After a landmark 2021 season, Nashville are back to prove they can be a consistent force in Major League Soccer.
Gary Smith's side had just enough star quality alongside their incredible defensive grit to finish third in the East, going as far as the Conference finals in the Playoffs.
This year, they shift across to the West and play their first seven games away from home as they await the opening of a gorgeous new stadium. Challenges are aplenty.
So, here's everything you need to know about Nashville SC ahead of the new MLS season, including tactics, key players, and predictions.
How did Nashville SC perform in 2021?
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 last year, 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.
Gary Smith's men capitalized on their home form to beat Orlando City in Round One of the Playoffs, then took the Philadelphia Union all the way to penalties before inexplicably losing the shootout 2-0.
Nashville SC transfer activity
- Teal Bunbury (from New England Revolution, $150k)
- Sean Davis (from New York Red Bulls, free transfer)
- Josh Bauer (from Atlanta United, Re-Entry Draft)
- Will Meyer (SuperDraft)
- Ahmed Longmire (SuperDraft)
- Ethan Zubak (from LA Galaxy, undisc.)
- Alistair Johnston (to CF Montreal, $1m)
- Daniel Rios (to Charlotte FC, $350k)
- Dylan Nealis (to New York Red Bulls, $125k)
- Abu Danladi (to Minnesota United, free transfer)
- Miguel Nazarit (to Deportivo Cali, free transfer)
- Matt LaGrassa (to Sacramento FC, free transfer)
- Nick Hinds (to El Paso, free transfer)
- Jalil Anibaba (to Columbus Crew, free transfer)
- Rodrigo Pineiro (to Union Espanola, loan)
- David Accam (released)
- Tom Judge (released)
- Tor Saunders (released)
Gary Smith: Tactics and style of play
The loss of Alistair Johnston is a big one, and allowing Dylan Nealis to also leave is dangerous. Nashville are now desperately short on the right of defense and could enter the season with a big hole there if they don't make moves soon.
Still, given the success Nashville have enjoyed so far, don't be surprised to see Smith roll out a back-three system. In pre-season, he's adjusted to a 3-4-3 with wing-backs providing width, Mukhtar creating chaos up-front with Sapong and Ake Loba, and an almost unbreakable wall of defense through the middle.
It'll continue to be low-risk soccer, with their main outlet coming from overloading the left when Mukhtar drifts out there. But for once, in this case, low risk means high reward.
Nashville SC predicted XI (3-5-2): Willis; Maher, Zimmerman, Romney; Miller, Godoy, Davis, Lovitz; Loba, Sapong, Mukhtar.
Who are Nashville SC's key players?
Carles Gil was everyone's golden boy for the MLS MVP award and won it in the end, but Mukhtar had an incredibly strong case. He was, perhaps, the more deserving of the two.
The former Germany youth international ended the 2021 regular-season 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 and particularly loves drifting out to the left to isolate full-backs. He's 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.
With Dax McCarty getting a little older and likely sharing a lot of his minutes with the likes of Sean Davis and Tah Anunga this season, Anibal Godoy will be the constant for Nashville in midfield.
That's no bad thing, either. The Panama international was fantastic in 2021, setting the tempo with his incredible passing range, driving the ball forward, and contributing plenty to Nashville's massive defensive effort.
Godoy has just turned 32 so his legs are bound to slow down eventually, but luckily, Davis is one of the most relentless running machines in MLS and can help provide that extra mobility.
Nashville need more goalscorers than just Mukhtar, so the likes of CJ Sapong and Randall Leal will be crucial. But you can't talk about this team without giving Walker Zimmerman some airtime.
Back as a regular and leader for the USMNT, Zimmerman has been among the best center-backs in MLS for a number of years now. He's powerful in the air, quick across the ground, and has a pretty good understanding of space.
Zimmerman has also proven himself a goal threat at set-pieces time and again, adding another important avenue of attack for Nashville.
Nashville SC 2022 season prediction
With Nashville moving over to the Western Conference this year to make room for Charlotte FC, there's bound to be a different dynamic at play. Will that extra travel toward the West Coast - particularly as they await the opening of the Nashville Fairgrounds Stadium - affect them?
In reality, Smith has an excellent roster at his disposal and they're one of the most well-drilled units in MLS. They placed high in the East last year, and they'll do so again in the West.
Prediction: 3rd in the Western Conference