Should We Be Confident in NSC in 2023?
Nashville is entering the 2023 season with few changes from last year's team yet there are reasons for optimism.
While the team's season ended on a disappointing note in their playoff loss against Los Angeles, Nashville is on a very impressive stretch to begin their MLS existence.
With 3 seasons and 3 playoff berths, 2023 brings similar expectations. While their offseason moves may not seem particularly groundbreaking, Nashville has a very strong core that will ensure the team remains competitive for seasons to come.
2022 was defined by a few major events, namely the opening of Geodis Park and Hany Mukhtar's MVP award. There were many highs, such as these aforementioned accomplishments, but many lows like the rough July stretch, lack of secondary scoring, and US Open Cup woes.
One could argue that after last year, Nashville's attack will remain stagnant, the team will be unentertaining, and Gary Smith will be too stubborn to make the necessary tactical adjustments.
On the other hand, though, Nashville still has Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman, has players returning from injury, a few potential impact signings, and more comfort in their new stadium and within their squad.
Both sides have valid arguments, making the 2023 season even more engaging. Here are the most important positives and negatives as we approach the season:
Reasons for Optimism
1. The core is intact
Nashville SC is likely to enter 2023 with a lineup we have largely seen before. Outside of Shaq Moore and Jacob Shaffelburg, each of the other 9 starters have played multiple seasons with Nashville and have been key in their prolonged success.
Most notably, the team still has Mukhtar, Zimmerman, Anibal Godoy, Sean Davis, Dan Lovitz, Randall Leal, and CJ Sapong which to me, acts as a floor and limits just how poor this team could be.
2. Injury returners
Both Anibal Godoy and Randall Leal missed significant time in 2022 with injury. Leal missed two stretches with different injuries but for Godoy, it was even more costly. After his injury, he struggled to make his way back into the lineup given Nashville's strong midfield.
There are also fewer international conflicts this season which caused Zimmerman, Godoy, and Shaffelburg to miss time in 2022.
3. More comfort in Geodis Park and with additions
Geodis Park or The Fortress as some call it, was by no means a fortress in 2022. The team appeared to have little to no homefield advantage because it felt like a new environment for both teams each game.
The 2 notable additions to the 2022 team were winger Jacob Shaffleburg and RB Shaq Moore. Both showed glimpses of great play and with more time, will further solidify their importance to the team. They are both dynamic, quick players and I believe will be crucial in the team's success this season. After a full offseason with the team, they will become key players in 2023.
1. Secondary scoring
Not enough has been done to address the lack of secondary scoring. Ake Loba was supposed to aid in that issue last season but instead, had the opposite effect.
That being said, I am confident in CJ Sapong and Randall Leal to improve upon last season. They both had stellar 2021 seasons and after Mukhtar carried the load in 2022, getting them reinvolved would be tremendous for the attack. Still, that is reliance in players already in the squad and it was the team's biggest issue of 2022.
Also, a signing like winger Fafa Piccault adds another skillful and very quick winger that can take on defenders like Shaffelburg and Leal.
2. Defensive stability
After trading Dave Romney to New England, Nashville's lack of defensive depth concerns me. Nashville is operating under the impression that Jack Maher can step into Romney's role without an adjustment period.
After Maher, the team has little depth and while Nick DePuy may be a good backup, there is really no way to know given his relatively limited experience. At Right Back, too, there is no telling who may fill in for Shaq Moore should something happen.
While not nearly as extreme, the Dave Romney trade feels similar to that of Alistar Johnston. The team cleared GAM and at this point, it appears they have little idea of where it may go.
3. Tactical Identity
In 2020 it was an unbreakable defense, in 2021 it was counter attacks and creativity going forward and in 2022 it was... Hany Mukhtar.
A shift from 5 in the back to 4 in the back between 2021 and 2022 seemed prudent in improving the team's attack. However, it had the opposite effect and while I believe it got the best players on the field, it also stifled creativity on the wings and lessened the importance of the central midfielders.
I would not be against returning to 5 in the back but most importantly, it is important to be very intentional with the formation and tactical strategy Gary Smith opts for. Something like prioritizing attacks from the wings, getting a midfielder forward, or playing Mukhtar further up the field could all improve some of the team's issues from 2022.
It feels as though much like the Predators, who do not know whether they want to rebuild or do nothing at all, Nashville SC is in an awkward tactical spot where a decision must be made.
If Mukhtar-Leal-Sapong return to the peak form we saw in 2021, this will be a very exciting team.
Likewise, if the midfield can return to dominance as they have in their first. It was counterintuitive that adding Sean Davis last offseason made the midfield worse but it was far less dominant. While aging players and injuries did not help, it was a drastic drop off. The duo of Godoy and Davis have the potential to be the league's best and will be crucial in connecting the midfield and attack.
Defensively, I have no doubts about the quality of Zimmerman and Moore. If Lovitz can regain his role in the attack, I think that would be beneficial and frankly, I think Jack Maher will step into his role well.
There are many ifs for 2023 Nashville SC but if a few trend positively, it could be another successful, above average season.