Nashville SC’s 2-0 loss to Columbus Crew SC on Saturday night marked roughly the halfway point of their expansion season. With 11 regular season matches down and 12 to go, Nashville has a clear identity, as well as some clear strengths and weaknesses.
Strength: the spine
Nashville built their roster with a clearly defined core, and it’s paid off. The midfield pairing of Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy has been the consistent foundation of the team, both on and off the ball.
Behind them, Dave Romney and Walker Zimmerman have been a pairing as good as we’ve seen from a recent expansion team. Their 13 goals conceded is tied for sixth-best in the league, and they consistently limit their opponents to half chances.
While Hany Mukhtar hasn’t set the league on fire by any means, he’s been very involved. He accounts for 14% of Nashville’s touches in the middle and final thirds, the 12th-highest total in the league. With striker Jhonder Cádiz signed as a designated player and hopefully joining the team soon, Nashville’s spine is well established in their inaugural season.
Weakness: goal scoring
Scoring goals was always going to be a weakness for Nashville. They’ve scored nine goals in 11 matches, tied for second-worst in MLS. Four of those goals game in a single match, blowing out an Atlanta side in freefall mode.
Nashville went into the season without a proven goalscorer up top. Dom Badji’s previous best output was six goals and four assists in a season. Daniel Ríos was a serial goalscorer at the USL level, and while I still think he’s the better of the two options, he’s been limited to just 195 minutes.
To top it off, Nashville has struggled to create consistent quality chances. Although they rank 15th in MLS in shots taken, their expected goals per shot is worst in the league and they’ve struggled to consistently put their shots on target.
Cádiz should improve their output when he does sign, but Nashville’s service to the forwards has been lacking for much of this season. Having him up top will give Nashville a sizeable boost in quality, but even Cádiz will struggle if the service doesn’t improve.
Strength: the press
Nashville have had their issues creating clear-cut chances, but the press and the counter press have been huge sources of success. They may not consistently break teams down in possession, but they do a great job at winning the ball in midfield and going to goal quickly.
Nashville’s front line works really hard to press the opposition defenders. The midfield pairing of Godoy and McCarty has the intelligence and workrate to pick out the right pockets, intercept the ball and play it forward quickly. In a lot of ways, this has become Nashville’s identity; set up in a midblock, win the ball just inside their opponent’s half, and spring their forwards through on goal.
In the absence of a more ruthless streak in possession, the press is their best creator.
Weakness: midfield depth
Dax McCarty is 33. Aníbal Godoy is 30. They’ve both played 999 minutes this season, 93% of the total Nashville has played. With a heavily condensed 10 match stretch to close out the year, squad rotation will be key.
Unfortunately for Nashville, the options are unproven behind them.
Derrick Jones has been hailed as a high-potential midfielder since his time in Philadelphia, but he has yet to consistently get on the field for any MLS side. When he’s played for Nashville, he hasn’t shown the defensive awareness to fill in for either Godoy or McCarty. Granted, he’s played out of position as a 10 for most of his minutes, and while he’s an excellent receiver of the ball, he’s hardly a natural replacement for either player.
Brian Anunga was very impressive in his start against Miami, and looks the most MLS-ready of Nashville’s reserves. After three solid, Best XI caliber seasons in the USL Championship, he has plenty of professional experience and is a defensively strong, tactically sound midfielder.
The question with Anunga is his passing. He’s composed on the ball, but from the little we’ve seen of him, he doesn’t drive the ball forward the same way that Godoy or McCarty does. He seems to be more of a natural no. 6, who breaks up play defensively and keeps possession of the ball with safer passing options. That’s not a bad thing at all. But when asked to replace the attacking output of Godoy or McCarty, it’s a big ask.
It may feel a bit like nitpicking to point this out as a weakness. Godoy and McCarty have been one of the best midfield pairings in the league. Of course there will be a drop off.
The issue with the missing time is that they’ve both been absolutely critical to how Gary Smith wants to play. He’ll have to be very careful with how he manages their minutes and sets up his team around them to get them both on the field as much as possible. They’re key to Nashville’s hopes at a playoff berth.
2020 has been such a wild year that it’s hard to accurately judge any team, especially an expansion team, solely based on this year’s play. 2021 will be a better measuring stick of how good Nashville actually is.
That being said, they’re currently in playoff position, and with the form they’re in now, look like a decent bet to play in the postseason. Pandemic aside, if you asked anyone in Nashville, be it fans, coaches, players, or staff before the season started, they would absolutely take a playoff berth in their first year.
General manager Mike Jacobs talked before the season about how his goal was for Nashville to never look out of place in MLS. So far they haven’t. There have been stretches when they’ve been outplayed, certainly. Their second half performance in Orlando comes to mind. But overall, they’ve looked right at home with their opposition every week, including dominating for long stretches in Portland, Columbus and Dallas.
While 2020 has been full of uncertainty and disappointment for the whole league and specifically Nashville, it’s hard to argue that the season has been anything other than a success for Nashville up until this point.
Before the season started, I wrote the following:
Worst case, this team will struggle to consistently score goals and will grind out a lot of 0-0 or 1-1 draws. If Rios, Mukhtar, and Leal can adapt to the league, or a high-level striker is brought in, this side could challenge for one of the final playoff spots in the West. Staying in the playoff hunt until late in the season looks like a pretty reasonable goal at this point.
Change “West” to “East”, and that’s been a fairly accurate summary of their season so far. They’ve brought in a DP forward. They have a strong defense. They’re challenging for a playoff spot.
The free-flowing, attractive soccer will hopefully come down the road, but year one in MLS has always been about assimilating quickly and creating a foundation that can be built on for the next several seasons.
If they can continue to build on that foundation this season, staying strong defensively, creating more consistently, and getting Jhonder Cádiz up and running as quickly as possible, a playoff run should be well within reach.
Midseason grade: B+