In this first edition of Oppo Research of the 2023 MLS season, we take a close look at Nashville SC, the 2020 expansion franchise that MLS has yo-yoed between conferences. Now they’re back in the Eastern portion of the league and will face off against New York City FC twice within the first eight matches of the season.
1. They’re still anchored by the reigning MLS MVP and Golden Boot winner in attack, and a two-time Defender of the Year in defense
Nashville SC attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar has produced two straight dominant individual seasons in MLS. In 2022 he captured the Golden Boot with 23 goals scored, and almost singlehandedly carried the Nashville attack as he also won MLS MVP. For the season, Mukhtar accounted for 44% of Nashville’s goals scored and 38% of Nashville’s shots on target—he was a one-man wrecking crew. He scored twice against NYCFC in Nashville’s home win over the Boys in Blue back in 2021, so he’s got experience tormenting his first 2023 opponent. There will be no reprieve to be found for NYCFC’s defenders, as while Mukhtar is listed as questionable on the official injury report, Nashville head coach Gary Smith has already confirmed he’ll be good to go against NYCFC.
Mukhtar does almost all their attacking damage, but Nashville also boasts a stingy defense thanks to the efforts of Walker Zimmerman, the USMNT World Cup vet who is also one of the most-decorated defenders in MLS. Zimmerman is a two-time Defender of the Year who is a staple of the end-of-season MLS Best XI, and it will be a tall task for the new-look NYCFC attack to break his defensive line and put him under duress. Nashville conceded the fourth fewest goals in the league last season (their 41 allowed was identical to NYCFC, in fact), and Zimmerman was a big reason why.
2. Expect midfield spiciness
Presumed regulars in Nashville’s midfield include a handful of veterans of the Eastern Conference with lots of history playing testy matches against NYCFC. I’m referring to Dax McCarty, Sean Davis, and Fafà Picault mostly, but there’s even Alex Muyl on the Nashville bench—all have history on the opposite end of contentious NYCFC rivalry matches. It’s also worth reminding you that when Nashville and NYCFC met twice in 2021, both matches nearly devolved into chaos. The first meeting was actual chaos, as Dax McCarty and Maxi Moralez each got straight red cards for an altercation that bloomed into a full-blown fight. The return leg in Harrison, New Jersey was slightly calmer but also featured a testy exchange between Nashville keeper Joe Willis and Taty Castellanos, and lots of fouls. While many of the central figures in these conflicts from the NYCFC side have now left the club, there still seems some potential for feistiness.
3. Nashville’s style: Crosses and counterattacks
Gary Smith’s attacking philosophy appears to be twofold. He wants his Nashville teams to whip in crosses, and he wants them to hit opposing teams on the counter. Nashville attempted the sixth most crosses in all of MLS in 2022, so expect a busy evening for Thiago Martins and Maxime Chanot as they deal with lots of incoming wide deliveries. Per Backheeled, Nashville was in the bottom half of MLS based on expected goals (xG) created from their own possession, but in the top half of MLS for xG created from transition. Nashville thrives on the counter, so despite playing at home, they may be willing to cede possession to a usually pass-happy NYCFC. That means Nick Cushing’s side will need to be ready to react defensively as soon as they turn the ball over.
4. Oddsmakers view Nashville as slight favorites in Week 1, but don’t love their chances in 2023
The betting consensus has Nashville as slightly favored to come out a winner against NYCFC in the season opener. Popular prognosticator FiveThirtyEight puts the likelihood of a Nashville win at 40%, not far from NYCFC’s 34%. Predictably tight odds for an opening match between two 2022 playoff teams that have pundits divided regarding each’s 2023 chances. Nashville is pegged to finish eighth in the East by the official MLS website’s pundits, based on the average their range of predictions. FiveThirtyEight rates Nashville similarly, pegging them for ninth and 47 points—now good enough for a playoff berth thanks to that whacky new postseason format.
5. The “Man In Black” Kit looks nice and is clever marketing
Nashville’s new 2023 kit is a smart tie-in with a local legend, and also feels tailor-made for the new Apple era MLS is about to enter. Their “Man In Black” kit is an ode to Johnny Cash, the legendary singer and figure of much importance in what is the “Music City” after all. While it’s odd to see Nashville temporarily become a yellow-and-black replica of the Columbus Crew, it is a clean-looking (though maybe a bit overly simple) black kit that gets bonus points for its Cash mythology. Nashville has gone all-in on the Johnny Cash stuff for this opening match with NYCFC, dubbing it the “Man in Black Match,” encouraging their fans to wear all black, and hyping a musical performance by Johnny Cash family members. It all feels like something at least in part dreamed up during a brainstorming session of marketing executives looking to think of ways to get more MLS fans to subscribe to Apple Music. What better way to do that then go all-in on a music legend for the very first regular season match ever streamed on AppleTV?