Dominique Badji and Walker Zimmerman in Nashville’s first day of team training. Photo courtesy Nashville SC.
Nashville SC’s inaugural season in Major League Soccer must be considered a success. While the front office may bristle at assertions that the club found success despite a smaller payroll, the reality of the situation is that NSC finished seventh in the Eastern Conference, and did it without looking for a big-name player like fellow expansion side Inter Miami CF – which signed reigning World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi, and Juventus’s Gonzalo Higuaín and went on to finish 10th – or without some of the established roots and high-dollar additions around the returning squads in the league.
The Boys in Gold did this all while dealing with a global pandemic – and ending up one of the two teams hit hard enough by the COVID-19 pandemic to miss out on the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando (FC Dallas was the other) – multiple tornados that ravaged the city, and your fair share of more-typical adversity that any expansion team deals with. A couple breaks here and there, and the season could have been even better. Taking eventual MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew to extra time in the playoffs is as strong as could be expected – or perhaps more so.
But, for all the season’s successes, there were still areas that could use some polishing.
Nashville SC finished with the third-fewest goals scored in Major League Soccer, with 24 marks in the regular season just a single tally ahead of second-bottom Atlanta United (FC Cincinnati managed just 12, half the number Nashville scored). For longtime NSC followers, this draws natural parallels with the inaugural season in USL. A stout defense was matched by a meager attacking output, as the team struggled to create and even more to finish chances. That’s to be expected.
“I’ve always said that the creative and goal-scoring elements of any team tend to take a little bit longer to – not just to come to the fore – but for you to be able to replicate that time and time again,” head coach Gary Smith said. “That connection, appreciation: there’s connection to be had all over the field, but I always think that the final attacking third can sometimes be, and in most cases, the most difficult piece of the puzzle to keep reproducing. As far as adding players, strengthening the group, there’s no doubt about it: we’re constantly on the lookout for individuals that are going to improve the team, that are going to raise the bar.”
Adding to the group is something that will strengthen the team. It will also strengthen those parallels with the two years in USL. The defense remained elite, but Nashville SC added Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster – the previous season’s top two goal-scorers – and its offense blossomed in Year Two, becoming one of the league’s most-potent.
That script is playing out once more, with the additions of league veteran CJ Sapong and young Uruguayan talent Rodrigo Piñeiro hoping to take the goal-scoring to another level.
“When you look at the idea of Gary Smith and I together in USL, from our first season 2018 to our second season 2019, we were able to take stock in what that group had as far as its strengths and weaknesses and really add and enhance that to the 2019 season,” General Manager Mike Jacobs said. “Being able to add a proven quantity in our league like CJ Sapong, someone who’s had great success within our league with Sporting Kansas City, with Philadelphia, with Chicago, as well as for the US National Team, to add a young prospect like Rodrigo Piñeiro: very similar to what I kind of promised to Gary from Year One to Year Two in USL.”
Smith sees plenty of ways those two in particular could be exactly what was needed.
“Certainly with Rodrigo, he’s much more direct in his play, and his style, I think, complements the guys that we have in the team, and brings more out of the players that we had last year,” Smith said. “CJ’s record speaks for itself. He’s won championships, he’s been in some very good teams, he’s an incredibly genuine and honest guy, and I think he will drag not only more out of other people, but he’ll be desperately disappointed if he is not playing. That’s the challenge that I want, and I think all the players need: they need to be pushed, they need to know that there’s someone breathing down their neck.”
Of course, the key will be to improve the scoring output while not sacrificing anything on the back-end. The team’s 22 goals-against in the regular season equated to 0.96 per outing in the truncated season. That was record stinginess for an expansion team. It was also third-best in Major League Soccer, with only Philadelphia Union and Columbus Crew allowing fewer.
For centerback Walker Zimmerman – the league’s Defender of the Year – the overall quality was impressive, but third-best was simply not good enough.
“I think that’s just a massive goal for me every year, is ‘can we allow the fewest goals in the league?’ and ‘can we get the most shutouts in the league?’ Because if you do those two things, you’re making the playoffs,” Zimmerman said. “You’re not going to find a team that lets in the fewest goals and doesn’t make the playoffs. That gives you a chance to move forward in the postseason, and I was really happy [to come close to it].”
“As far as the team is concerned, I think we know where our foundations are defensively,” team captain and midfielder Dax McCarty said. “We want to continue to build off those, but in the attacking half of the field, I think if we can improve on that, and if we can add more danger and more goals to our repertoire, we’re going to be very good next year. So that’s just a few individual and team goals that hopefully we can improve on.”
Of course, the team may not have to give up much defensively in order to have a strong offense. When the squad hit its stride later in the year, the defense didn’t miss a beat. Extending that two-way success over the entire year could be enough for a formidable outfit.
“After October 14 which was Jhonder Cádiz’s first match away in Houston, we were eighth in the league in goals per game, and third in the league in total goals scored,” said Jacobs. “So having all of our DPs available at the same time really gave us, obviously, some added punch, especially when you see not only what Jhonder added when he arrived as our DP 9, but also what you saw what Randall Leal, who was in the top 10 in goal contributions during that stretch from October 14 on: goals and assists combined, as well as Hany Mukhtar’s ascension during that period also.”
“We saw in limited playing time when our – it’s been publicized – when our three more designated individuals in the attacking half of the field were playing together, there was some very nice reward,” Smith added. “So, that type of connection and understanding it something that I think we all would like to see in a more consistent way.”
With the season’s opening match barely six weeks away, the Boys in Gold know exactly what targets to aim for.