Nashville’s penalty problem and possible solutions

Last week against Sporting Kansas City, Nashville SC missed yet another penalty kick. Nashville have converted just 3 of 10 penalties since joining MLS. It is a worrying trend that continues to plague Nashville. 

If the Coyotes want to capture silverware, it is a problem that needs to be quickly addressed. Nashville’s expectations have been raised. This team possesses enough quality and veteran savvy to compete for trophies, not just settle for playoff appearances. But MLS and U.S. Open Cup history demonstrate that the ‘Yotes may have to overcome their penalty-kick hurdle if they want to lift a trophy.

Past tournament winners often required penalties to advance

This past MLS season is a perfect example of the importance of being able to win a penalty shootout. New York City FC lifted the MLS Cup by defeating the Portland Timbers on penalties. It was a monumental moment for NYCFC as they captured the first trophy in club history. It was not NYCFC’s only penalty success in the 2021 playoffs. The Pigeons needed extra time and penalties to knock off the Supporter Shield winners, New England Revolution, in the conference semifinals. Without successful penalty kick takers, NYCFC would have never reached the MLS Cup final, let alone win it. 

It was not the first time that an MLS Cup final required penalty kicks to decide a winner. The 2016, 2013, 2009, and 2006 finals all required kicks from the spot to crown the year’s champion.  

More so than the MLS Playoffs, the U.S. Open Cup tends to require the eventual champion to survive a penalty kick shootout. In the last ten iterations of America’s oldest soccer competition, only twice has the champion not been forced to penalties at some stage of their run.

  • 2019 (Atlanta):  no penalty kick shootouts
  • 2018 (Houston): Semifinals against LAFC
  • 2017 (Sporting KC): Semifinals against San Jose
  • 2016 (FC Dallas): Round of 32 against San Antonio FC (USL) 
  • 2015 (Sporting KC): Final against Philadelphia
  • 2014 (Seattle): Round of 16 against San Jose 
  • 2013 (D.C. United): Round of 32 against Richmond Kickers (USL-P)
  • 2012 (Sporting KC): Final against Seattle
  • 2011 (Seattle): no penalty kick shootouts 
  • 2010 (Seattle): Round of 16 against Portland (then of USSF Div 2 Pro League)

The U.S. Open Cup is the lowest barrier to lifting a consequential trophy for MLS clubs. But it is a barrier that feels much higher for Nashville SC so long as the penalty kick woes continue. Nashville has yet to win a penalty shootout in club history, including last year’s infamous playoff loss to Philadelphia in which Nashville missed all four attempts.

What is the answer for Nashville?

Nashville’s shortcomings from the penalty spot are not without a solution. 

Hany Mukhtar is unquestionably the offensive star of Nashville SC. For all his quality elsewhere on the pitch, it has not translated into success from the penalty spot. Luckily for Nashville, there are other attackers on the roster that have proven more clinical from the spot. 

I have attempted to dig up every possible penalty kick taken by current Nashville players in professional competitions.

C.J. Sapong, with a 70% penalty conversion rate, is the obvious candidate to assume penalty-taking responsibility from Hany Mukhtar. Sapong is a veteran striker and has converted a number of penalties in MLS. 

Sapong’s two principal backups, Teal Bunbury and Ake Loba also have a history of burying their penalty opportunities. These three forwards should all receive a look at taking over penalty duties while on the pitch. 

While I do not expect him to be Gary Smith’s first-choice taker, I would not mind seeing Dax McCarty on Nashville’s list of an initial five penalty takers in a shootout scenario. He is two for two in his career, both attempts coming in the U.S. Open Cup. Penalty taking is just as much of a test of mental fortitude as it is technical ability. McCarty, probably more so than anyone on the roster, will not be bothered by the largeness of the moment. A calmly taken penalty from the team’s leader can calm the nerves of Nashville’s subsequent penalty takers. 

Regardless of history, Gary Smith needs to quickly figure out who he can trust with the ball in their hands. Nashville is less than a month away from the start of its 2022 U.S. Open Cup campaign, the first since joining MLS. If Nashville harbors any hope of capturing the title, history shows that it needs to be prepared to survive and advance by winning a penalty shootout. 

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