Nashville SC

In expansion-battle dominance, Nashville SC validates its philosophy

Dax McCarty header photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer

Midway through the first half of Nashville SC’s 3-0 win over Inter Miami CF, broadcast commentator Taylor Twellman noted that any hype around a “moneyball” approach for the Boys in Gold was unfair. A single data point – NSC trading $950k-$1.1m and an international roster slot for defender Walker Zimmerman – was enough to render the whole conversation ridiculous. After all, it was a clear indication that Nashville wasn’t actually built around valuing-the-undervalued (Zimmerman was a Best-XI selection in 2019. He repeated the feat while adding MLS Defender of the Year to his trophy case this season). Please just forget that he was outside the top 40 highest-compensated defenders in the league in 2019 despite those accolades.

So, it must have been extraordinarily confusing for Twellman* that Inter Miami CF’s starting lineup was more valuable than Nashville’s entire 29-man roster. According to Transfermarkt – not an infallible indication of player value, but certainly a nice proxy – IMCF’s squad after IMCF subbed Julián Carranza onto the field in the 36th minutes was worth $41,410,000. Nashville’s? $15,651,000. Better yet, Miami left $24,514,000 on the bench (actually left much of if back in Miami in the form of coronavirus-positive Gonzalo and Federico Higuaín and Leandro González-Pírez) – that number alone is higher than the entire value of Nashville’s roster.

“I think some of the guys are not given enough credit for some of the quality that there is in the group,” head coach Gary Smith said. “And you’ve seen just about every facet needed to win an important game tonight.”

That’s not to say Nashville’s build has been perfect, or everything has gone well. But to say (again, on the basis of a single data point) that it hasn’t been a moneyball approach – particularly vis-a-vis that night’s opponent, which finished eight points behind Nashville in the regular-season table – can be charitably described as willfully ignorant.

* Of course, the understanding here is that he doesn’t actually think what he’s saying, he just prioritizes being loud above all else, including any semblance of being correct. We ken.

“You always have confidence in yourself; you always believe in your group,” said midfielder and captain Dax McCarty. “I don’t think you really know exactly what you have until you step on the field and start playing. And while we were in preseason, I could see that there were some really encouraging signs, there were some really pieces. It’s just a matter of how those pieces are going to come together and jell and take to the coaches’ tactics.

“I think that some teams kind of go up-and-down throughout the season, especially expansion teams. There can be a little bit of inconsistency, sometimes they’re up here, and sometimes they’re down at the bottom. The thing I like about our team is that we’ve constantly raised our level throughout the year. I think we’ve constantly been on an upward trajectory, and I think we’ve really hit a good vein of form into the playoffs.”

Of course, it was Nashville’s top three players who made plenty of the difference in the game. Late-season signing Jhonder Cádiz made his first start for the club after a number of substitute appearances, and fellow designated players Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar not only joined him in the starting lineup, but provided the game’s first two goals.

“I think you have seen how we’ve all tried to move Jhonder into working and giving us more minutes,” said Smith. “Hany’s had his own physical problems: one or two groin and hamstring issues, and that really sort of plays into maybe his transition from Europe to the U.S. and travel. Randall really has given us – if you like – the most minutes and match play out of the trio. I think what we were able to see for a short period in Orlando [in the season finale] was that: when those three guys are on the field, there’s a synergy and a connection that takes the group to another level. And I have to be honest I thought all three of them in the opening 20-25 minutes in one way, shape, or form were instrumental in us being two-nil up.

“So, It’s taken some time, not of necessarily anyone’s doing, but I think the fact that, you know, we’ve been able to slowly-but-surely get to this point and then to see some rewards tonight in the most difficult of scenarios – in a playoff game – and under the most pressure, the guys have produced.”

It was Leal’s game-opening goal, in particular, that changed the tenor of the game. Collecting a pass from fellow winger Alex Muyl in a transition situation, the Costa Rican wound up and blasted from 30 yards out.

