The 2021 MLS season has had its fair share of big-name breakouts, compelling coaching styles, and high-profile, high-scoring matches. But none of these three superlatives make people think of Nashville SC, but should they?
Gary Smith has been criticized in the past for his defensive style of coaching. He has been previously expected to sit, defend, score on the counter, and ride every game out 1-0; a much less dynamic version of Luchi Gonzalez’s style in Dallas. But this season, more than others, Smith has rotated lineups in order to create a perfect blend of pragmatic success. Games may still be boring under Smith, yes, but Nashville have scored three or more goals in matches against the likes of NYCFC, and they recently stole three points away on the road against a hot Atlanta United.
Nashville are the only undefeated team at home this season. Granted, six draws may take away from this feat, but it is still more than any other team can say. Smith has his team rotating from a 3-5-2, to a 4-4-2, and to a 4-2-3-1 effortlessly between weeks, and he has succeeded in getting the most out of players like Hany Mukhtar and Alistair Johnston.
Mukhtar specifically has had a breakout, yet nationally unnoticed, season. For a player that is 10th in shot-creating actions, and fourth in goal-creating actions this season, Mukhtar’s name has not touched the MVP debate. And with 10 goals and eight assists, Mukhtar is also fourth in goal-involvement per 90 minutes this season. The systems when Smith has been able to put Mukhtar in a two-striker attack allow Mukhtar to float.
Just as he wanted when he was positioned as a no.10, Mukhtar’s ability find pockets anywhere on the final third now does not hurt the midfield’s ability to keep possession. And because of Smith’s tendency to favor defensive solidity, the question marks regarding Walker Zimmerman’s wandering nature have slowly disappeared during this season.
Zimmerman, Johnston, Dave Romney, and Daniel Lovitz have established themselves as a legitimate defensive unit in MLS. With the fourth-highest tackle success rate, and the fewest defensive errors, Nashville’s defense has proven consistent. This season, unlike the last, there is confidence in the squad’s ability to carry that defensive structure into the playoffs. And as the old adage goes: “Defense wins championships.”