Just in its second season in the MLS, Nashville has once again made it to the playoffs.
Gary Smith’s men are among the hardest to beat in MLS and have some formidable differences in their ranks. Even if they carry the mark “dark horses”, they will have to stop.
Here’s everything you need to know about Nashville SC ahead of the off – season – from tactics to key players and their chances of winning the grand prize.
Things that often seem to be clichés are such for a reason – they are usually true. In Nashville’s case, if you keep a strong home record and have good defensive foundations, you will go a long way in football.
Although they were criticized for a draw 18 of their 34 games in the regular season, Nashville did incredibly well to lose just four times, while maintaining an unbeaten record at the Nissan Stadium.
No team in the MLS improved their record with just 33 goals conceded, and that ability to keep up with matches gave the likes of Hany Mukhtar and CJ Sapong the chance to steal three points at the other end.
Nashville will host Orlando City in Round One and can welcome the New York Red Bulls to the Nissan Stadium in the Eastern Conference semifinals, although they can also travel to Philadelphia. But the home advantage of the jump could be the decisive spark that ignites Nashville’s low season.
Gary Smith has built one of the most well-drilled units in MLS. / Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Everyone knows Nashville starts at the back. Walker Zimmerman is the perfect defensive anchor in their three-center-back line-up, which usually strikes shots between like Dave Romney and Jack Maher. Alistair Johnston has been a really brilliant light on the right back on both sides of the ball, with Taylor Washington and Daniel Lovitz sharing minutes on the left.
Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy provide a brilliant display and possession platform in front of midfielders, but it is in the attack where Nashville surprised so many this season.
“Gary Smith’s team obviously starts with defense, and the switch to the three back systems he has used for most of the season has helped them maintain their defensive standards, but the real change from year one to year two is the attack,” Nashville- experts Ben. Wright from Broadway Sports told 90min.
“Hany Mukhtar has been unlocked in this system, and plays a free role as a nominal striker alongside CJ Sapong. He is excellent at finding space between the lines and is lethal on the half lap. Randall Leal plays a really interesting hybrid role as a midfielder in the defense and a forward in attack, and the backbone of the team is a high work rate on both sides of the ball. “
If Mukhtar gets some momentum going forward and Sapong and Leal offer enough support, Nashville could hurt pretty much any defense in the MLS right now.
Carles Gil is everyone’s gold boy for the MLS MVP award, but Mukhtar has an incredibly strong thing.
The former German youth international is only three first assist cards from Gils 13, but with 16 goals compared to the Spaniard’s four.
Mukhtar can operate anywhere over the front line, is bipedal and can tear you up with a pass, a spectacular shot from distance or dazzling dribbles. Sometimes it feels like Mukhtar is playing with his prey and just waiting for the inevitable suitable moment. Turn off for a second and he will punish you.
Score those 16 goals this season for that man! #NSHvRBNY // #DecisionDay pic.twitter.com/jZjNF7vhaT
– Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 7, 2021Walker Zimmerman
If Mukhtar strikes, there is a good chance it will be a murderous blow. This is because Nashville has one of the league’s best midfielders who anchors his defense in Walker Zimmerman.
His move from LAFC for the 2020 season was one of the best deals of recent times and his recall to USMNT is well deserved.
Zimmerman is strong in the air, can read the space behind him, is safe with the ball at his feet and measured in his defensive actions. He is also a real threat from set-backs, which is always practical in a knockout situation.
Sometimes Mukhtar seems almost superhuman, but he can not do everything himself. This is where Randall Leal (and CJ Sapong, to a lesser extent) come in.
Like Mukhtar, Costa Rica’s international is extremely versatile and a very good interpreter of space. But he is also lightning fast, direct and dynamic on the dribbles. He appears in the box to get a goal, or breaks through the opposing defense to set up someone else. You just do not know where he’s coming from next.
Can Nashville go all the way? | Matthew Burt
With a rock-solid backline and differences at the top, Nashville really has the pieces for an MLS Cup. Even if they are overlooked by so many.
Getting through the first two rounds can even prove to be quite easy for Smith. The problem may be when they travel to New England in the conference final, where Bruce Arena’s men get a match under their belts then to blow off the cobweb. Revs is one of the few attacking units in MLS you would really like to test that Nashville backline.
Prediction: Eastern Conference final