We Have Not Yet Seen the Best from NSC
Coming off a disappointing home draw against San Jose, Nashville sits in 6th place in the Western Conference, 5 points clear of the playoff cutoff.
After 8 road games to begin the season, the schedule has rebalanced and the team has managed a few unexpected results.
Beginning with their exciting inaugural match at Geodis park, Nashville has had a strong home stretch and remains undefeated at home since April of 2021.
A notable result in the club's first non-MLS competition, Nashville defeated Atlanta 3-2 on after heading into halftime trailing 2-0. A few impactful subs made for an exciting 2nd half and extra time and showed Nashville's endurance.
The comeback sent Nashville to the U.S Open Cup round of 16 where they defeated Louisville 2-1 thanks to a late winner from Hany Mukhtar.
Despite these high points, Nashville suffered one of their ugliest results in the club's 3 year MLS history on May 14th against the Dynamo. Gary Smith went as far as to say "I've not seen a performance like that before and I truly hope I don't see one again." He followed that by saying "I took a chance on placing a few bodies and trying to get a bit of rotation going. There was no fluidity, belief or confidence in the group from the very outset."
Since that game, Nashville is on a 5 game point streak and has a renewed identity. Last season, a dominant stretch of games in the summer was spearheaded by the attacking duo of Hany Mukhtar and C.J. Sapong. Now, both players are getting back into form and are combining nearly every game.
Defensively, a few adjustments have made a nice impact to the team. Sticking with the 3-5-2 (or 5-2-3 depending on how you look at it), there have been a few personnel changes from last season.
Alex Muyl has cemented himself at Right Wing Back, a possibility I mentioned shortly after he was acquired via trade in 2020. With his quickness, work rate, ability to take on defenders and get in crosses, Muyl is perfectly suited for this spot. With Lovitz on the other side, the wing backs can become a vital part of the team as both are very good at delivering balls into the box for Mukhtar, Sapong, and others.
An on and off starter in 2021, 22 year old Jack Maher has solidified himself as a starting-caliber Center Back. He is clearly more comfortable on the ball than in 2021 and in multiple games has been the sole reason the team has not conceded.
The midfield has been Nashville's most consistent and deepest group. Due to an injury to Anibal Godoy prior to Nashville's homestretch, Tah Brian Anunga started 5 games. Commentator Tony Husband described Anunga very well, calling him "industrious."
Sean Davis has started 13 of the team's 15 games this season and has been stellar. He changes the point of the attack very well and is always in control with the ball at his feet.
After battling brief injury and a red card suspension, 2021 captain Dax McCarty has seen less action than Godoy and Davis but remains an important part to the team. It is a luxury to have 4 strong midfielders to chose from and that is among Nashville's greatest strengths.
There have been positives but there is a major reason we have not yet seen the best of Nashville SC: each part of the team has not been dominant at once and Nashville has rarely played 'complimentary football,' as Mike Vrabel would say.
In goal, Joe Willis has been stalwart through his first 3 seasons with Nashville. Playing every minute of the team's MLS history, Willis was benched against Lousiville in the Open Cup and then against the Colorado Rapids in MLS play. He made 3 notable mistakes in the 3 games preceding Louisville which cost the team at least two points and were very uncharacteristic errors.
Defensively, absences from Walker Zimmerman in Dave Romney have made for a bit of rotation among the Center Backs. While not a major problem, missing the back to back MLS Defender of the year on international duty has hurt the team both defensively and going forward.
Even with the defense at full strength, they have not felt as 'lockdown' as in past seasons, feeling porous at times with the opposing striker making seemingly uncontested runs forward. Still, this indicates room for improvement and at full strength, Nashville will regain their 2020 defensive form given that each player across the backline is better than they were a year or two ago.
The attack has stepped up as of late with Mukhtar and Sapong assisting eachother. Still, there has been a missing piece due to Randall Leal's injury which has kept him out of the last 7 matches.
This has lead Nashville to start Luke Haakenson and Ethan Zubak in his place. Leal is back in training and when he is healthy, the dominant trio of Leal, Sapong, and Mukhtar will be reunited, bringing the team will closer to full power.
If we could see Ake Loba play a more important role going forward, that could be a complete gamechanger. Loba has been greatly criticized despite making a major impact when he came on against San Jose, and scoring an important goal in the US Open Cup game against Lousiville. If given a chance, such as starting an MLS game, he can add a new level to Nashville's attack.
While Nashville has shown glimpses through the first 18 games of the season, they have not yet been at their best which is an exciting prospect as we enter the 2nd half of the season.