By Brian Maurer
Hany Mukhtar of Nashville SC (Photo courtesy of Nashville SC)
What We Have Seen So Far
Nashville SC has started this season in its typical style. They already have six clean sheets and 2022 MVP, Hany Mukhtar, has been directly involved in 12 of their 17 goals. This has been Nashville’s formula since its founding. Mukhtar appears capable of leading their one-dimensional attack to results again this season and their defense will prevent some losses by reducing goals against (GA). They currently sit third in the Eastern Conference, which would tie them for the best conference ranking in their club’s young history.
Nashville SC’s newest acquisitions were made in interleague trades. Fafà Picault was acquired in a trade from Houston, and Jacob Shaffelberg was picked up from Toronto FC on a permanent deal. They also added some defensive depth by trading for Nick DePuy from the LA Galaxy and Lukas MacNaughton from Toronto.
Shaffelberg was on loan with Nashville SC last season and it looks like he could develop into a supplemental attacking option alongside Mukhtar. MacNaughton has been getting an opportunity to play at center back the last few weeks with Walker Zimmerman out injured.
OUT: Nick DePuy
QUESTIONABLE: Walker Zimmerman
*Updated Tuesday, May 16th
Player’s to Watch
Hany Mukhtar - Mukhtar looks to be back in MVP form after recovering from an injury to start the season. He has had eight goal contributions in his past six MLS games (5g/3a). Everything in the attack runs through Mukhtar in Nashville. Charlotte FC will need to find a way to reduce Mukhtar’s impact, like they did last year, to earn a result on Saturday.
Walker Zimmerman - Zimmerman is key to this match for a couple of reasons. He is the leader of the Nashville SC defense, but he has also been out injured. If he can return to the lineup Saturday, Nashville SC will receive a big boost to their backline as well as an added threat to their set pieces. Nashville SC leads MLS in xG from set pieces (5.95) and has four set-piece goals. Zimmerman being available becomes a very dangerous threat from set-pieces. If Zimmerman cannot go again this weekend MacNaughton will likely get another nod.
Fafà Picault - Picault was acquired this winter in a trade with Houston and he has been a welcomed addition to Nashville SC’s traditionally one-dimensional attack. He is tied for second on the team in goals scored with three. This may seem like an insignificant number, but considering that Nashville SC’s second-leading goal scorer last year was CJ Sapong and Teal Bunbury, both with five goals, Picault is off to a strong start for them. Containing all of Nashville SC’s supplemental weapons will be a key to victory for Charlotte FC, and Picault has been one of Nashville’s main supplemental threats.
Nashville SC’s Starting XI
Nashville SC has used a 4-4-2 with Mukhtar getting support from fellow strikers up top and the fullbacks providing the width. The midfielders, against Inter Miami on Wednesday, tucked in and connected with teammates through the middle (see the passing network below). Charlotte FC will need to stay compact defensively and protect themselves from the traffic through the middle. They will also need to stay on their markers and disrupt the service coming in from the fullbacks.
Nashville SC's starting lineup against Inter Miami yesterday (Graphic from MLSsoccer.com)
The main thing to look for with Nashville SC’s lineup is whether Zimmerman is going to be able to play. He has been one of the best defenders in MLS for years, and they are a significantly better team if he is available.
Nashville SC's passing network from their game against Inter Miami yesterday (Graphic from MLSsoccer.com)
Nashville SC's zones of control for 2023** (Graphic from theanalyst.com)
Nashville SC spends a lot of time defending in a strong compact block and hitting teams on the counter. You can see how many areas they cede possession in the zones of control graphic above. They allow opponents to control large swaths of the field and try to find opportunities to create chances off of turnovers.
Outlook for 2023
Nashville SC is one of the stronger MLS teams, especially on the defensive end. They are likely targeting a home playoff game and based on their current home form (5-2-1), they look more than capable of attaining one of the top seeds in the East. This probability will increase if they can find a new designated player to play striker alongside Mukhtar. A position they have struggled to fill since their inaugural season.
**For the zones of control, blue symbolizes areas on the field where Nashville SC has had at least 55% of total touches. Red represents areas where their opponents have had at least 55% of total touches. (Updated May 18th, 2023)