Nashville SC are five days away from their second postseason in MLS, just the fourth expansion team since 2009 to make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in their first two years in the league. After finishing third in the East in the regular season, the Boys In Gold have positioned themselves as one of the top sides in the league, and appear to have all the qualifications for a deep run.
However, as MLS has demonstrated time after time, the postseason is rarely predictable. Success in the playoffs is as much about getting hot at the right time as it is about seeding.
Nashville didn’t exactly storm into the postseason. The Six Strings* won just one of their last five matches and scored a single goal or less in four. The two week international break has thrown a wrench into the MLS schedule, and form likely won’t carry into the postseason as it has in years past.
With a difficult matchup against Orlando City in Round One, Nashville can’t take long to find their best form. Here are three things Nashville has to do to make a postseason run.
1. Keep Hany Mukhtar involved
This one’s pretty obvious, but it shows how important Mukhtar is to Nashville. The German playmaker’s 28 combined goals and assists made up 51% of Nashville’s 55 total goals. He is arguably more important to their attack than any single player around the league, and it’s hard for Nashville to succeed when Mukhtar doesn’t make a difference.
The good news is that no one has really been able to keep Mukhtar out of games this year. He’s spread out his 16 goals across 11 matches, and had a goal or an assist in 18 separate contests. If he was streaky in 2020, he’s been the opposite in 2021, and has turned into a big game player for Nashville.
If Mukhtar is quiet, things get dicey for Nashville. CJ Sapong is their second-highest scorer with 12 tallies on the season, but he’s scored in just two of their last 10 matches. Randall Leal has shown up in key moments, and while Aké Loba has loads of potential, he hasn’t made a real impact since joining for a club-record fee.
Keeping Mukhtar involved is the simplest way for Nashville to succeed.
2. Don’t concede first
Again, this one sounds obvious, but it’s been an issue for Nashville this season, especially at home. Despite largely dominating at Nissan Stadium, they conceded first in eight of 17 home matches in 2021, and they won just two of those.
It’s one thing to give up an early goal to Toronto or Cincinnati, but against a quality team like Orlando, giving up an early lead may be insurmountable. Nashville conceded after just 38 seconds in their final match of the regular season and pulled out a draw, despite Red Bulls creating the better of the chances.
If Nashville want to advance, they can’t afford another slow start.
3. Don’t concede from set pieces
Completing the cliché hattrick, Nashville cannot give up set piece goals against Orlando. Nashville have conceded three set piece or penalty goals to Orlando this season, and have drawn them in all three meetings.
According to American Soccer Analysis, Nashville have conceded twelve goals from dead ball situations this season. Only four playoff teams have conceded more.
It’s even tricker when you look at Nashville’s side of the bracket. Orlando, Philadelphia and New York Red Bulls have scored five goals against Nashville from dead ball situations in their seven 2021 meetings. Nashville has the players to dominate in the air, and while many of their struggles improved as the season went on, it’s one of the few weaknesses they’ve shown this year.
Nashville have never lost by more than two goals as a professional team. They’ve only lost four times in 2021, and just one of those losses was by more than a single goal. Gary Smith has developed a remarkable ability to keep his side in games.
If a team can keep the scoreline tight and rely on their best players for a performance in key moments, they tend to do well in knockout matches. Nashville have done this all season, and on paper they have all the makings of a team who can challenge for MLS Cup.
That journey starts Tuesday night against Orlando City at Nissan Stadium.
*People get worked up about Nashville SC nicknames. What’s your take?