Nashville SC: what to watch for

Nashville SC are about four weeks away from playing meaningful soccer again, and man, it feels like forever. By the time July 8 rolls around, it will have been 122 days since Nashville lost a 1-0 contest to the Portland Timbers.

A typical MLS offseason is around one month and twenty-odd days. Nashville and the rest of MLS have been on pause for four months. That’s a lot of time without full training and matches, and a very short time to get up to speed for competitive play.

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All this is to say, what we see on the field from NSC will likely not be what we saw back in February/March, at least not for a little while. It will be a tough ask for Gary Smith and his staff to get the squad back to their usual standards. Fortunately, the whole league is in the same boat, so it’s not a competitive disadvantage for the expansion side.

With all that out of the way, here are a few things I’m looking for on the field for the rest of Nashville’s season.

Daniel Ríos

Two matches is a very, very small sample size, but Nashville needs more from its forwards. This was talked about at length before the season (Matt Doyle’s column nailed it), and what we saw from the Atlanta and Portland matches backed that up. A lot of hard work and pressing, but not enough end product.

Ríos played 22 minutes in Nashville’s first two matches, and was especially impressive against Portland. His ability to hold the ball and link play is unique in NSC’s forward group, and he’s a better finisher than Badji or Danladi. He’s also really smart positionally, with an innate ability to get between centerbacks and catch them flat-footed.

Nashville’s match against Toronto was called off when the season was put on hold, but it seemed that Ríos was set to start on the trip to Canada. “I certainly have to start considering guys like Daniel Ríos and other attacking players that have been good for us in the past,” Smith told media before the Toronto game.

Ríos has the most upside of any Nashville striker. At this point in the season, I’d expect him to get the majority of minutes at the position when the tournament starts. Nashville are in the market for a DP no. 9, which would obviously impact his role. But depending on which target they sign, I think there’s still a role for Ríos. If Nashville don’t go with one of their transfer targets, I would bet we’ll see Ríos given every opportunity this season to prove that Nashville already have the answer at forward and don’t need to spend heavily in January.

Return of the back 3?

This one may seem odd, given that Nashville’s defense was the best in the league over the first two matches.

Nashville is the yellow diamond at the bottom left corner. You want to be in the bottom right corner. They’ve been the best side in the league at limiting chances, but need more attacking output.

I think a 3-4-2-1 formation could help with that.

A couple reasons why I think this could help:

  • It maintains the central midfield shape of Godoy and McCarty, while giving Leal and Mukhtar more free roles, allowing them to drift centrally and find the ball while the wingbacks provide width.
  • It allows Daniel Lovitz to push forward and get even more involved in the attack, which is a clear strength of his.
  • It gives more defensive cover on the right, which was a major weakness in the first two matches.
  • It allows Nashville to utilize one of their veteran defenders like Jalil Anibaba or Brayan Beckeles.
  • It gives Smith the option to ease in Miguel Nazarit and Jack Maher, two of their high-upside young center-backs, into the team without removing Zimmerman or Romney from the lineup.
  • It provides Alistair Johnston with a natural role in the squad (more on that in a second).

The 3-4-3 retains a lot of the strengths of the 4-2-3-1. The midfield pairing still is a focal point of the team, with a bit more license to push forward with defensive cover behind them.

Smith loves having his outside backs push up and provide width, and the back three makes the fullbacks even more of a focal point of the attack.

Even more important is the freedom that this shape gives the front three. In the first two matches, we saw Hany Mukhtar drift in and out of games, drifting wide and deep to find the ball. In the back three, he’s allowed even more freedom and flexibility, and the system opens more space between the midfield and forward lines for him and Leal to exploit.

I’m not saying this shift fixes every issue Nashville has. I’m not saying they should use it every game. I do think it’s an interesting option, and given Gary Smith’s history with a back five in USL, I don’t think it’s a huge leap to think we might see it at some point this season.

I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that right back was a big weakness for Nashville in their first two matches. In fact, it was at fault at least in part for two of the three goals they conceded. I think a switch to a back five helps solve some of that like I said above. I also think Nashville have a very strong option at right back..

Alistair Johnston

The 21-year-old was selected 11th overall by Nashville in the 2020 SuperDraft out of Wake Forest, with the club spending $750k in allocation money to acquire the pick. He’s a versatile player, capable of playing in central or wide midfield, as well as fullback. His college coach called him a “pro’s pro” and internally I’m hearing Nashville’s staff is very high on him as well.

To me, it’s telling that he was one of three SuperDraft picks not to be loaned out to a USL Championship side. He plays a position without a lot of depth on the roster, and with a very congested schedule in Orlando (and likely for the rest of the season), he should get minutes. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think he could claim the starting job by the end of the season.

What are you looking for as Nashville return to play? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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