What’s wrong with Nashville SC?
The Coyotes are in the middle of their worst stretch of form in MLS. They’re winless in their last six matches. Despite averaging 27,997 fans in their brand new stadium, they’ve lost more than they’ve won at home. And for the first time in club history, they’re in real danger of missing the playoffs all together.
Nashville were heavily favored in preseason. Here at Broadway Sports Media, our panel picked the ‘Yotes to finish between second and third in the Western Conference. On a national level, MLSSoccer.com’s preseason panel had them finishing second.
Nashville’s poor form dates back to the June international break. Their season can be divided pre- and post- break, with their results slumping significantly afterwards. In 12 league matches since a 3-1 win over Colorado Rapids, the Boys In Gold have taken 11 points from 36, the fifth-worst tally in the league. Their home-heavy schedule has not translated into points.
With just eight games left in the season, Nashville sit in seventh place in the West. They’re tied on points with eighth place Portland, one point ahead of Seattle, and two points ahead of Colorado. Seattle have a game in hand, while Colorado have two. Nashville have dropped off significantly down the stretch, and at this point in the season, they have an uphill climb to finish in a playoff spot.
Nashville have no secondary scoring
Outside of Hany Mukhtar, Nashville have little to no attacking production. This isn’t a hot take. This is a cold, hard fact.
Let’s get this out of the way. Hany Mukhtar is elite. He’s once again on pace to break 25 combined goals and assists, and has absolutely carried this Nashville team. His 22 goals and assists this year are a staggering 65% of Nashville’s total. In their entire period in MLS, he’s responsible for 52% of their attacking production.
But Mukhtar gets next to no help from the rest of the attack. Only one team in MLS (Chicago Fire) have a second-top scorer with fewer than CJ Sapong’s five goals. And only one team in MLS (Austin FC) have a bigger gap between their top scorer and their second-top scorer.
Nashville themselves have tried to fix this. They’ve had a long string of failed high-profile attacking moves. Rodrigo Piñeiro was brought in to be a goalscoring winger. He played 16 minutes. Jhonder Cádiz was brought in as a Designated Player, and while produced in flashes, still only managed five goals and two assists in 35 matches.
Aké Loba is the most recent and biggest swing and miss. Signed for $6.8 million in July 2021, he was touted as an instant impact attacker who could play anywhere across the front line, score different kinds of goals, and raise Nashville’s ceiling.
Fast forward to August 2022: Loba has two goals and two assists in 39 appearances. He’s started just two (2!!!) league matches and been on the field for a paltry 886 minutes. Most damning of all, he’s missed the last two matches with injury, and his absence in the squad is virtually unnoticeable.
Misses like these are a significant problem, a problem that needs to be addressed, and a problem that merits its own discussion. The point is that Nashville clearly know they need attacking help. They’ve tried to sign attacking help. And it hasn’t worked.
Dax McCarty said it best after the loss to Minnesota United.
“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.”
Only #AustinFC have a bigger gap between their first and second top scorers. They’ve also scored the most goals in MLS.— Ben Wright (@benwright) August 16, 2022
Sapong hasn’t scored since May 28. Muyl hasn’t scored since May 18. Leal hasn’t scored since May 1. Besides Mukhtar, NSC’s starting attackers aren’t finishing.
Being one-dimensional in attack isn’t a completely new problem for Nashville, but it’s grown significantly worse this year. In 2020, Mukhtar was responsible for eight of their 24 goals; 33%. In 2021, that grew to 28 of 55; 51%. Now, in 2022, he’s essentially the only reliable source of goals in this team.
Again, the real shift came in the June international break.
|Mukhtar before break||6||7.97|
|Rest of Nashville before break||12||13.15|
|Mukhtar after break||8||6.6|
|Rest of Nashville after break||8||12.28|
Mukhtar’s form has taken off after the break. The rest of Nashville’s attack has plumeted.
In the past, Nashville could cope with their lack of secondary scoring by being elite defensively, but…
Nashville are vulnerable defensively
Nashville are allowing goals 150% more frequently than they did last year. Conceding 1.38 goals per game in 2022, they’re on pace to concede 47 goals. They allowed just 33 last year. They’ve given up all kinds of sloppy goals from open play, like this.
A lot was talked about Nashville’s issues defending set pieces in 2021. They conceded eight goals directly from set pieces in 34 matches, with as many as five others coming shortly after set pieces. In 2022, they’ve conceded from 10 set pieces in just 26 games.
Just like in 2021, it’s hard to pinpoint where the issue is. On paper, Nashville’s defense should be one of the best in the league. It’s consistently surprising how vulnerable they are in open play and from dead balls.
They’ve also been really poor at conceding shortly after scoring. It’s hard to understate how crushing it is to a team’s mentality to consistently concede just after scoring. Let’s just look at some of their recent dropped points.
- In their 2-2 draw with Portland, Hany Mukhtar scored in the 57th minute to go up 2-0. Nashville conceded seven minutes later, and then gave up the equalizer in another six minutes.
- In their 2-1 loss to LAFC, Mukhtar scored in the 43rd minute. Los Angeles came out of the break and scored in the 46th minute.
- In their 1-1 draw in Portland, Teal Bunbury scored in the 20th minute. Portland equalized seven minutes later.
- Against Toronto, they conceded goals three and five minutes after scoring one of their own.
- And against Minnesota, Nashville conceded the winner just 15 minutes after equalizing.
