The Two Sides of Nashville SC's Polarizing 2022 Season
While the 2023 MLS season is under a month away, a review of last season could foreshadow some themes of 2023.
Nashville SC's 2022 Season ended in unsurprising defeat against the LA Galaxy.
A constant throughout 2022, the attack struggled to generate consistent chances outside of occasional magic by Hany Mukhtar and made careless defensive errors which cost them the game.
Nashville entered 2022 with high expectations and a squad capable of competing with the best teams in MLS.
After an 8 game away stretch, Nashville played their first home game at Geodis Park on May 1st. While this was a huge event and a significant moment for the club, the season eventually concluded with a dud.
There were high highs but moreso, low lows for Nashville SC in 2022:
The aforementioned opening of Geodis Park was a huge moment for the club. The first match in the new $335m stadium ended in a 1-1 draw but was extremely exciting.
The area surrounding the stadium was lively, the game was sold out, and seeing an incredibly impressive soccer-specific stadium was a unique experience.
The event felt very similar to the inaugural match in February of 2020. It was an incredible thought that just 2 and a half years after that match at Nissan stadium, the team had a stadium of their own.
Hany Mukhtar's MVP season
Hany Mukhtar had an incredible 23 goal season which earned him the Landon Donovan MVP award. After an impressive jump from 2020 to 2021, Mukhtar continued this momentum in a massive way.
Much like Derrick Henry within the Titans' offense, Mukhtar was solely responsible for much of the team's success. If Mukhtar had an off game, the team had an off game.
His importance to Nashville throughout the 2022 season is hard to quantify but his 45% goal involvement percentage is very representative. Mukhtar showcased his creativity, array of 1 on 1 skills, and impressive finishing ability.
In Nashville SC's 3rd season, they have made the playoffs each season, had a back-to-back defender of the year, and now, an MVP. Mukhtar, just 27, became Tennessee's 2nd-ever pro MVP joining Steve McNair who won NFL MVP in 2003.
Among the team's best signings since entering the league in 2020, Right back Shaq Moore was a bright spot.
After the team failed to address the lack of depth at Right back following the Alistair Johnston trade, Nashville acquired Moore from CD Tenerife in July.
Moore made 11 appearances for Nashville, starting all 11. He was great defensively and his speed and tenacity was on full display. He can defend any winger regardless of pace and also get involved in the attack and provide service when needed.
Additionally, Moore made 2 appearances in the 2022 World Cup for the United States. Alongside teammate Walker Zimmerman, who started 3 of 4 games, he was one of the team's 2 representatives in Qatar. While he looked flustered in his few minutes, a return to MLS-level competition is sure to feel easier.
The US Open Cup and July Stretch
Among the most disappointing moments of 2022, Nashville fell in penalty kicks to Orlando SC in the US Open Cup Quarter final. They lost 6-5 despite dominating much of regular time. Following this June 29th defeat, the team continued on a rough stretch.
The team went 1-3-2 in the month of July despite 4 home games and a lead in half of the games. This poor home performance was present throughout the season and was among the team's most consistent issues.
While this ultimately did not impact Nashville's playoff berth, this stretch was a key contributor in having to travel to LA in the first round of the MLS playoffs.
In July of 2021, Nashville SC signed Aké Loba from Monterrey for a club-record $6.8m. Loba, 24, is young, technical, and fast and appeared to be the solution for the Striker problem that plagued Nashville for their first two seasons.
This optimism was short-lived, however. Loba made 19 apperances in 2021, starting just 2 games and scoring 1 goal. 2021 was chalked up to an adjustment season for Loba with hopes for a change in result in 2022. After Loba did not start at the beginning of the 2022 season and made rare appearances as a substitute, concern arose.
Loba has the necessary skill to be successful in MLS but whether it was due to his attitude, relationship with players or coaches, or something else, his 2022 season was a major disappointment. He registered just 4 shots on the season and while he did have respectable showings in the US Open Cup and at times in MLS play, this was a failed experiment.
After loaning Loba to Mazatlan of Liga MX, one can hope that he will come back in a years time refreshed and refocused. He still takes up a Designated Player spot on the roster so his burden remains on the team.
In the meantime, Nashville is entering 2023 with too little concern about their striker depth.
An issue in 2021, secondary scoring was even more of a problem in 2022. After Hany Mukhtar's 23 goals, the next closest was CJ Sapong with 5. After Sapong is Walker Zimemrman with 4, Teal Bunbury with 4, and another center back in the top 5 as Dave Romney had 3.
Notably absent from this list was Randall Leal who did battle injury but still appeared in 28 games. To the eye, Leal was not much worse in 2022 than in 2021 and rather his lack of stats came from a more systemic issue.
As mentioned earlier, the attack was far too reliant on Mukhtar. As strategy shifted from service into the box from Leal into Sapong and more toward getting the ball to Mukhtar in space, it made help more difficult. While the amount of high quality scoring opportunities was not abundant, this is something that must change in 2023.
Lack of Identity
Manager Gary Smith made many adjustments throughout 2022, some of which were head scratching. The team rotated goalies, changed formations, benched players, and failed to establish cohesion.
While injuries to Leal, Godoy, and others did not help in this effort, there were far too many moving parts. What made 2021 so entertaining was Nashville's tendency to counter attack and their variety in attack. There were moments where Mukhtar would take over but there were also instances where outside backs or wingers would get forward, provide service and change things up.
Unfortunately, each of these attacking lows from 2022 point toward 2023 being similarly difficult. With few offensive additions in the offseason, the same coaching, and likely the same front 3, the stagnancy of Nashville's 2022 attack may remain.
The team's identity in 2020 was not the most entertaining given that it yielded many low-scoring games and draws but that defensive playstyle was at least intentional.
An adjustment to Geodis park, healthy midfield, and more cohesive formation inspires confidence for 2023. Still, the team has various issues to address to ensure 2023 is an improvement from last season.