Here is the big question: Can Nashville SC finally put together some attack? One of the weakest attacks in all of MLS last year was… wait, I’m being informed we have a chart:
For all the hand-wringing about NSC’s attack last year, it was in the top quarter of the league in expected goals, and the top third in actual goals scored. Was it an elite attack? I would contend not! But the degree to which it lagged behind elite is oft-overstated.
There is one important caveat of course, which is that last year’s pretty-good attack revolved almost entirely around one player. Hany Mukhtar was a deserving MVP… with 28.45 xG+xA, he was involved in well over half the total for NSC. The expectation is that he cannot do it again – and that’s a fair one, because basically nobody ever has performed at that level for a third year in a row – and therefore Nashville SC’s production is going to crater.
Let us explore.
He’s good. He’s elite! He has an incredible path to where he is today! But the fates of the attack are going to be reliant upon what happens around him. So we’ll punt on breaking him down.
I covered this topic somewhat extensively a couple weeks back. The overarching picture – does Nashville need a DP striker to find improved success from last season? – has a fairly obvious “no” answer. It can improve the ceiling, of course. But any contention that Nashville’s offense can’t be good without one displays a lack of critical thought (not least of which because the offense was good last year without one).
The non-Mukhtar contributors at the striker position were… better than you might think?
Among strikers who got at least 500 minutes last year, Teal Bunbury was in the top 10 in xG per 96 minutes played. Bunbury had 0.55 xG per 96 minutes, and CJ Sapong had 0.29 xG per 96 minutes. Sapong added 0.12 xA per 96 to make up for wat was a legitimate slump last season.
The problem was that Bunbury spent a lot of time injured (and he suffered from Eric Miller syndrome: fans were naturally predisposed to disliking him because he made a big mistake in one game, then wasn’t seen for a while – whereas Miller’s was right before the Covid break in 2020, Bunbury gave up a game-winning goal to RSL in the fourth game last year, then was injured for a long stretch). If he can be even just a little more healthy than the 747 minutes he played last year – about a quarter of the season – that’s a lot of production to complement Mukhtar, and given that he can also play other forward positions, Sapong as well.
So let’s address the Sapong situation. CJ famously did not find the scoresheet after May 28, and while his xG numbers were not elite after that point, they weren’t “zero goals” bad. As I wrote a couple weeks back.
At nightfall on May 28, he had five goals on 3.92 xG for the season. From that point forward… zero goals on 4.18 xG. Even if you’re a finishing truther, that’s a level of bad luck that transcends “improbable.”Feb. 9
Let’s take a look at his career…
You’d be hard-pressed to say he’s been an elite striker over the course of his career, but certainly 2022 was an anomalously bad year on two fronts: the degree to which he racked up expected goals per 96 was the second-worst of his career… and the rate at which he finished was also second-worst of his career.
Given that the previous year had been his second-best season in both regards, I wouldn’t expect that there’s some sort of age-specific decline at play here. It was just a bad year. The likelihood that it repeats seems unlikely (and in terms of finishing: this chart is probably one of the best examples of it coming down essentially to randomness, with no pattern and Sapong bouncing back between under- and over-shooting).
Get more minutes from Bunbury, get a bounceback year to career-average from Sapong, and you’re getting 35% of an expected goal and goal per game, and suddenly the striker problem isn’t a problem. (There’s also something to be said for these two guys in particular being willing to play second-banana to a talent like Mukhtar – there’s huge value in that for Nashville).
The depth provided by Ethan Zubak (or even Luke Haakenson) is solid, but shouldn’t play a huge role in changing the narrative around Nashville SC.
Winger and attacking midfield
Since Mukhtar is nominally a striker – he’s really more of a No. 10 who’s a goal-scorer rather than a distributor, but at a certain point the semantic difference between a 4-4-2 with a withdrawn striker and a 4-2-3-1 with a shoot-first No. 10 is really getting into pedantry – let’s take a look at the other support players.
I’ve previously discussed the huge boost provided by Jacob Shaffelburg, and that Randall Leal‘s down year – in a season where he was dealing with the emotional letdown of dropping out of the Costa Rican national team setup (when the Ticos were opting for worse players, no less) – seems unlikely to recur. Those feel like two starter-caliber players who weren’t last year, in Shaffelburg’s case, because he wasn’t on the team until the final few games.
And now Nashville adds a veteran in Fafa Picault. A career 0.44 xG+xA/96 performer, that’s… a lot to add on the wing. It should allow for Nashville to get creative about where some of these guys line up, whether that’s Shaffelburg, Leal, even Haakenson sliding inside or up top as a complement to Mukhtar. Picault’s no spring chicken having turned 32 a couple days ago, and for a player who’s been a speed merchant in his career, that can be a little worrisome. He was still at 0.36 last year for a Houston team that was terrible, so I would anticipate being able to play a slightly smaller role would allow him to maintain that performance on a per 96 basis.
Some rotational minutes for Bunbury, Zubak, even Mukhtar out on the wing, and you’re looking at likely-improved performance. With Alex Muyl playing mostly fullback in preseason… well, he’s still another winger option, but perhaps not one who’s going to provide a ton of underlying production to the numbers.
I mentioned Shaq Moore‘s crossing ability in the defensive preview, and getting more out of him seems like a reasonable ask. The ability to get space and hit an accurate cross has long been a strength of his game, and while I will make no claims that this is a particularly efficient manner of generating offense, Nashville is gonna hit some crosses, so it’s better to have him doing so accurately than not doing so.
I think perhaps the biggest factor is going to come down to his – and Dan Lovitz‘s – ability to combine on the outside and move the ball into the attacking third. Yes, they’re still going to overlap and hit some crosses. But getting the ball forward without having to rely on any sort of long ball (and preferably without ending the possession on a cross) is crucial as well.
That’s where yesterday’s note about central midfielders is going to become important.
So: can we get a healthier year for Godoy and McCarty? Will a year in the system make Davis a little more comfortable as a progressive passer, since he’s already been fairly solid in outperforming his xPass anyway? Those may seem like questions that relate to the attack, but they may ultimately be crucial for the defense too.Feb. 24
Yesterday’s context was that NSC was unable to escape its defensive end, making life more difficult on the back-end. But progressing smoothly to the front four – and those CMs getting involved in the final product, as well – was a major weakness last year. Sean Davis had his first-ever below-average G+ year in passing – and if that’s largely about trying to find comfort in a new team context, the upside can be near-immediate. If it’s because he only can be successful in the Red Bull system, that’s a whole different issue.
As for the health of Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy… we’ll cross fingers and pray here, especially given that McCarty was in and out of the lineup in preseason. Brian Anunga is a top-notch defensive midfielder, but a liability in turning his interruption into productive moves forward.
The big picture
I asked Gary Smith the other day if he’s concerned about giving too much of the emphasis of the attacking production to Hany Mukhtar’s shoulders, and his answer was essentially “he can do it, so why should I worry?”
That’s fair, sure, but the likelihood that Mukhtar can do it to the same degree feels… optimistic. Basically nobody ever has. If he’s more like his 2021 production – which was still enough to give him runner-up honors in the MVP race – the Boys in Gold will need the players around him to step up. They look poised to do so (with the jury out on central midfield, but everywhere else looking near-guaranteed for some improvement), and the degree to which they can close the gap with whatever dropoff Hany does experience will be the tale of this season.
Or he doesn’t drop off and last year’s good-enough attack gets even better, about which, “that’d be nice!”