“We are really happy, because we won – it is what we want,” Leal said. “For me, it was a little bit difficult because I didn’t train with the team. But I think this is the proof then that we are a group, you know. OK, it is one step more, and I think we need to keep working like this, and to get the result. Now we have a difficult game away, and we have to correct the mistakes and be sharp for this game.”

Upon return from international duty with his national team, Leal’s full preparation for the game consisted of work on the whiteboard, not on the training field. It didn’t matter as his class showed perhaps more than it has at any point this year. The growing pains mentioned by McCarty were obvious in Leal’s first go-round in Major League Soccer. That would likely have been the case even in a typical year, but 2020 has affected everyone in profound ways, and certainly recently expatriated athletes are no exception.

The Boys in Gold followed Leal’s screamer with a penalty-kick goal from Mukhtar before the halftime break, and closed out the win with a second-half goal from McCarty. There were some tense moments in the locker room before that moment, but NSC managed to maintain the clean sheet and add that insurance tally.

“Two-nil’s a dangerous scoreline: I think we all feel that,” Smith said of his team’s mood at the break. “If they’re able to get themselves back in the game, there’s not much of a buffer there. And a third goal probably puts pay to any comeback.”

That McCarty himself – prolific goal-scorer that he is, with 21 goals in his 16 years in the league – who put the contest to bed was a bit of poetic justice for the moneyball crew. He was picked up from Chicago Fire for a pittance. The value placed on his intangible leadership qualities was far and away Nashville’s priority, and goal-scoring wasn’t likely a consideration.

So, for the 33-year old to pick up a loose ball at midfield, cruise right past seven-million-dollar World Cup vet Blaise Matuidi on the dribble, and blast home from the top of the box… even Nashville may have undervalued that part of his game.

“As you guys know, I don’t score many,” McCarty said with a grin. “So it was a little bit of a surprise, obviously, when the ball went in the net. But when I picked up the ball in midfield, I knew I had a little bit of space. I could hear Walker’s loud voice behind me yelling ‘go, go, go.’ So, I took his advice and I just started dribbling. I knew that to my left was Dan Lovitz making a good run up the left-hand side and I knew that he was always going to be the option that I wanted to play.

“It was just a matter of what [Miami defender] Alvas Powell did. And he continued to drop, drop and I figured he would cut off the inside and make me play the pass to Dan, but he never did that. And so, once I got close to the top of the box I figured ‘why not, they’re continuing to drop, they don’t respect my ability to score goals’ – which is fair enough; I can’t blame them. But I just wanted to keep the ball on frame, hit it good and try and follow in Randall’s footsteps to put our team on our way to victory. So it felt really good when it went in. I don’t score many, don’t expect to score many, but when I do it’s always a nice surprise.”

With one high-dollar opponent left in the dust, Nashville SC will have a tough task coming up. Toronto FC was an innovator in the league when it comes to roster-building. The Reds went from perennial laughingstock to a roster built on moneyball principles to one that augments that moneyball philosophy with major-dollar talent. TFC once walked the path Nashville SC is on now, and has perhaps reached the final form in it.

A season in which the Canadian clubs have to play in the United States – Nashville’s travel for the 6 p.m. EST game Tuesday will be to central Connecticut, not the banks of Lake Ontario – could help Nashville SC feel a little more comfortable than might otherwise be expected facing the No. 2 seed in the East (indeed, six Nashville SC players were on the USL edition of the team that earned a 3-2 win in Rentschler Field last June, while Tah Brian Anunga’s Charleston Battery earned the same result in Hartford Athletic’s home facility).

The one thing that is for sure is this team has the belief that – no matter whether the style of their build is mocked or ignored – they have the belief in themselves to get the job done. That applies not just for Tuesday’s contest, but all the way through December 12.

“If we don’t think like this, it’s better to stop here,” Leal said. “I think this is the conviction we have on the team. OK, we need to go step-by-step. Now we take one step, Tuesday we have another difficult game. Everything can happen, it’s only one game. So this is the conviction that we have to play with, that we need to have.”

Match highlights

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