoffs, but make a run in the playoffs, they have to do improve in a couple ways.
Nashville have to eliminate sloppy mistakes that allow their opponents to find a foothold in games. Nashville will often control the opening stages of the match. They’ll dictate the tempo and create chances, and have punched above their weight against some of the better sides in the league. And too often, a simple mistake will allow their opponent to get a goal, change the momentum, and take control of the match. This leads directly into another issue.
Nashville have to take advantage of the periods of the match when they create multiple chances. They don’t create many “unmissable” chances, but they often find themselves on the front foot for fifteen to twenty minute stretches towards the beginning of matches. It’s been a pattern throughout the season, most recently evidenced against Minnesota and Kansas City. In both matches, Nashville came out of the gates hot, and were able to create sustained pressure on their opponents goal. When Nashville find themselves in this position, they have to do more than just create chances. They have to consistently find goals.
And finally, when Nashville do get a goal, they have to keep the pressure up. In the 179 minutes this season when Nashville have had a single goal lead, they have the worst shooting g+ in the league. They tend to shift to a more defensive approach instead of going for the kill. Nashville have to be more ruthless.
Midway through their first year, Nashville SC have exceeded expectations in many regards. They’ve lived up to expectations defensively and lived down to expectations in attack. The side has a very strong core, and despite some struggles, they have a foundation that should put them in a strong position moving forward. They’ve showed fans glimpses of potential.
To close out the season, it’s time to turn some of that potential into tangible results.