The numbers behind Nashville SC’s floundering attack

Nashville’s attack has slumped at the worst possible time. They’ve scored nine goals in eight MLS matches this season, and 1.12 goals scored per game isn’t nearly enough to counteract the 1.88 goals they give up each game.

With just seven points, they’re in second-to-last place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference. And while there’s still roughly 75% of the season left to play, dropped points in April are just as costly as dropped points in October. Nashville have to right the ship, and they have to do it quickly.

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So what’s going wrong with Nashville’s attack? Let’s dive in.

Struggling in transition

Nashville’s bread and butter used to be attacking in transition. So far this year they’ve only managed four shots from counter attacks, tied for the fourth-worst in MLS.

A big part of the issue is Hany Mukhtar’s lack of effectiveness in the final third. From the start of 2021 to the beginning of Leagues Cup 2023, his best stretch of form, Mukhtar took 3.72 shots per game and put 1.75 on target. In 2024, he’s averaging 2.47 shots per game and putting just 1.14 on target.

In that ’21 to ’23 time span, Mukhtar led MLS in every fast-break situation: 21 shots (eight more than the next-closest), 15 shots on target, six goals and 4.18 xG. In 2024, he’s taken just two shots on the break and is 54th in expected goals.

In that 2021-2023 stretch of games I keep mentioning, Hany Mukhtar had 19.4% of Nashville’s touches on the ball in the final third, the seventh-best per-game percentage in MLS, and only behind players like Emanuel Reynoso, Lucho Acosta, Carles Gil and Lucas Zelarayán.

In 2024, Mukhtar’s touch percentage in the final third has dropped to just 8.3%. If you extend the time frame out to include 2023 post-Leagues Cup, it rises slightly to 9.6%. That’s a shocking decrease, and shows how much Mukhtar’s impact in the final third has fallen off.

Why is this happening?

Minimal possession in danger areas

Nashville are heavily struggling to progress the ball through midfield and find their attackers in the final third, both in transition and in regular buildout. Nashville are at or close to the bottom in most ball-progressing statistical categories this season.

  • 99 progressive carries (only Vancouver and Dallas have fewer)
  • 21 carries into the penalty area (only Dallas and Austin have fewer)
  • 256 progressive passes (only Philadelphia and Montreal have fewer)
  • 119 shot-creating actions, i.e. two offensive actions that lead directly to a shot (last in MLS)
  • 867 touches in the attacking third (only Montreal have fewer)
  • 188 touches in the attacking penalty area (last in MLS)

This has resulted in a toothless attack.

  • 8 goals (only Dallas and New England have fewer)
  • 74 shots (only Austin have fewer)
  • 25 shots on target (again, only Austin have fewer)

Nashville have been unable to get the ball to their best attackers in dangerous spots, and it has hamstrung their attack. The midfield is largely to blame for this.

Below average ball progressors in midfield

Anibal Godoy attempts the most progressive passes in Nashville’s midfield, averaging 6.89 per match. That’s the 34th-best in MLS. Amar Sejdić is 71st with 5.0. Dru Yearwood is 91st with 4.09. Brian Anunga has the 109th-best rate at 1.43 per game. And Sean Davis comes in at 115, averaging just 1.75 progressive passes per 90 minutes played.

Things don’t get much better when you look at other metrics. Sejdić attempts the most passes into the box of any Nashville midfielder, attempting one pass per 90 minutes played. That’s the 39th-best rate among MLS midfielders. The rest of Nashville’s midfielders are ranked 73, 91, 115 and 117.

Same with passes into the final third. Godoy is Nashville’s best at 6.59 per game, 27th best in MLS. Besides him, Nashville don’t have a midfielder in the top 100. Key passes are slightly better, but with a twist: Sejdić has the seventh-best rate in MLS with three key passes per 90 minutes played. However, he’s played the full 90 minutes just once in MLS, and has played just 14% of available minutes in all competitions this year. Aside from Sejdić, Yearwood is the next closest Nashville midfielder at 85th in MLS.

This was already an area that needed improvement last year, even with Dax McCarty. But McCarty was consistently Nashville’s best option in most of these categories of their traditional midfielders, and without him Nashville don’t have an obvious replacement.

So what’s the solution?

It’s obvious that Nashville need to improve, and improve quickly. I don’t know if there are any structural tweaks that can truly fix this issue. At this point we have four years of data on Anibal Godoy and Brian Anunga in this system, both of whom have their strengths, but neither of whom consistently hit the passes Nashville need from their midfield. Sean Davis is in a similar spot, even taking a step back this season with both his ball progression and playing time (that’s another conversation, but it’s worrying from one of the highest-paid players on the team).

I think ultimately, the only long-term solution comes in the transfer market. Nashville have too many midfielders of a similar profile; hard-working, ball-winning shuttlers who cover ground and can move the ball side-to-side, but lack the ability to consistently break lines and find attackers in space.

Amar Sejdić hasn’t been exponentially better, but he’s shown an ability to get on the ball and hit the type of Dax McCarty horizontal balls that Nashville based their attack on so heavily in the past. He’s a more technical and probing passer than Gary Smith currently has on his roster, and perhaps giving him more minutes could add a different dimension to Nashville’s possession play.

The real wild card is Randall Leal. When healthy, he has consistently ranked ahead of any Nashville midfielder in all progressive passing and carrying categories. Even in his 12 minute shift against Miami in which he clearly looked less than fully fit, he completed a progressive pass, got on the ball in good areas, and was able to break pressure on the dribble.

After spending the better part of two years injured, it’s hard to count on Leal to get on the field consistently for Nashville, let alone fix their biggest area of need. But until the summer transfer window opens in July, getting the former Designated Player on the field and seeing what he can do may be their best bet.

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

Comments

  1. Spot on. It’s this: “Nashville have too many midfielders of a similar profile; hard-working, ball-winning shuttlers who cover ground and can move the ball side-to-side, but lack the ability to consistently break lines and find attackers in space.”

    Any analysis of NSC begins and ends with this. And I would argue it’s not just the problem going forward, but the main contributor to the defensive problems as well. All too often we are overrun defensively in central midfield leaving our backline in bad positions.

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