Nashville SC haven’t reached the high expectations that many placed on them heading into 2022. Pegged as Supporters Shield contenders, the Coyotes are fighting for one of the final Western Conference playoff spots with just seven matches left to play.
The ‘Yotes have certainly put out multiple sub-par performances and have struggled to win at home, but by and large their performances on the field have been deserving of much more. The numbers back that up.
According to American Soccer Analysis’s expected points model, Nashville have deserved a full nine points more than they’ve taken. If their results had matched their performances, according to this model, they’d be sitting on 45 points, just three points behind second-placed Austin FC (who themselves have heavily overperformed).
Yes, they’ve had on-field issues; failing to convert chances, allowing sloppy goals, poor set piece defending and an inability to see out results, especially at home. But while they weren’t great through the summer, their performances weren’t nearly as bad as the results. In August, the performances improved, even while the results didn’t. In a lot of ways, their 4-0 win over FC Dallas had been a long time coming, and was an example of the type of attacking performance that they’d had, but not been rewarded for.
The easy answer is Hany Mukhtar. With Nashville’s backs up against the wall, the 2021 MVP runner-up has played like an MVP. He’s scored or assisted seven of Nashville’s eight goals in the month of August, spurring calls from Dax McCarty after the loss to Minnesota for someone else to step up in the attack.
“If we’re going to be successful, we cannot have [Hany Mukhtar] shouldering the burden and the load that he’s shouldering right now. It’s unsustainable.” pic.twitter.com/WKVU9LL7t3— Ben Wright (@benwright) August 15, 2022
While Mukhtar certainly can’t be Nashville’s only source of attack, he’s found arguably the best vein of form since arriving in Nashville when needing it most.
Nashville have created chances all season, but they’ve struggled to finish. Their 1.48 xG per match was the 10th highest in MLS, but their goals per match were the 18th.
In their three August matches, their 2.11 xG per game is the fourth highest in the league, and they’ve scored an average of 2.3 goals per match. Granted, it’s an exceptionally small sample size, but their underlying numbers have improved, largely due to the play of Hany Mukhtar.
CJ Sapong, while getting in great positions, hasn’t scored since May 21. Randall Leal hasn’t scored since May 1. Those two players combined for 34 goals in 2021. With 80% of the 2022 season in the books, they’ve combined for just 17. It’s arguably the biggest reason why Nashville have underwhelmed compared to last season.
The Shaq Moore effect
Shaq Moore has been one of the best fullbacks at progressing the ball in MLS since joining Nashville in the summer window. According to ASA’s goals added model, only four outside backs have added to their teams’ goal chances on the dribble more effectively than more.
Moore has been in the top 10 fullbacks in final third passes and crosses. For a Nashville team that builds so much of their attacking identity around crossing the ball, he’s been a needed addition, especially as Gary Smith pivots away from a back five to his preferred 4-4-1-1 system.
Moore is a reliable outlet in possession and provides more width in the attack from the right back position than Nashville have had before. Check out this passing radar before Moore:
Dave Romney said in his pre-Vancouver media availability that Nashville have used Dan Lovitz as a hybrid left center back after Moore’s arrival, allowing Moore to get further forward. That’s certainly been the case at times, such as their 2-1 loss to Minnesota United.
However, Lovitz’s attacking numbers have improved since Moore arrived, and he’s still contributing significantly going forward. In a more balanced attack, he’s able to pick his moments more selectively and doesn’t carry the sole attacking burden of the fullback group.
With Moore in the fold, Nashville have a pair of capable two-way fullbacks who are equally adept at defending as they are going forward. That balance has been needed for a while.
Improving the press
In part with the switch to a back four, Nashville have pressed more frequently and more effectively. In their first 23 matches, the ‘Yotes averaged just 2.2 shots coming from possessions that were won within five seconds of a pressure, tackle or interception in the opponents’ half, the fourth fewest in MLS.
In August, that number increased dramatically, with the ‘Yotes averaging 5.3 high press shots in four matches. No team in MLS has had more in that time.
Dax McCarty has been a big part of that improvement. He’s been a specialist throughout his career at winning the ball in midfield and immediately looking for a forward pass into space, and in a lot of ways he’s shaped how this Nashville team plays.
His G+ interrupting score (a measure of how players win back possession) was at an unremarkable -0.01 per 96 minutes played from February through July. In August, that jumped to 0.06, the sixth best among MLS defensive midfielders in that stretch.
Getting Aníbal Godoy back and healthy will only help. Godoy has missed 14 matches with injury in total this season, and his latest quad issue kept him out for 10 matches, coinciding with Nashville’s worst run of form. His ability to not only win possession but set pieces will help Nashville attack defenses, and will be a key part of their playoff push.