Another exciting year lies ahead for Nashville SC fans in 2022.
At least initially, the year will be headlined by the opening of Nashville SC Stadium in early May. However exciting, that does come with the cost of the stadium not quite being ready early on, which forces Nashville to start the season on an eight-game road trip.
On top of that, Nashville will be playing in the Western Conference in 2022 after running with the elite in the East for the last two seasons. The switch will exacerbate the early-season travel which pits NSC against four playoff contenders from 2021.
The upcoming season will only be the third MLS season in Nashville’s history, but it is a side filled with MLS experience, and the crop of veterans has been bolstered by a pair of key offseason acquisitions in Sean Davis and Teal Bunbury, who enter their eighth and 12th seasons in the league, respectively.
“Their standing, I mean, in terms of respect around the league, and certainly within the group that they’re in now, is obviously very, very good,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said. “And I think that alone helps that transition. Both of those guys are obviously very understanding of the challenges of preseason, and of any given MLS season.
“The keys, obviously, are trying to work those individuals into the style and the system that you’re playing, and then, of course, the relationships that they build. And the quicker they build them, the sooner that we can get the best out of those guys. But in both of those cases, they’ve done a great job.”
Nashville fans have come to know what to expect from a roster and ideal starting XI that largely resembles last year’s. Down the stretch, Smith opted for a 3-5-2 configuration and mentioned the team has been working in a three-back system once again in the 2022 camp.
With another season of relatively little turnover, it does not leave much room for surprises as to what Nashville will probably look like on the personnel front, but there are a couple of areas with room for debate.
The bigger questions heading into the new campaign will be around how the Boys in Gold open on the road, and if they can finally produce material success in the form of hardware.
Here is a closer look at Nashville SC in 2022:
2022 Nashville SC Season Preview
2021 Finish: 3rd in Eastern Conference, (12W-18D-4L, 54 points) lost in Eastern Conference semifinal.
Key Additions: Sean Davis, Teal Bunbury, Ethan Zubak
Key Losses: Alistair Johnson, Dominique Badji, Jalil Anibaba, Abu Danladi, Jhonder Cadiz
Newcomer to Watch: Sean Davis
The long-time New York Red Bull is definitely going to be an impact player in Nashville.
The move took some serious consideration from the 29-year-old, who had to square the opportunity with leaving his native state of New Jersey, a regular playoff contender, and his captain status.
“Personally speaking, the transition has been seamless and I’ve enjoyed experiencing something new. I feel like I’ve already learned so much in a short amount of time,” Davis told SBI.
“So, just all around really happy with how things have played out. A lot of thought went into the decision from both sides. So it doesn’t surprise me that it’s gone well so far, but the true work certainly lies ahead.”
That work will be fighting his way into a fairly established midfield that features the likes of Hany Mukhtar, Anibal Godoy, and Dax McCarty. Davis likely did not come to Nashville to be a supporting player and is set to possibly be the only newcomer to feature as an opening day starter.
Pressure is On: Aké Loba
Loba’s one-goal tally in 19 appearances while on loan last year did not exactly meet the mark of success for a striker looking to occupy both a designated player and international roster slot.
The 23-year-old Ivorian was retained and is now a full-time Nashville player through at least 2023, and the plan will probably be to have him in an elevated role.
Breathing down his Loba’s neck will be C.J. Sapong, whose 12-goal, five-assist season in 2021 saw him become the hot hand in the striker position. In last year’s preseason, Sapong was behind Jhonder Cadiz, an eventually kiboshed loan-to-buy designated player, and marched on to grab 27 starts that produced plenty of success playing off of MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar.
Nashville should be expected to be a major player in all competitions in 2022, and its first two years in MLS have set the bar high enough to reasonably expect it to get over the hump in terms of winning something, MLS or cup side.
Year one produced a Wild Card playoff berth that died in overtime against the eventual champions in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
“The guys, I think, galvanized themselves mentally and physically and said ‘Look, if we have any chance of winning MLS Cup, we have to finish in a more beneficial position in the regular season’ which they did,” Smith said.
