Nashville SC regressed in the 2023 MLS regular season.
There’s no way around it. The numbers back it up. Nashville took a step back in almost every measurable category in 2023.
Nashville finished in seventh place in the Eastern Conference table with 49 points. This was their lowest finish since their 2020 expansion season, notably a worse performance than last season, when they played in the Western Conference and dealt with an absolutely brutal travel schedule.
Nashville’s 39 goals scored in the 2023 season was the second-worst attacking output in their four MLS seasons. Their 1.15 goals per game was just 75% of their output in 2022 (1.53), and well behind their 1.62 goals per game in 2021.
Hany Mukhtar took a step back in 2023, although his season was still impressive. He scored 15 goals, good for a fifth-place finish in the Golden Boot race, but significantly behind his 23 goals the year prior. Note the strikingly similar curves in Hany Mukhtar’s graph compared to Nashville’s total points. Nashville’s success is live-and-die dependent on Mukhtar’s.
It’s not fair to blame the regression on Mukhtar. In fact, he’s probably the only attacking player who consistently produced for Nashville, even with his sharp drop-off down the stretch. One of the main issues is secondary scoring. Again.
In 2021, Mukhtar led the team with 16 goals. While he was alone at the top, CJ Sapong and Randall Leal carried a some of the burden, scoring 12 and eight, respectively. The rest of the team contributed 18 goals.
In 2022, Nashville lacked any real secondary scoring threat. Mukhtar won the MLS Golden Boot with 23 goals. Sapong and Teal Bunbury were the next highest scorers, contributing five goals each. The rest of the team contributed 19.
Nashville went into 2023 knowing that secondary scoring was a major issue, but held out until the summer window to really address the issue. Mukhtar again led the team, regressing from his 2022 form, but still scoring a solid 15 goals. The next highest scorer was Fafa Picault, with five goals. Teal Bunbury was the third-highest scorer with three. After that, the rest of the team contributed just 15 total goals.
Let’s break it down more starkly. In 2021, Nashville had 78 non-Mukhtar goal contributions (goals or assists from players other than Hany Mukhtar). In 2022, that dropped to 69. And in 2023, it plummeted to an abysmal 45 non-Mukhtar goal contributions.
Nashville have been over reliant on Hany Mukhtar for three straight seasons. But instead of improving the rest of the attack around him, the rest of the attack has gotten consistently worse.
Signing Sam Surridge this summer will improve that statistic next year, but it’s hard not to wonder what could have been if Nashville had been more ambitious and efficient in building an attack around Mukhtar over the past three seasons.
The other primary issue with Nashville is age and squad depth. Nashville have the oldest average roster age in MLS at just over 30 years old. They’ve also used just 24 players in league play, the second-fewest in MLS. The lack of usable squad depth combined with an aging core really impacted Nashville’s productivity, especially in a season with the most fixture congestion yet.
Nowhere was this issue more evident than in midfield, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The age of Nashville’s midfield was the biggest concern in our preseason fan poll, and for good reason. Dax McCarty is 36. Anibal Godoy is 33. Sean Davis, brought in last year as a younger option, is 30. Brian Anunga is the youngest option, and he’s 27.
On the surface, that’s not bad. It’s an average age 31.5. But it gets more concerning when you look at how the minutes were distributed this season. Nashville’s older midfielders played significantly more, and the younger options played significantly less.
McCarty played 109 minutes more in 2023 than he did in 2022. Godoy played 791 minutes. Conversely, Sean Davis played 997 minutes fewer in 2023. Anunga played 311 minutes fewer. To sum it all up, in 2022 just 42% of Nashville’s midfield minutes went to players older than 30. That number increased significantly in 2023, up to 59%.
Overall, the distribution of minutes correlated with a dropoff in production. Per American Soccer Analysis, while Dax McCarty’s overall numbers either stayed fairly consistent or improved, the midfield overall dropped off. Primary assists from midfield dropped from five to two. Expected goals + assists dropped from 8.41 to 3.91. Nashville’s Goals Added output from the middle third of the field dropped from 7.64 in 2022 to 5.33.
Heading into the postseason, Nashville have already played 44 games. They played 36 total games in 2022. It’s a lot to ask of an aging midfield to play that level of minutes without any real additions. I’d argue Nashville needed to make one or two starting-caliber signings before the season started, and they didn’t. Strangely, they seemed to make a solid pickup in Jan Gregus, but they shipped him off to Minnesota after just 321 minutes in MLS (ironically, Gregus ended up with the 11th-best passing metrics among MLS holding midfielders during his time in Minnesota, something Nashville could have used).
So what needs to change?
Two main things need to change in the offseason.
First, Nashville have to get younger in midfield. This doesn’t necessarily mean moving on from McCarty or Godoy – I’d be surprised if they move on from either. But they have to bring in at least one starting-quality, younger midfield option that can take on a significant workload from McCarty and Godoy. We’ll have plenty more on this during the offseason, but there’s an open U22 initiative slot begging to be used.
And second, Nashville have to address the issue of secondary scoring. I think they’ve done 75% of this already, signing Sam Surridge in the summer window. He’s looked every bit the part of a 10-15 goal scorer in MLS when he’s been on the field, but his transfer took so long that he didn’t start playing until late August, and has never fully integrated into the team this season. I expect a lot more from him next season, but unfortunately his impact in 2023 hasn’t been what Nashville needed.
Another part of this is chance creation. Some of this is tied to midfield – a high-level box-to-box midfielder can ease some of the pressure on Mukhtar to create everything. But Nashville need more dedicated attacking help. On paper, Randall Leal should fill that gap, but he’s missed 16 matches with injury this season and hasn’t been effective when he’s been on the field. Whether or not Nashville move on from him is its own discussion, but Nashville need to find a TAM-level attacking player to bolster their front line.
Nashville have some of the pieces to be an elite team in MLS. Hany Mukhtar has put together one of the best three-year stretches in league history. Nashville’s defense is elite. They finally have a high-quality striker in Surridge. Those things won’t change next year, but to truly go from being a mid-table team to a Supporters Shield contender, they need to do more.
What about the playoffs?
I’m bullish on Nashville’s chances in the playoffs, for a few reasons.
First, Nashville are elite defensively. Even while their attack was consistently sub par this season, their defense kept them competitive. No one allowed fewer goals than Nashville’s 32. Only two teams allowed less than Nashville’s 32.53 xG against. Nashville held their opponents to an average shot distance of 19.9 yards, the biggest distance in the league. They’re the best in MLS at limiting opponents to half chances. Their defense is good enough to carry them deep in the postseason.
Second, while age is an issue over a 34-game season, it’s much more manageable over a shorter tournament, especially with the playoff schedule allowing for 5-6 days between matches. In a lot of ways, having a veteran core can be a major strength in tournament play, while it’s much harder to deal with in a heavily congested season.
And third, Nashville proved that they can turn it on for a tournament with their Leagues Cup run. Don’t forget, Nashville were in dire form heading into the tournament. They had lost five of their last six heading into Leagues Cup, including self-inflicted implosions against Philadelphia and Cincinnati. All that went out the window during the tournament. There’s obviously no guarantee that they’ll do it again, but it’s not out of the question, either. Nashville can be an elite tournament team.
Who knows what will happen in the postseason. Nashville could use a deep playoff run after early exits the past two seasons. It would certainly ease the concerns of Nashville fans, many of whom are frustrated with their team’s apparent contentment to simply be in the postseason every year.
Regardless of if Nashville crash out early or win MLS Cup, though, their roster needs serious work in the winter. The core of the team has been due for a refresh for a while, and they can’t afford to wait another season.