Three Thoughts on Nashville SC’s Leagues Cup opener

Nashville SC got off to a hot start in their Leagues Cup debut last night, beating Colorado Rapids 2-1 to put themselves in a favorable position to advance to the knockout rounds.

My colleague Chris Ivey, who typically breaks down each match the day after, is recovering from a grueling Barbenheimer double feature yesterday. It’s an impressive feat, and a feat deserving of a day off. In his absence, I’m taking over. Buckle your seatbelts and get ready to xG!

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Rotation pays off

Just kidding, it’s impossible to find xG data for Leagues Cup matches. Instead, let’s look at how Nashville started the match.

There was a lot of concern from fans leading up to the game that Nashville would rotate heavily, especially once their official roster was announced, including four players from Huntsville City FC.

On Sunday night, Gary Smith named an almost completely first-choice lineup. Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman both started the match on the bench, with Smith indicating before the match that he would be overly careful to keep players fit after the pair spent last week in Washington D.C. for the MLS All Star game.

The response from certain corners of the fanbase, though, was something else.

These types of complaints would have made sense had Smith opted for nine changes to his first-choice XI, like he did in the U.S. Open Cup earlier this season (ironically, he won both of those matches, including one against FC Dallas… but I digress). This wasn’t throwing in the towel, this was putting out a strong team and trusting Randall Leal (a former Designated Player and core member of the team) and Josh Bauer (who started four of the last eight MLS matches) to do a job at home against the third-worst team in MLS.

And sure, they didn’t fire on all cylinders until Mukhtar came on early in the second half. They haven’t fired on all cylinders without him once. Ever. He’s also played the second-most minutes of any outfield player for Nashville this season and needs a rest at some point.

Even without Mukhtar, though, Nashville generated chances. The ‘Yotes took 12 shots in the first half. Jacob Shaffelburg caused problems down Colorado’s right flank all game. Teal Bunbury missed a header from point-blank range that should have scored.

Nashville weren’t toothless without Mukhtar, managed the game for 55 minutes without him, and dominated once he came on. I struggle to see the issue with that.

Dax McCarty continues resurgent form

It wasn’t that long ago that there were legitimate questions about Dax McCarty’s ability to play a major role at this level. Most notably, he struggled badly in a 1-0 loss against FC Cincinnati back in March, struggling with the pace of the game and uncharacteristically uncomposed after being substituted.

McCarty spent the next three matches out of the lineup. On April 22 against LAFC, Smith shifted his team away from the 4-4-1-1 that had been their preferred formation for the last year and into a 4-1-2-1-2, with McCarty playing the pivotal role at the base of the diamond.

McCarty excelled, completing 87% of his passes, touching the ball more than any non-defender on the field, and playing four line-breaking passes over the top. Since that match, McCarty has been an irreplaceable fixture in Nashville’s lineup. He’s started 13 of their 16 league matches, playing the sixth-most minutes of any outfield player.

On Sunday against Colorado, McCarty was once again at the heart of everything Nashville did.

He capped it all off during Hany Mukhtar’s opening goal. McCarty started the move when his pressing forced Ralph Priso into a sloppy turnover. He continued with a really smart run into the box, darting towards the far post before holding up and allowing the defender’s momentum to create the space for him. And then once he received the ball, he smartly laid it off for Mukhtar to hit first time.

It was a veteran sequence from McCarty. He’s always been one of the more cerebral midfielders in MLS. This diamond formation has saved his legs. By allowing Sean Davis and Alex Muyl, two of the more tireless workers in the league, to do a lot of the running for him, McCarty is freed to find the ball and pick his moments to get forward, and he’s repaid Smith’s trust with one of his best stretches of form in a Nashville shirt.

Mukhtar + Shaffelburg buddy cop movie in the works?

Perhaps no one loves playing with Hany Mukhtar more than Jacob Shaffelburg. Since signing with Nashville last August, four of his six goals have been assisted by Mukhtar. Two of his three assists have gone to Mukhtar. The pair were at it again on Sunday, with Mukhtar finding Shaffelburg for the winner.

Having a willing runner like Shaffelburg, who has the pace to beat defenders and the stamina to make lung-busting runs for 70 minutes a game, is a huge boon for Mukhtar. Shaffelburg consistently stretches the field selflessly. Even when he knows he’s not going to receive the ball, he knows that he can drag the defenders away from Mukhtar to create space for the league’s best attacker. And he knows that around the box, Mukhtar will look to pick him out.

His addition has been a game changer for Nashville, and it puts opposing defenses in an impossible situation. Either they can close down Mukhtar and let Shaffelburg get in behind, or they can turn and run with Shaffelburg and allow Mukhtar to drive towards goal. It must be horrible to defend.

Bonus thought

The win on Sunday doesn’t officially guarantee a trip to the Round of 32, but it puts Nashville in a fantastic position. Even a single point against Toluca on Thursday night would be enough to qualify. A win in regulation (three points) or draw and win in penalties (two points) would secure the top spot in their group.

Obviously the main goal is winning Leagues Cup. And not to blow any minds out there, but you can’t do that without getting out of the group.

The other crucial piece is that getting out of the group means more competitive games to play before Nashville’s MLS campaign resumes on August 20. That’s more games to get new signings up and running. With Sam Surridge looking set to be announced as a Nashville player imminently, getting out of the group gives him valuable minutes to get acclimated and in-form for the MLS Cup playoffs.

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

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