What’s wrong with Nashville SC’s defense?

Nashville SC’s defense, once the foundation of the team, is now conceding almost two goals per game—twice as many as last year. What has gone wrong in 2024?

Injuries

NSC has been facing injury issues in the early part of the season; very rarely have all three Designated Players been on the field together. Walker Zimmerman, consistently one of the top three center-backs in MLS, has only been on the field for a total of 94 minutes in MLS play.

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During the 2023 season, when Walker Zimmerman was healthy, NSC conceded only 24 goals in 27 games. His presence on the pitch elevates the performance of his fellow teammates. He has an aggressive play style and ensures that his center back partner is protected, while simultaneously erasing any mistakes made by his teammates in front of him.

Although Jack Maher and Lukas MacNaughton are good center backs, they are both probably considered to be no. 2 options, and without the first-choice partner, they have struggled.

Opponent numbers20232024
Carries Into Final 3rd16.117.3
Carries Into Pen4.25.3
Passes Into Final 3rd27.143.2
Passes Into Pen6.810.2
NSC Clearances17.922.7

Gary Smith will be the first to tell you defending is a collective effort, and that all eleven players have to contribute when the team is not in possession of the ball. However, the players in front of the defenders have been letting them down. Compared to other MLS teams, Nashville has allowed the second-highest number of passes into the final third and into the box in 2024, which puts a lot of pressure on the defenders to clear the ball and avoid conceding goals.

In fact, 56% of the team’s tackles happen in the final third, which is the third-highest rate in the league. This is mainly due to the midfielders’ inability to hold the ball and allow the defense to push up the field and stop attacking moves before they reach the defense. As a result, Nashville has already made two errors that led to a goal this season, which equals the total number of errors made in the entire 2023 season. 

How can they fix it?

The obvious answer? Sign a true No. 6 and get Zimmerman healthy.

But what else can they do? Personally, I’d like to see Nashville line up in more of a 4-2-2-2 with Dru Yearwood and Aníbal Godoy paired in the midfield. Yearwood has been an exceptional midfield tackler to start the season and has the athleticism to cover for Godoy’s lack of pace. Yearwood and Anunga both rank in the top 20 in the league for midfield tackles. Godoy is still a solid passer, calm in front of a press, and a good counter to Yearwood’s passing struggles.

This lineup means Hany Mukhtar and Tyler Boyd need to drop in to connect the midfield to the attack, which hasn’t worked well to start the season, but with some more chemistry it might. And finally, having true wingers in this lineup to create width allows the fullbacks to sit back a bit further and help the defense.

Nashville SC’s defenders didn’t get worse in the offseason. They’re just under more pressure now than ever. The team needs to rebound and focus on defense as a collective. Relieving some of the pressure from the defense will allow them to find some form and confidence while Zimmerman is out. Gary Smith is still an elite defensive coach and is certainly capable of stabilizing things, but it will require a significant team effort.

Author: Jeff RemlingerJeff Remlinger, a data nerd from Chicago, IL, fell in love with MLS by watching the Chicago Fire. Some would say he threw his Fire jersey in the trash a little too quickly when Nashville joined MLS. Jeff has a passion for the statistical side of sports, and when he’s not writing about soccer, he can be found watching his beloved Arsenal or Iowa State Cyclones. Jeff can be found @MusicCitySCStat on X, where he shares his statistical analysis of Nashville SC.

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