With the MLS playoffs just over 3 weeks away, Nashville SC is in a very good spot, sitting at 2nd place in the Eastern Conference with a league low of 3 losses. Still, they have some questions. Below are the biggest questions facing Nashville SC as we approach the playoffs.
Can Mukhtar-Leal-Sapong Return to Peak Performance?
This season, Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal, and C.J. Sapong have combined for an incredible 49 goals + assists and each of them has more than double the goals + assists of any player on Nashville SC last season.
At their peak in August and September, it seemed as if the trio was scoring every game which was just about true. Due to the international break, Nashville has been missing many key players lately, including Randall Leal, and as a result have opted for a more defensive playstyle. This has resulted in multiple low scoring draws in a row. In their last 4 matches, Nashville has scored just 2 goals and while they did not lose, the attack solely reliant on Hany Mukhtar and C.J. Sapong.
When everyone is healthy, I have no doubt that M-L-S can play at an incredible level. Sapong is among the most clinical players in the league, Randall Leal can create opportunities for his teammates using his speed and dribbling, and Hany Mukhtar is an all-in-one attacker and fits the #10 role (play-making, attacking midfielder) perfectly.
As Gary Smith now opts exclusively for a 5 in the back formation, who will be the 3rd Center Back?
The last time we saw Nashville's lineup feature 4 defenders was June 18th in New York. Since then, Gary Smith has chosen 5 in the back for every match regardless of opponent or setting. After moving to 5 in the back, Nashville earned a point in 90% of matches (85% with a back 4) and have a record of 10-9-2 (11-15-3 overall, W-D-L).
With everyone healthy, the backline always includes Center Backs Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney (who has started every game in the club's history along with GK Joe Willis) as well as outside backs Daniel Lovitz and Alistair Johnston.
The other spot has largely been occupied by 2nd year CB, Jack Maher and outside backs Taylor Washington and Eric Miller. Jalil Anibaba has also gotten some time and I think he would be an interesting option though do not see him starting barring injuries. My preferred backline would be:
Romney Zimmerman Johnston
This is my favorite because I believe it has the 5 best defenders on the team. Jack Maher is often exposed due to his inexperience and while Eric Miller has been consistent when being put into the game, Taylor Washington provides more upside at wing back because of how fast he is. This lineup would include Alistair Johnston, who typically starts at Right Back, at Center Back which he has played internationally for Canada.
Who Will start in the midfield between Godoy, McCarty, and Anunga?
Since the club's inception, Nashville's Center Mids have been among their most consistent and important positions. This season, 34 year old Dax McCarty has missed games due to rest and Aníbal Godoy has missed some due to international play. This opened the door for 25 year old Tah Brian Anunga who has not only taken his opportunity, but played well enough that it would be difficult not to play him in the playoffs.
Unfortunately, I do think Gary Smith values experience more than pace and youth, especially in a playoff game, so I envision Godoy and McCarty starting together come playoff time. I am extremely happy with this duo and I continue to argue that they are among the top Center Mid pairings in the league. I would love to see Anunga also start with team playing with 3 in the midfield and 4 in the back with McCarty playing the most defensive role of the 3 though that is quite unlikely as we have not seen that this season.
Below is my ideal lineup though I think it is very unlikely:
Will we see Aké Loba in the playoffs?
Since Nashville SC signed Aké Loba from CF Monterrey in July for a record $6.8m fee, he has played just 215 minutes and started just one game in which he was subbed off at halftime. At just 23 years old, Loba clearly has potential and it is not worth rushing him into the lineup, especially when he is under contract for 3 more seasons and clearly has not adjusted to MLS soccer.
I think Loba could be a very effective substitution come playoff time as he has great speed and ball control which could make a serious impact. While I would love to see Loba start alongside C.J. Sapong, I do not see that happening until next season unless something drastic changes in the final 5 matches of the season.
Which Nashville will we see? The one that scores 15 goals in 7 games and is 4-3-0 or the one that scores 2 goals in 4 games and goes 0-4-0?
One integral thing that Nashville SC has proven this season is their ability to play with anyone in the league, highlighted by the fact that they have not conceded more than 2 goals in a game all season. Even when they play a bad game, very frequently they come out with a draw which speaks to their strong defense and reproducible playstyle.
At times, like in August, I have no doubts that Nashville will score multiple goals in each game led by their stellar front 3 while at other times, such as the 2-1 loss to Miami or the 7 0-0 draws on the season, you wonder how the team struggled so greatly against an often poor opponent. Nashville's tendency to play down to the level of their opponent is one of the few things that gives me concern as we approach the playoffs.
Nashville can compete with any team in the league, and are certainly a team that other teams want to avoid in the playoffs, as mentioned by Taylor Washington on his 102.5 the game interview on Sunday. As every team will be playing their best lineup and presumably playing at their highest level, I don't think we will see either extreme from Nashville but a high-scoring performance is far more likely. As I mentioned before the season, I have high expectations for Nashville and even more so than in the preseason, I think they can win the MLS Cup this season.
Overall, I think Nashville SC is more than prepared for the playoffs. Even if everything does not go as planned, they are very well rounded and find a way to get a result, even in the most unlikely circumstances.