Year two saw Nashville reach the Eastern semifinal again but knocked out on penalties.
“And unfortunately, you know … those in those penalties in Philadelphia. There are always lessons to be learned. But in two years of this organization, you know, we’ve slowly but surely improved.
“And I have no reason to suspect that that won’t be the case this year,”
Even with the conference switch and time away from home, nothing should be offered as an excuse. The initial eight-game road trip is unique, but not an unheard-of obstacle, which is another spot where Nashville’s MLS intellegenge comes into play.
“It’s just one of those things that, you know, we have to be flexible. We have to be agile in how we manage it and navigate something like this,” defender Daniel Lovitz told SBI. “I have experience with this sort of dynamic to open up a year, and I’ve seen the different ways of approaching it.
“I think if there’s ever a group to attack it the right way and to mentally approach it, I think it’s the group that we have here.”
Nashville only lost four games in the regular season last year, each one came on the road. If the demanding road trip puts them behind initially, it should not cause too much panic considering the year will be back-ended with plenty of home games. You could also see the excellent form at home being amplified by the first season at a brand new, soccer-specific stadium.
“Having a place of your own, for sure, is very special and very different and something you just can’t wait to get going with,” said Lovitz.
The main characters should remain intact for the most part, with just a couple of possible changes on the horizon.
As outlined above, the position battle in the striker group will be one to watch. When playing in the 3-5-2 lineup, Mukhtar slid up to be the second forward which paid dividends in the form of a 16 goal, 10 assist stat line that is hard to argue with changing.
The investment in Loba suggests he will get a fair run of games to establish himself as the go-to option alongside Mukhtar or Sapong, while Sapong’s success in 2021 could make the case for him to be on top of the pecking order initially.
The addition of Bunbury provides some MLS veteran savvy that should see him also earn some minutes in substitution and pinch starts. It is unclear if his addition pushes Daniel Ríos, whose time in Nashville pre-dates the MLS era, down on the depth chart though.
The midfield might be another place where change a bit in terms of starters.
Davis’ addition and captain qualities make for a strong argument to take some starts away from Dax McCarty, who has worn the armband in Nashville for the last two seasons. Expect to see some rotation between them or perhaps both positioned next to Panamanian international Anibal Godoy in the middle. Randall Leal and Alex Muyl are also likely to get into the mix on the left and right sides as well, especially when Nashville deviates from the 3-5-2.
Defensively, the lineup writes itself. The back three are likely to be Jack Maher, David Romney, and Walker Zimmerman. Daniel Lovitz is the favorite to start on the left and feature as a wing-back, and Eric Miller will be on the right. Defense is Nashville’s best attribute and that entire unit has been with the team since its expansion season, and there is no obvious reason for Smith to think about tinkering with one of only two (Philadelphia Union) defensive units that were in the top three in goals allowed the last two seasons.
In the goalkeeper department, Joe Willis remains the clear no 1 and last year’s backup Bryan Meredith has been the only other keeper to feature so far in the preseason, leaving what looks to be very little room for any surprises there.
The whole equation, plus plenty of depth players deserving of a mention should set Nashville up for success once again.
Nashville’s eight-game road trip begins in Seattle on February 27, and it sees Minnesota United, Real Salt Lake, and Sporting Kansas City as the headliners on the run before opening its own doors in May.
2022 Nashville SC Roster
Goalkeepers: Bryan Meredith, Elliot Panicco, Will Meyer, Joe Willis
Defenders: Josh Bauer, Robert Castellanos, Ahmed Longmire, Daniel Lovitz, Jack Maher, Eric Miller, David Romney, Taylor Washington, Walker Zimmerman
Midfielders: Sean Davis, Irakoze Donasiyano, Anibal Godoy, Luke Haakenson, Randall Leal, Dax McCarty, Hany Mukhtar, Alex Muyl
Forwards: Brian Anunga, Teal Bunbury, Handwalla Bwana, Ake Loba, Daniel Rios, C.J. Sapong, Ethan Zubak