After taking one step forward with last week’s win, Nashville SC took one step back by falling at home to the New York Red Bulls.
As Nashville wraps up its disappointing regular season, here are my three thoughts on the match and NSC’s upcoming playoff series with Orlando City.
The more desperate team won
For 90 minutes, Nashville SC and the New York battled in a game of life-sized ping-pong. Meetings between these two doggedly defensive…and anemic attacking…clubs rarely produce anything resembling the beautiful game.
However, as the minutes ticked away, one team’s desperation created the edge. With New York needing a goal to keep their perennial playoff streak alive, the Red Bulls raced down loose balls, knocked on the door, and eventually manufactured a bit of luck when Aníbal Godoy lunged at Luquinhas in the penalty box.
Red Bulls, by their nature, create cagey matches and build their game model on winning 50/50 balls. To an extent, they always play with a certain type of desperation. However, they are a beatable team, despite Nashville’s abysmal head-to-head history with them. The Red Bulls entered the match with just three road wins on the season.
Yet, it was not the home team throwing numbers forward desperately seeking a go-ahead goal. Theoretically, Nashville had nothing to lose, but plenty to gain by winning. Despite a risk-free result, the Boys in Gold sat back and let the visitors take the game to them in the final minutes. It was disappointing to say the least.
Supporters do not want to pay their hard-earned money to witness their home team fail to be the aggressor when the score is level. The chorus of boos as the final whistle blew testified to that frustration.
Limping into the playoffs
The post-match frustration can also be chalked up to a disappointing regular season. Nashville limps into playoffs off a home loss and just two wins in their last 13.
It is not just Nashville, as a club, struggling as of late. Their talisman, Hany Mukhtar, went ice cold in the second half of the season. Since July, the German has scored just twice in league play. If we have learned anything in the last four years, it is Nashville goes as Hany goes. When he struggles, NSC struggles.
Signing Sam Surridge was an absolute necessity to try and find secondary scoring that could smooth out Mukhtar’s valleys. However, it was never going to be sufficient by itself. There have been and continue to be real structural issues with this team both tactically and from a roster-building perspective.
We can dive into that more in the offseason. Those questions and answers will not determine what happens in the remainder of 2023.
In the meantime, Nashville must find a way to get Mukhtar hot. If not, a quick exit awaits for the Boys in Gold.
A rivalry is about to grow even nastier
Among supporters, Nashville’s biggest rival is unquestionably F.C. Cincinnati. However, if you took a private poll inside Nashville’s locker room, it would not surprise me if Orlando City came out on top.
Nashville and Orlando have met 10 times in four seasons. Across that history, there has been plenty of drama and testy moments between the sides. From the outside looking in, these two teams appear to not particularly care for each other.
A lot of the animosity developed late in 2021. On Halloween, the penultimate match of the 2021 season, Orlando City thought they snatched a stoppage-time winner. However, VAR controversially disallowed the goal. The decision altered the playoff positions of each. A win for Orlando would have vaulted them to 3rd place, with home-field advantage over Nashville in the playoffs. Instead, the ‘Yotes finished 3rd in the Eastern Conference and hosted Orlando City in a first-round match which Nashville won 3-1.
The back-and-forth nature and results by a razor’s edge only help to fuel the on-field rivalry. Nashville is 3W-5D-2L against the Lions. However, one of those “draws” is only nominally such. Orlando advanced past Nashville via penalties in the 2022 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. If you chalk that up as a win (as frankly, it should be), the series becomes a perfectly balanced 3W-4D-3L.
There is nothing that fuels a sports rivalry like matches in high-leverage moments. With MLS’s new best-of-three playoff format for the first round, Nashville and Orlando will meet at least twice in the coming days.
If a third match is required to break the deadlock, don’t be surprised when some supporters start considering Orlando City to be arguably the club’s second-biggest rival.
Former Nashville SC defender Dave Romney put together another Ironman season in 2023. Romney, still quite beloved among NSC supporters, played every single minute for the New England Revolution this season.
If the best ability is availability, Romney is absolutely elite. Since 2020, he leads the league in minutes played among outfielders. If you include goalkeepers, Romney’s 11,740 minutes played would still rank second. He only trails Nashville’s own Joe Willis (11,956 minutes).
Availability is clearly a trait Nashville has valued in its first four years. Since 2020, Nashville has had five outfield players in the top 40 in minutes played: Romney (1st); Daniel Lovitz (8th); Hany Mukhtar (21st); Sean Davis (27th); and Walker Zimmerman (37th).
This season, four Nashville players ranked in the top 30 in minutes played: Jack Maher (10th); Mukhtar (15th); Lovitz (20th); and Shaq Moore (27th). It is a remarkable level of consistency and ability to stay healthy among this core of Nashville players.