New England Revolution. Nashville SC. Everyone else. Certainly, this is the table everyone expected to see midway through the year in the Eastern Conference, right?
The Boys in Gold knocked off FC Cincinnati in a 3-0 breeze Saturday evening, and with 15 of 34 games played, they’ve reached new heights for their club. There’s plenty of season to go – much of it away from Music City – and plenty of work to be done. But for at least one week, the situation is looking pretty nice.
There’s not much secret to how Gary Smith has done it, either. The NSC defense has rounded into form, and with a front three of Randall Leal, Hany Mukhtar, and CJ Sapong (who had a goal, two assists, and two goals and an assist, respectively, against FCC), the attack is clicking on all cylinders, as well.
“I think a little bit more freedom for Hany and Randall to try and be creative and work into different areas,” head coach Gary Smith explained of his team’s success. “They’re very instinctive individuals, and I think that’s helped them. I do think that CJ plays a big part of that. He’s a physical focal point that they can trust.
“The shape has helped them, but I do think as well, this isn’t the end of how we develop and where we go. We’ve seen success in other shapes, and I’d like to think that the group have now appreciated and understood one or two different ways to play. Ultimately, plan for any game is to try and add points to the board, and I think all the guys understand that. So there’s some great product, there’s some good competition, and certainly up front we’ve got a lot of energy and sparkle about the group now.”
For far too long, Nashville SC’s attack carried a certain air of “what-if” this season. The team has generated expected goals as well as anyone over the course of the season, but failures to convert saw the team underachieve its expected scoring output in five of the first six games. Since then? Nashville has scored over its xG in five of the nine games (and in one of the other four, didn’t need to do so in order to win). The defense has slipped slightly in that time, particularly thanks to the absences of CB Walker Zimmerman and RB Alistair Johnston on international duty with the United States and Canada, respectively. But if they can be plug-and-play improvements on their respective returns, NSC may just have what it needs to be a truly top side.
That largely comes down to Mukhtar. The German Designated Player was at times a poster-child for Nashville’s frustrating underachievement in 2020, and again to start the 2021 campaign. The diminutive attacking midfielder looks good doing it, but the final piece hadn’t been there. Giving him the freedom allowed by a move to the front-three system (whether he’s alongside Sapong with Leal underneath, or if he and Leal both play slightly deeper in creative support roles to Sapong) has seen Mukhtar climb to sixth in the league in goals, and fifth in assists.
“I’ve played with many [foreign DPs],” Sapong explained. “One, Hany’s probably navigated his transition into this league the best out of any attacking player that I’ve played with that’s come from outside the league. His quality can change the game in an instant. If you see that enough in training, when I step onto the field before a game, it’s like we know we’re going to get a chance, we know we’re going to get an opportunity. Our full focus is just being ready for that moment and capitalizing. I think it’s definitely been on showcase the last couple games. I’m just excited to see how much more we can produce moving forward.”
The diversity of ways in which Mukhtar can impact the game is impressive. On the heels of a hat-trick a week ago in which he banged home a free kick and finished twice in transition moments, he assisted Sapong with a cross from the run of play and one from a deep set piece. That Sapong is also finding the form that has made him a special player at past stops in Philadelphia and Chicago is both a solid compliment and total non-coincidence.
“I think the key here is CJ looks confident,” Smith said. “He looks understanding and appreciative of the players around him: the balance between the three of them looks excellent. There’s a synergy that they’re working with and for, and I think it’s bringing out the best in all of them.”
FC Cincinnati is… famously group of non-world-beaters. The same could be said of Chicago Fire, the recipients of both Mukhtar’s hat trick and a 5-1 defeat the previous week. That Nashville had to hold on for a scoreless road draw against Columbus Crew midweek indicates that the fireworks that have become such a regular sight in Nissan Stadium may not travel particularly well. A Sunday date in Canada – Nashville’s first border crossing as an MLS club – will be the next datapoint in a road form that we simply don’t know enough about yet.
But at this stage, there’s no denying that Nashville has shown the pieces to excel on both sides of the ball. The effort shown by an otherwise-unheralded player – a holdover from the squad’s USL days, even – in Taylor Washington to deny a 2-on-1 opportunity to Cincinnati when the score was just 1-0 is emblematic of what this team can be at its best.
“I just saw Brenner on the break,” Washington explained. “Gary does such a good job in training of putting us in situations that are applicable in games, and I knew that – I don’t even know who was behind me on my right, but I knew he was there as well. So the minute that Brenner took that touch a little bit more in, I thought he was going to try to play it.
“And sometimes in this game, luck is the residue of design. You just get lucky, and you put in the hard work, and good results happen.”
- Just a couple this week, with (hopefully) a catch-up on content from past games coming soon.
- FC Cincinnati dominated the ball, but didn’t do a whole lot with it. That’s the very emblem of “possession without purpose.” It was also Nashville’s gameplan. Possession percentage is a style choice, not a team-quality determinant (at least most of the time), so I wouldn’t sweat it.
- Sapong’s going to be Nashville’s Team of the Week honoree, but Hany Mukhtar may very well be rounding into an MVP candidate (heck, he may also be a TOTW selection). Obviously the entire column was about this, so no need to belabor the point. Nonetheless, if they remain in good form, the ceiling is extremely high for this team.
- Mr. Loba, shoot the ball when you’re on the edge of the six-yard box with it. Sometimes the right play is not the right play in the moment. Leading 3-0, in your longest run-out as a new signing? Gotta swing away at that one. The difference in the outcome is obviously not significant, but in terms of getting him comfortable (and hopefully on the scoresheet), that was a situation for selfishness.
- It’ll be interesting to see what Nashville’s tactics look like when the full complement of players is back. Obviously Walker Zimmerman and Alistair Johnston have played and succeeded in odd backlines in the past (including last Sunday against each other, at least until Zimmerman’s injury), but it may not be the best use of their talents. You don’t want to keep a healthy Aníbal Godoy on the bench, but you don’t want to sit an in-form Tah Brian Anunga, either. Breaking up a front three does not seem the move right now. I’ll believe Gary Smith doesn’t play with a double-pivot as soon as I see it, but it feels like we’re calling for a 4-diamond-2 or a 4-3-3 when a full healthy squad.
- Speaking of Zimmerman, Cincy had just a couple opportunities on free kicks (hey, I told you not to do that!), but the aerial monster’s absence was not felt, as Acosta and Medunjanin couldn’t give accurate-enough FKs to either challenge Willis directly or give Geoff Cameron a chance to do so.