Read all of our 2023 offseason guides for each MLS team as they are eliminated from the postseason here.
Four seasons in MLS, four trips to the playoffs for Nashville SC. This year included a run to the Leagues Cup final as well. Their time in MLS has been a success… but 2023 still ends with a sour taste, as Nashville failed to take the next step. A stuttering attack completely dried up and they were eliminated in round one by Orlando City without a goal.
The key to progress will probably need to be within the squad. Much of Nashville’s core is all set, including the most high-leverage roster mechanisms. It’s a good spot to be in, but don’t expect a ton of change this winter.
The short version: It’s a familiar story. How can Nashville increase the attack without sacrificing the defense and combativeness that has been so successful?
State of the roster
Head coach: Gary Smith (since 2017)
Chief Soccer Officer: Mike Jacobs (since 2017)
The starting point of Nashville’s roster is elite – designated players (DPs) Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman are at the apex of their positions in MLS. Mukhtar won the 2022 MLS MVP and Golden Boot and has been Best XI for the past two years. Zimmerman won MLS Defender of the Year twice in Nashville and made Best XI in each of his first three seasons. Mukhtar is 28 years old and Zimmerman is 30, both firmly in their prime.
Third DP Sam Surridge, signed for north of $6 million this summer, showed top quality in moments (specifically the Leagues Cup) but didn’t make a sustained impact down the stretch. There’s plenty of reason to expect better in 2024. At the very least, he’s not obviously a negative.
Center back Jack Maher took a big step forward this year, forming an elite partnership with Zimmerman. Established MLS vets Daniel Lovitz, Joe Willis, Dax McCarty, Sean Davis and Anibal Godoy remain very solid players. Jacob Shaffelburg and Fafa Picault injected much-needed pace on the wings this year.
Defensively, Nashville has ranged from solid (at worst) to league-best over their first four years in MLS, making the playoffs every single year.
Mukhtar has literally never had anything resembling an elite attacker next to him. CJ Sapong is the best example… and he scored just 18 goals in 80 Nashville appearances before being traded this year.
Surridge showed signs of being that but he’s not there yet. Time will tell.
Mukhtar went dry after the Leagues Cup run and Nashville’s attack completely shut down. They were shut out in six of their last seven games of 2023, including both playoff games.
Is it down to Gary Smith’s tactics? The group has failed to take the next step in recent years, particularly in attack. And in 2023, the defense couldn’t carry them.
Right back Shaq Moore hits the cap with an expensive budget charge (salary + transfer fee) and hasn’t lived up to expectations. He was signed with a view of being another outlet for the attack, one who could create quality chances from wide, like Brooks Lennon in Atlanta and other top attacking right backs in the league). He had just 3.0 expected assists (xA) in 32 appearances last year.
What could change
McCarty is out of contract, as is Picault. Nashville has club options on Lovitz, Teal Bunbury and a few others. If they want to refresh the squad around the core of Mukhtar, Zimmerman, Maher and Surridge, they certainly can.
Nashville could also dip back into the U-22 initiative market, with one open spot.
Nashville opened a lovely new stadium in 2022 and built out a new home for the academy. The facilities are very good.
In terms of spending, Nashville has opened the bank for key transfers over the years (as well as new contracts for Zimmerman and Mukhtar). But those big transfers haven’t had a very high hit rate.
Though McCarty turns 37 next year, the veteran remained an important figure in the Nashville squad. He still has minutes left in his legs.
Nashville has a few other key central midfielders — Godoy and Davis — that can continue to rotate to keep McCarty fresh throughout the season. Maybe they could add another rotation midfielder with Brian Anunga to be safe as well.
Expand game model
Look at that graphic above. Nashville is dead last in field tilt (share of final-third passes a team hits), 21st in shots, 17th in attack speed, 6th in long pass share. That shows they’re hoofing the ball forward more often against a set defense than finding quality counters.
What can Smith and the staff do to preserve the good (2nd best xGA per shot conceded typifies the elite defense) but improve the fatal attacking flaws? Setting a higher line of confrontation? Add another creative attacker? Focus on adding an elite crosser for Surrdige?
It seems more likely the most meaningful change would be internal than adding another attacker.
Maximize set pieces
Per Opta, Nashville scored 13 goals on set pieces, a four-way tie for 12th in MLS. With their scoring struggles, playstyle and elite aerial threats (Zimmerman and Surridge), that output needs to be higher.
The good news? Nashville’s 16.5 xG from set pieces was fourth in MLS. That should be a better indicator of future performance, even if set pieces are notoriously finicky and can be difficult to predict year-over-year, but this area of the game needs to be an emphasis for this specific team.
(Photos: Getty Images)