Know Thy Enemy: Revolution vs The Annonyingly Consistent Nashville SC Edition
Nashville winning home games with set pieces and 0-0 draws on the road already, I'm shocked, shocked I say.
As the New England Revolution play their second home game of the season tonight against Nashville SC at Gillette Stadium (7:30 PM) let’s take a break from lighting the South Region of our brackets on fire to discuss a growing rarity in sports.
Consistency - it’s really, really hard to do. It’s especially hard to do when everyone pretty much knows how you’re going to do it.
We could mostly unironically with a slight hint of sarcasm say that death, taxes, and Nashville drawing 0-0 on the road are the certainties in life. But make no mistake, I love the way Nashville goes about its game plan and business on a regular basis even if it doesn’t always make for the tremendously chaotic soccer we usually expect in MLS. A pitcher’s duel and a low-scoring basketball game with great defensive plays all around are still things to be admired if only for their increasing rarity.
What Nashville has done in their young expansion club lives in MLS is pretty remarkable. They’ve made the playoffs three straight years, have a team defense that allows about a goal game, and they stick to the tried and true adage of win at home, tie on the road in soccer. It works, and obnoxiously so because of the way Nashville do it seemingly every week since they started playing in MLS.
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Set piece goals, scoreless road draws with expected goal totals so small they shouldn’t bother to track it, and a roster that fields a ton of MLS veterans and the god known as Hany Mukhtar. Nashville has gotten a lot of things right in such a short amount of time that the mistakes they have made on bigger contracts to take that next step have not been crippling to their overall regular-season success. Though we’ll get to a really bad Nashville contract situation in a bit.
Now, whether or not that consistency will turn into postseason success and trophies is another story. Winning playoff games is hard and regular season consistency does not always turn into trophies, but it does keep you within reach of them and we’ll see if Nashville can turn their defensive prowess into a playoff run this year.
Meanwhile, the Revs are looking for some consistency as well and they probably won’t get it this week with Carles Gil out after aggravating a knock as a substitute last week against LAFC. The Revs were a fairly miserable offensive team without him, generating only four total shots with two coming in stoppage time of what turned into a 4-0 rout.
New England started last week with Gustavo Bou, Bobby Wood, and Dylan Borrero up front though they listed Bou as a #10 attacking mid. I know Borrero has settled into and likes his wide role, but he would be the better playmaking option in the middle if the Revs were looking for as much of a like-for-like deputy for Carles.
I think the Revs should turn to Giacomo Vrioni up top this week and use him as a target/back-to-goal deep forward to help spring Bou and Borrero on the flanks. Bobby Wood has been great attacking the goal but I think the Revs need another outlet option in the middle of the field.
If Bruce Arena wanted to get really weird, and Andrew Farrell is healthy, a three center back formation and Borrero and Latif Blessing as roving center mids with two strikers up top might be an interesting way to change it up against a really good defense. But maybe that’s too much, maybe a 0-0 draw with out Carles Gil isn’t a bad thing.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
As always we are joined by our good friend and analytical power rankings expert Ben Wright of Broadway Sports Media on all things Nashville including his take on their consistency, how their offense looks this year, and that whole Ake Loba mess.
No questions again for me this week, but head on over to Broadway Sports for their game coverage and this excellent Teal Bunbury presser.
TBM: So after a pair of 2-0 home wins in which I assume naturally that set piece goals were almost certainly scored in and a classic 0-0 Nashvilling at Red Bull Arena - how does this team seemingly get those same type of results every week and what are some of the key takeaways so far this year?
BW: Actually, not that many set piece goals. Walker Zimmerman scored the opener from a set piece against NYCFC, but the rest have come in transition.
Nashville have doubled down on their defensive identity. They're not parking the bus by any means, but they're more than happy to absorb pressure and then strike when the game gets stretched. It helps when you have Hany Mukhtar, one of the very best open field attackers in MLS history, but he's been limited this season, playing just 169 minutes after a hip issue in preseason.
Fafà Picault has been a pretty significant upgrade after coming in from Houston over the winter, but the real story has been Jacob Shaffelburg. He was good last year, but has taken a big step forward in his first full season in Nashville. He leads the team with two goals and has been a constant threat down the left. His pace is hard to match, and he's learned how to open up space for himself off the ball. Away to Red Bulls aside, Nashville have actually been pretty fun to watch.
TBM: Ake Loba was deemed to not be the answer up top and the DP striker has been loaned out and it seems our good friend Teal Bunbury is now the starter with former Toronto homegrown Jacob Shaffelburg settling in nicely with a pair of goals already in 2023. Talk about the attacking group this year and any lineup options that can help keep Nashville consistent again.
BW: Aké Loba was never really a factor in Nashville anyway. He has to be in the conversation for biggest busts in MLS history, but he was never a starter for Nashville.
Bunbury was hurt for most of last year, but scored five goals in around 750 minutes, and started the last couple games of 2022 for Nashville. Maybe he earned the starting job then, but CJ Sapong also had some injury issues in preseason. Bunbury has been good in the first three games, but still hasn't scored. At some point, he'll need to start finding the back of the net to keep his starting spot.
Like I said before, Shaffelburg and Picault have been the biggest difference makers for Nashville so far. Losing Randall Leal has really hurt, especially after his standout performance in the season opener, but they've coped without him so far. Having more depth out wide has been huge. It gives them the ability to either open space centrally for Mukhtar, or to let him draw defenders to him and get the ball wide into space.
TBM: Is the the year Nashville make the jump and contends for the Shield and/or makes that elusive playoff run? What would be the one thing that keep Nashville from being a top contender?
BW: I don't know if they make the jump this year. There are still depth issues. Aníbal Godoy is still out with a shoulder injury, and Dax McCarty is pushing 36. They don't really have a progressive-passing midfielder outside those two. Losing Nick DePuy for the year really, really hurt their defensive depth. Unless they make a new signing, an injury to either Walker Zimmerman or Jack Maher would be catastrophic.
And then yeah, their issues with Aké Loba really hurt. He still takes up a DP spot, even on loan with Mazatlán. If they trigger his purchase option, another team buys him, or Nashville just buys out his contract, they could open up a DP spot in the summer window and bring in an attacker. They really need to hit on their next DP signing after missing on Loba and the way Jhonder Cádiz's stint ended up.
All that to say, if they stay healthy in midfield and defense and can bring in a goalscoring no. 9, the might push pretty high up the table. I think more realistically they finish in the 3-5 window.