Nashville SC’s 2022 season was a strange dichotomy, a conflicting mix of both high highs and low lows.
After an unceremonious exit in the first round of the playoffs, the club and fans alike will have a long offseason to ponder the oft-recurring question in sports: “was the season a success?” In this case, it’s not an easy answer.
On a positive note, Nashville more than survived their eight-game road trip to start the season. With three wins, three losses and two draws, their 11-point haul wasn’t just passable; it was excellent.
The ‘Yotes won as much or more in their eight-game road trip than 13 teams did in the entirety of 2022. It’s hard to call that anything other than a success.
Geodis Park was a clear success. Yes, the record at home was bad (more on that later), and yes, there were growing pains as the fanbase adjusted to a new venue. There are improvements to be made, but Nashville have their own home now for the long-term future.
They also qualified for the playoffs. It’s the minimum expectation, not just for Nashville, but for every team in MLS. 14 of 28 sides in the league qualify, so while it’s not a super exclusive club, they still checked the box on one of their primary goals this season.
Nashville have been in MLS for three seasons, They’ve been in the playoffs for three seasons. Only four other teams in the modern era of MLS (Atlanta, LAFC and Seattle) have done that.
And most of all, Hany Mukhtar was nothing short of elite in 2022. 23 goals. 11 assists. 65% of Nashville’s attacking output.
Mukhtar was the best player in MLS, winning the Golden Boot, with the league MVP award likely to follow. Nashville fans got to watch the most dynamic attacker in the league on a weekly basis. That doesn’t happen often. It hasn’t happened often, maybe ever, in this market. It’s worth celebrating.
Nashville came back from their road trip poised to make a run towards the top of the table. They didn’t. They flirted with the idea a couple times, but consistently failed to land a killer blow.
In games where the elite teams in the league, the teams that Nashville internally believe they can compete with, take points, Nashville didn’t. In fact, more often than not, they let teams come to Geodis Park and punch them in the mouth.
|Date||Opponent (league finish)||Result||How it happened|
|May 21||Atlanta (23)||2-2 draw||Conceded an 88th minute equalizer after taking the lead in the 31st minute|
|June 11||San Jose (26)||0-0 draw||Failed to score at home against the 2nd-worst defense in MLS|
|July 3||Portland (15)||2-2 draw||Gave away a 2-0 lead in the final 30 minutes to drop points|
|July 30||Vancouver (17)||1-1 draw||Conceded in the 87th minute to drop points against the 4th-worst defense in MLS|
|August 6||Toronto (27)||3-4 loss||The second time in club history to concede four goals|
|August 14||Minnesota (11)||1-2 loss||Conceded a 75th-minute winner|
|September 10||LA Galaxy (8)||1-1 draw||Outshot 22-10 at home, conceded an equalizer in the 99th minute|
|October 2||Houston (25)||1-2 loss||Lost final home match, failing to earn a home playoff game|
They finished their first eight games with a solid 1.38 points per game. They finished their 17 games with just 1.41 points per game. Only five teams in MLS were worse at home. They certainly won matches against better teams, but a lasting memory of this year will be their inability to beat bad teams at home. A single point more from any of the eight matches listed above would have given them a home playoff spot.
Yet more post-mortems! Here's what 2022 meant for Nashville — a year in which it kind of felt like the window might've closed if they don't have a massive offseason.https://t.co/RCQueSPfRF pic.twitter.com/DFsTVMWHZI— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) October 17, 2022
Mukhtar’s impressive season was made even more impressive by just how little he had to work with. While he got better in 2022, the rest of the team regressed.
In 2021, 39 of Nashville’s goals came from someone other than Mukhtar. That number dropped to 29 in 2022. C.J. Sapong, who started three more games in 2022 than he did the prior year, dropped from 12 goals to five. Randall Leal, the other primary attacker, dropped from eight goals to just two.
Nashville relied on Mukhtar too heavily in 2021. They relied on him even more in 2022.
