MLS Cup Playoffs preview: Nashville SC

Nashville might just be the hardest team to beat in the Playoff field.
Nashville might just be the hardest team to beat in the Playoff field. /

In just their second season in MLS, Nashville have once again made the Playoffs.

Gary Smith's men are among the hardest to beat in MLS and have some formidable difference-makers in their ranks. Though they carry the tag of 'dark horses', they'll take some stopping.

Here's everything you need to know about Nashville SC ahead of the post season - from tactics to key players, and their chances of winning the big prize.

How did Nashville SC make it to the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Things that often appear to be cliches are such for a reason - they're normally true. In Nashville's case, it's that if you maintain a strong home record and have good defensive fundamentals, you'll go far in soccer.

Though they were criticized for drawing 18 of their 34 regular season games, Nashville did incredibly well to lose just four times, while maintaining an unbeaten record at Nissan Stadium.

No side in MLS bettered their record of just 33 goals conceded, and that ability to hang in games afforded the likes of Hany Mukhtar and CJ Sapong the chance to go steal three points at the other end.

Nashville will host Orlando City in Round One and could welcome the New York Red Bulls to Nissan Stadium in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, though they may also travel to Philadelphia. But that home advantage at the jump could be the crucial spark that ignites Nashville's off-season run.

Gary Smith: Tactics and style of play

Gary Smith has forged one of the most well-drilled units in MLS.
Gary Smith has forged one of the most well-drilled units in MLS. / Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows Nashville start at the back. Walker Zimmerman is the perfect defensive anchor in their three-center-back set-up, usually calling the shots between the likes Dave Romney and Jack Maher. Alistair Johnston has been a real shining light at right-wing-back on both sides of the ball, with Taylor Washington and Daniel Lovitz sharing minutes on the left.

Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy provide a brilliant screen and possession platform in front of the center-backs, but it's in the attack where Nashville have caught so many by surprise this season.

"Gary Smith’s sides obviously begin with defense, and the switch to the back three system he’s used for most of the season has helped them maintain their defensive standards, but the real change from year one to year two is the attack," Nashville expert Ben Wright of Broadway Sports told 90min.

"Hany Mukhtar has been unlocked in this system, playing in a free role as a nominal striker next to CJ Sapong. He’s excellent at finding space between the lines and is deadly on the half turn. Randall Leal plays a really interesting hybrid role as a midfielder in defense and a forward in attack, and the backbone of the team is a high work rate on both sides of the ball."

If Mukhtar gets some forward momentum and Sapong and Leal offer adequate support, Nashville can hurt pretty much any defense in MLS right now.

Who are Nashville SC's key players?

Hany Mukhtar

Carles Gil is everyone's golden boy for the MLS MVP award, but Mukhtar has an incredibly strong case.

The former Germany youth international is just three primary assists short of Gil's 13, but with 16 goals compared to the Spaniard's four.

Mukhtar can operate anywhere across the forward line, is two-footed, and is capable of tearing you open with a pass, a spectacular shot from range, or dazzling dribbling. At times, it feels like Mukhtar is toying with his prey, just waiting for the inevitable opportune moment. Switch off for a second and he'll punish you.

Walker Zimmerman

If Mukhtar does strike, there's every chance it'll be a killer blow. That's because Nashville have one of the league's best center-backs anchoring their defense in Walker Zimmerman.

His move from LAFC ahead of the 2020 season was one of the best pieces of business in recent memory and his recall to the USMNT is richly deserved.

Zimmerman is strong in the air, can read the space behind him, is confident with the ball at his feet, and measured in his defensive actions. He's also a real threat from set-pieces, which is always handy in a knockout situation.

Randall Leal

At times, Mukhtar seems almost superhuman, but he can't do it all himself. That's where Randall Leal (and CJ Sapong, to a slightly lesser extent) comes in.

Like Mukhtar, the Costa Rica international is extremely versatile and a very good interpreter of space. But he's also lightning-fast, direct, and dynamic on the dribble. He'll pop up in the box to get a goal, or punch through the opposition defense to set somebody else up. You just don't know where he'll come from next.

How far can Nashville SC go in the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Can Nashville go all the way? | Matthew Burt
Can Nashville go all the way? | Matthew Burt /

With a rock-solid backline and difference-makers up top, Nashville really do have the pieces for an MLS Cup run. Even if they're being overlooked by so many.

Getting through the first two rounds may even turn out to be quite straightforward for Smith. The problem may be when they travel to New England in the Conference final, with Bruce Arena's men getting a game under their belt by then to blow off the cobwebs. The Revs are one of the few attacking units in MLS you'd fancy to really test that Nashville backline.

Prediction: Eastern Conference final