Nashville SC in their first two seasons as a club became a respectful and established outfit in the MLS Eastern Conference. Their first season saw them all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, and while last season they only managed the Conference Semi-Finals, they did boast the second-best regular season goal differential in the league. Now in the Western Conference, similar success is largely expected to follow.
The team is loaded with a core of veteran players, all hinged around defensive midfielder Dax McCarty, ninth overall in all-time MLS minutes played, as well as US National Team defender Walker Zimmerman. In a league where teams bring multi-million-dollar players left and right, Nashville is an outlier, and has improved and grown through chemistry rather than new player acquisitions. Nothing can illustrate this better than the fact that Nashville last week against FC Dallas fielded almost an identical starting XI to their very first game as an MLS team back in 2020; 9 of the same 11 players.
Having settled into favoring the 4-2-3-1 last season, this years Nashville side is sporting a new look, one that many long time RSL fans might find eerily similar. What is put on paper as a 4-1-3-2 in practice morphs more into what I would best describe as a diamond 4-4-2. The reason behind this is because of the three attacking midfielders, the two wide players tend to drop quite deep, and are ever present variables in defense.
The fact that so many Nashville players are defense-first oriented can be seen in a number of statistics, the most highlight worthy being their 33 goals allowed last season, the joint-best in MLS. Playing in such a fashion has quickly given them a reputation as a team that is incredibly difficult to beat, something we saw first hand last year in a 0-0 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium.
RSL will have the task Saturday night of having to break down perhaps the most solid defensive unit in the league; all while keeping an eye out on last year’s MLS MVP Runner-Up in Hany Mukhtar, who notched 16 goals and 12 assists last campaign.
The good news so far, is that the 3-man back line being deployed in Kreilach’s absence has been relatively defensively sound, allowing an extremely impressive 0.72 xGoals Against on average each game. Given the lingering injury issues to the Croatian, it should be fully expected that the Claret and Cobalt line up in the same fashion as their first three games, likely with an almost identical cast on field. This does wonders for team chemistry, as the balance of the team is starting to look good with the wingbacks now creating the pressure they were lacking against Houston. At times even achieving the ideal five man attacking line the current system can provide.
While it’s more than likely Nashville will spend long stretches of this game stuck in a low-block, its also not immediately clear how RSL can break them down given our current system and style. The three-man attacking core will be able to keep McCarty, Zimmerman, and Romney locked into the center. While in most cases, this could help lead to RSL finding an overload on the flanks through Schmitt or Brody, against Nashville its not so simple due to the withdrawn defensive minded wingers – if anything, they are best defending out wide.
The best chances for creation will almost certainly be down the middle, which unfortunately leads to having to get the better of an exceptional talent in Walker Zimmerman. While very temporary overloads could be created, the veteran core of Nashville’s defense should keep those few and far between. The way that many top Europeans teams solve this issue is often by sending one of the center back three to make an overlapping or underlapping run to create a more serious imbalance. Given the tendencies of our back three, this is an unlikely event to unfold.
RSL will almost certainly have to get things done the old fashioned way, to create either a lethal attack down the middle in transition, or to conjure a central focus threatening enough that the defense must react, and thus create channels to exploit on the wings.
If the creative juices aren’t flowing, we may find ourselves dragged into a similar match as last season’s 0-0 snooze fest. If such a bleak timeline repeats itself, at least entertainment will be provided in Joe Willis and his growing horseshoe mustache.