Nashville could cope with being a bit shaky defensively if they were consistently able to finish chances, but like I already discussed, they aren’t. It’s a brutal cycle. It’s made worse because…
Nashville are impuissant at home
Saying Nashville struggle to win at home puts it lightly. They’ve played at Geodis Park 12 times and won just three. Only seven teams in MLS allow more than Nashville’s 1.42 goals per game at home, and only eight teams score fewer than their 1.42 goals per game. They’ve underperformed their expected goals by six at home (the fifth-worst home mark in the league), with the data clearly backing the eye test that they’re far too wasteful in the final third.
Again, this isn’t a completely new problem. Yes, Nashville were undefeated at home in 2021. And while this isn’t an attempt to diminish what was a legitimately historic accomplishment, the undefeated tag shifted focus away from the fact that they still let visitors get a result in Nashville over half the time.
The issue has been compounded at Geodis Park. The ‘Yotes have won three, drawn five and lost four at their new stadium. It’s the third-worst home record in MLS.
At the start of the season, all the talk was about the road trip. “If Nashville can just survive until their stadium opens, they’ll make up all kinds of ground at home.” I certainly bought into that narrative.
Nashville nailed the first part of that, putting up the best-ever record for a season opening road trip. They put themselves in perfect position for a home-heavy second half of the season, but instead of picking up speed and climbing the table, they’ve sputtered and screeched their way towards the outside of the playoffs.
2011 was the last time a team qualified for the playoffs while winning less than seven matches at home. Only two have qualified with less than eight. Nashville are sitting on three home wins with just five left to play.
It’s not hyperbolic to say that this is the worst two-month stretch in Nashville SC history. Nothing from their two years in USL or their first two seasons in MLS can match the summer of 2022 in terms of failure to capitalize on opportunities and sheer frustration among the fanbase.
Their poor home form isn’t just a throwaway stat.Going back through 2015, all but two playoff teams have had at least eight home wins, with the two exceptions both pulling in seven home wins. Nashville have just three. Since 2015, playoff teams have won on average 59% of their home matches. Nashville have won just 25%.With only 5 remaining home matches, the Coyotes have precious little time to improve their home form.
The wildest part of this all is that in many ways, Nashville’s results have been mystifying. There’s not an easy fix, because…
Nashville haven’t actually played that poorly
I’m sure this next part will frustrate some of my readers who are just fed up with their team at this point in the season. That’s fine. That’s their prerogative.
But for all their legitimate issues that I’ve just outlined, Nashville haven’t played as poorly as their record would indicate. Yes, they don’t score enough or have enough goalscoring options, they’re worse defensively than ever, and they have struggled mightily at home. But their actual performances on the field have deserved more.
Nashville are third in the American Soccer Analysis expected points table. Essentially, this table builds out expected goals even further. It simulates the results of every shot taken in every match 1,000 times, and predicts the winner of each match based on those simulations.
Essentially, what this tells us is that, in addition to the issues listed above, Nashville have been incredibly unlucky.
Nashville have the fifth-most xG in MLS, but have underperformed in the final third, scoring five goals less than predicted. Even worse, they’ve conceded seven goals more than their xG would predict.
These numbers match the eye test. Nashville are creating plenty of clear-cut chances that they aren’t finishing. And on the flip side, they’re conceding a lot from a small number of clear-cut chances.
So what next?
The transfer window is over. Nashville can’t bring in more attacking help. Until the offseason comes and Nashville have the time and mechanisms available to overhaul their roster, they have to work with the squad they have. Aníbal Godoy’s return from injury will be a crucial boost. Shaq Moore has already improved the side, and Jacob Shaffelburg has the the upside to make an impact.
It sounds reductionistic, but a simple regression to the mean would be a significant improvement. If Nashville can start finishing chances they should finish and not conceding goals they shouldn’t concede, they’re doing enough “between the boxes” to win, as Dax McCarty said.
It’s no coincidence that Nashville’s worst form the season has run parallel to goals from the forward position drying up. Sapong hasn’t scored since May 28, and while Bunbury’s four goals certainly gave the squad a lift, the rest of the squad has underperformed in the final third.
Since May 28, only Mukhtar and Bunbury have multiple goals. Loba is the only other attacker to score, and he’s played exactly 167 minutes in those 11 matches.
CJ Sapong hasn’t scored in 1,009 minutes. Randall Leal has one goal all season, and it was a penalty kick back on May 1. It’s not sustainable for Nashville to get so little production from the rest of their attack. As my colleague Chris Ivey said, “Nashville will sink or swim based on those two finding the back of the net over the last eight matches.”
The lack of production from the frontline needs to be addressed in the winter transfer window. For now the only fix is for the players on the roster to simply play better. Again, Dax McCarty said it best.
“It’s just a matter of other guys stepping up and putting the ball in the back of the net. That’s myself included. When you have chances on set pieces, when you have the opportunity to shoot from outside the box, are we putting the ball on frame? Are we following up shots that the ‘keeper spills? It sounds really complicated, but it’s actually just really simple. I really believe that once CJ gets a goal, once Randall gets a goal, once Alex gets a goal, I truly believe that’s when the dominos start to fall and that’s when those other guys start to gain more confidence.”
The simple fact is that Nashville have played well enough between the boxes to merit significantly more points than they’ve earned. Their performance in front of both goals has to rise to match that. If it doesn’t, they’ll be watching the playoffs from home.