Unbelievably, Aké Loba managed to regress from an already concerning 2021. After arriving last summer for $6.8 million, he played just 478 minutes over the remaining 25 games. Questions were raised about his lack of contribution, but the general consensus was that a full offseason would lead to improvement in 2022.
That didn’t happen. Loba played less in his first full season, getting on the field for just 421 minutes. He didn’t start a single game in league play. He scored just twice in all competition. Nashville banked heavily on Loba panning out. Instead they got one of the biggest busts in recent memory.
Nashville’s roster was the oldest in MLS. 45% of their minutes were filled by players 30 or older. Their attacking depth was an issue all season, partially addressed by the additions of Jacob Shaffelburg and Shaq Moore, but otherwise evident throughout the season.
The playoff loss to the Galaxy was frustrating. While it’s fair to question if the choice to revert back to a defend-first mentality was ultimately the right one, it nearly panned out. Good teams lose in the playoffs. It happens.
The real killer blow to Nashville’s season wasn’t the playoff loss, but the consistent failure to climb the table with results against bad teams at home. It’s not a new problem for Nashville. In 2021, they drew more than they won at home, and while they were undefeated at Nissan Stadium, the dropped points came back to bite them. They tied the Philadelphia Union on points, but finished second on tiebreakers. When the two sides were drawn together in the playoffs, Nashville had to go on the road. They lost.
History repeated itself in 2022. Nashville tied the Galaxy on points, fell behind on tiebreakers, and lost to them on the road in the playoffs. Nashville couldn’t get over that hump in 2022. It’s unfortunately the last memory of their season.
Was the season a success? What’s next?
Like I said at the top, Nashville are a strange dichotomy of two usually opposing ideas. On the one hand, they’re a third-year club in a mid-sized market with a lower-middle class budget in MLS. On the other, they’ve made the playoffs in every year of their existence, play in the biggest soccer-specific stadium in the league, and have the best player in the league on their roster.
Nashville still publicly cling to the identity of a plucky expansion side who punch above their weight and are content with just making the playoffs every season. The media has moved past that idea. The fans certainly have. And the players have too.
“We’ve got to shed off this ‘we’re the new team’… It’s not valid anymore,” said Walker Zimmerman after their playoff loss. “Three years now, we gotta move on. We’ve been in the league now for three full seasons, so we aren’t the new kids on the block anymore… How can we keep raising the bar and say… ‘how can we progress up the table, fight for Supporters’ Shield, fight for home playoff games in the first two or three rounds’. That’s gotta be the incentive and the goal.”
This quote from Hany Mukhtar back in July says a lot.
“We have to make the next steps with the ball if we want to be a really, really good team,” he said after a 1-0 win against Seattle. “I said that when I signed my new deal. We’re here to win silverware. We have good players… We have to make the next steps. When you see the best teams in the world and in the league, they all have quality with the ball and if you’re leading 1-0 or 2-0, to control the game with the ball… I really deeply believe that and I think the team would agree with me.”
Nashville met the minimum expectations in 2022, but with another unreal performance from Mukhtar, the minimum just didn’t feel like enough.
There’s a lot of potential in Nashville. There’s also the simple fact that players like Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman don’t stick around forever, at least not at their current level of production.
In a lot of ways, this offseason feels like the most important yet for the young club. Will they be content to simply be in the 50% of teams to qualify for the postseason every year and test their luck in the dice role that is the MLS Cup Playoffs? Or will they go all in on building a team around Mukhtar and Zimmerman that can compete for Supporters’ Shield? Will they get Mukhtar the help in attack he needs, the help he deserves?
If Nashville really have ambitions to take steps forward, the step that players and fans are asking for, the first step is the offseason. With a reloaded roster, a DP attacker who can actually get on the field, maybe even score a couple goals, and just some general help for Mukhtar, this team could be a contender.
If they don’t, seasons like this might just be their ceiling.