Two of the best MLS expansion teams ever start their seasons off on Sunday evening. Nashville SC, a team that’s gotten almost everything right, travels to Seattle for the first time in their two-year history. Coached by Gary Smith, the Tennessee side is looking to improve on last season’s 7th place finish overall while moving to the West.
It’s also a homecoming for Handwalla Bwana, the former Seattle Sounders HGP.
Smith’s team starts with a 7-match away run due to stadium construction. On May 1 they open their new stadium, the largest built for an MLS team. In the meantime, they’ll likely try to keep matches to 2 goals or less, in total, during their long road run.
For Broadway Sports Media, Ben Wright answers Three Questions.
SaH: Will Nashville’s shift to the West, with more travel and higher quality top end opponents (outside of New England ‘21), cause a shift in lineup construction or approach?
BSM: I don’t think it will. I think Gary Smith’s defense-first approach is pretty translatable, and that won’t change. The big question is if their attack will change. Last year they relied heavily — almost exclusively — on Hany Mukhtar for chance creation and conversion. I think he’ll be good again in 2022, but he needs help and someone else to carry some of that load. Any changes in formation or system would be to get more attackers in better positions.
SaH: Walker Zimmerman’s strength defensively is well known. Who is the next most important in coach Gary Smith’s system?
BSM: Zimmerman has a really unique skill set in MLS and Concacaf. He’s really hard to replace, but even so Nashville have plenty of defensive depth. Other than Mukhtar, I think Aníbal Godoy is hugely important to Smith’s system. He’s the best two-way midfield option in the squad, and really controls how Nashville play in possession.
SaH: If Mukhtar is shut down, what happens to the offense?
BSM: If Mukhtar has had an off night, it’s impacted the entire team’s performance. I think that’s a big reason why Aké Loba was brought in, to be another primary option in attack and carry some of that burden. Nashville got deeper up top this off-season, with Teal Bunbury added, as well as Randall Leal and CJ Sapong returning. I’m expecting a lot more from Handwalla Bwana this season, too. He dealt with some injuries last year and was really a non-factor, but has reportedly been one of the standouts in preseason. A big priority this year has to develop other consistent options besides Mukhtar, and they have more pieces now than ever.
Lineup and prediction?
3-4-1-2: Willis; Maher, Zimmerman, Romney; Miller, Davis, Godoy, Lovitz; Leal; Sapong, Mukhtar
I may be betting too heavily on Seattle rotating after CCL, but Nashville have historically played up to the competition. I’m calling a 1-1 draw.
Check out the 2022 season and Nashville SC previews from SB Nation and Sounder at Heart.