On Tuesday night, Nashville SC’s 2023 season came to a close with barely a whimper as they fell at home to Orlando City in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Here are my three thoughts on the match and the season as a whole.
This team is broken
Nashville SC is a broken team. The warning signs have been present for a long time. A few months of futility culminated in a pathetic attacking display that should sound a five-alarm fire signal throughout the club.
In a do-or-die game with everything to play for, Nashville looked sloppy, unorganized, and without the fight and desperation needed to survive in the playoffs. Orlando City bullied Nashville the entire night as they seized the role of the aggressor from the opening kick. It continued for the entire 90 minutes.
Nashville used to be that team. The tough, gritty team that ground out results. They can’t even fall back on that anymore.
On the attacking end, NSC lacks ideas. Pumping in crosses into a crowded box is no longer just the product of stoppage-time desperation; it’s seemingly the 90-minute game-plan. Even the formerly blistering counterattacks have been neutered. Far too often Nashville’s midfielders and defense look first to pedantically shuffle the ball around rather than pick out vertical runners to exploit disorganized defensive lines.
Most of all, this team looks tired. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is the oldest team in the league and one that lacks quality depth. The warning bells have been wringing on that problem for a while. I’ve spent the better part of two years yelling from the East Tennessee mountain tops that NSC must get younger and more dynamic, especially in the midfield.
With issues multiplying across multiple fronts, this offseason will be the most critical for Nashville SC since the initial roster build.
Despite the calls for Gary Smith and Mike Jacobs’ heads, I don’t see John Ingram making a move just yet. Regardless, a serious discussion regarding the direction of the club must be held over the coming days. Ingram will likely give Smith and Jacobs a bit more time to attempt a turnaround.
However, the hot seat temperature will have risen to an uncomfortable territory. A stumble out of the gates in 2024 should lead to a sudden and seismic shift in the leadership of Nashville SC.
A tale of two seasons
Moving on, it is worth taking a step back and looking at the season as a whole.
The 2023 soccer season was a roller coaster for Nashville SC, aptly demonstrating the unpredictable nature of the sport. The team embarked on a campaign that carved a dual narrative, marked by a lackluster MLS performance juxtaposed with a scintillating run in the Leagues Cup that captivated the hearts and minds of the city and soccer community.
The first half of the season saw Nashville in scintillating form. The Coyotes earned 1.88 points per match, a pace that would have seen them finish only behind FC Cincinnati on the Supporters’ Shield table.
In the second half of the season, the team broke down. Despite a battle-tested roster, Nashville could not consistently produce up to their potential. They battled with injuries, dips in form, and a clunky and unimaginative attack failed to produce goals.
In stark contrast to their MLS woes, Nashville SC’s Leagues Cup campaign created moments of magic and came just inches shy of glory. The tournament, which pitted MLS and Liga MX teams against each other, was where the Coyotes shined brightly, showcasing the resilience and talent within their ranks.
While it may get lost in the haze of the Final, the personal highlight reel for supporters will long remember the nights when the ‘Yotes bested North American giants Monterrey and Club América.
Nashville’s win over América, in particular, easily holds the top spot for the craziest contest that I have ever witnessed. The atmosphere, Sam Surridge’s debut goal in the dying embers, short-lived loss, pitch invaders, VAR salvation, and eventual win all combined for an unforgettable night of soccer that will stand the test of time.
If Leagues Cup is to survive and thrive as an annual competition, it will owe itself, in large part, to that match. It was proof positive of what executives of both MLS and LigaMX hoped for in creating the tournament.
These victories were not just wins; they were statements that reverberated across the league, cementing Nashville as a team of big-game pedigree on a continental scale. They were proof-of-concept of Nashville’s often-hypothesized ability as a tournament team.
The apex of this enthralling journey was the Leagues Cup Final, held at GEODIS Park, where the Coyotes faced an Inter Miami side led by the legendary Lionel Messi. The city of Nashville buzzed with anticipation, and the atmosphere within the stadium was electric as fans gathered to witness what many hoped would be a historic victory while others gathered for a glimpse at the GOAT.
The final itself was a nail-biting encounter. Despite Nashville SC’s valiant defensive efforts, Messi’s class was a decisive factor when he banged in a worldie from outside the box. In quintessential NSC fashion, the ‘Yotes battled back with scoring a set-piece goal to level the affair. Nashville’s dream run ended in heartbreak as Inter Miami claimed the Leagues Cup trophy via the 11th round of penalty kicks.
Off the pitch, the Coyotes’ journey in the Leagues Cup has had a substantial impact, expanding their fanbase and embedding the team deeper into the fabric of Nashville’s sporting culture. You would be hard-pressed to find many people in the Midstate who were not aware that at least some sort of important soccer match was happening that weekend. Hosting a final against the greatest player of all time has a penetrating effect that can pierce through even those who have never watched a minute.
For all the success that was Leagues Cup, the final two and half months of the season felt like a slow, painful release of air from a giant party balloon. Poor form and a woeful attack failed to capitalize on the momentum generated from the Leagues Cup run.
Years from now, I think the collective memories will recall this as the Leagues Cup final season. It was the first final in the club’s history and a monumental moment. However, sitting here in November 2023, given the context of having limped out of the playoffs without a goal, it is difficult to not look at this season through the prism of the last few months of futility.
Falling short of success
With a quick exit from the MLS Playoffs for the second-straight season, Nashville’s season, taken as a whole, falls shy of classification as a success based on preseason expectations.
At the beginning of the season, the personalities at Broadway Sports and Speedway Soccer made predictions and established markers for what it would take for the 2023 season to be considered a success. In that piece, the group coalesced around finishing in the top 3 or 4 in the Eastern Conference, winning a trophy, or advancing to the second round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Personally, I wrote that Nashville needed to either win a trophy or finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference (although admittedly, I had less artfully stated hosting a playoff game failing to account for the change in playoff format).
By those measures, Nashville failed to meet the preseason expectations for success.
Under other circumstances, I might give them a pass by lasting 11 rounds into penalty kicks with Inter Miami in the Leagues Cup Final. NSC came as close as they could possibly come to achieving one of those goals. While that is certainly true, the accomplishment of appearing in a final is overwhelmingly overshadowed in the short term by a woeful final two months of the season. For now, that colors the collective mood around the club.
Yes, the Leagues Cup run provided demonstrable evidence that this team can compete for titles. The MLS campaign, however, proved that a tactical refresh and roster revamp is desperately needed this winter if they are to even make the playoffs again, let alone consistently challenge for trophies.