This year seems to constantly be in flux, but at least one thing has remained the same: Atlanta United (re)starting its regular season against Nashville SC, and Ben Wright from Speedway Soccer giving us an in-depth look at our Southern rivals.
Q: The club has just one Designated Player, Hany Mukhtar. How has he performed so far? Is he worthy of the DP tag? Also, would you expect the club to use the one remaining spot, and if so, how?
A: Nashville actually has two DPs on the roster. Randall Leal was on the fence between a TAM/Young DP slot, and it’s since been confirmed that he’s a DP. As far as Mukhtar, I think he’s shown flashes of potential in each of the four games they’ve played, but hasn’t quite lived up to billing yet. I don’t think it’s time to panic by any means, and he’s really just four games into his time in Nashville. That said, he’s such a big part of Gary Smith’s offense that they need to get more consistent production from him if they want to create and score goals.
I think a DP striker has to happen at some point. They’re definitely interested in a couple players (Maxi Romero, Ake Loba, etc), and aren’t afraid to spend, but are doing their due diligence to make sure they spend on the right player. They also think Daniel Ríos has potential in MLS and want to give him a shot. Still, I think a DP 9 is inevitable at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later.
I wouldn’t be shocked if they buy Leal down in the winter and look for more help on the right wing then, but we’ll see.
Q: Four games into its first ever MLS season, Nashville has four points. That takes it to 11th out of 14, and only two points behind the playoff line with a game in hand. What’s the current state of expectations for the remainder of the season in Music City? Can this team reach into the upper echelons of the standings, or is 11th as good as it’s going to get?
A: I think publicly, the club has tried to keep expectations realistic, but after a pretty strong start to their season, playoffs have to be a goal. They were arguably the better team against Portland and Atlanta, then they went to Dallas (who don’t really lose at home), where they won the first match and outplayed them in the second. If they can figure out how to score consistently, I don’t think making the playoffs is unrealistic.
Q: Nashville has scored and conceded a meager five goals in four games. From that snapshot, it would seem as though defense is a strong suit, while the attack is a bit less effective. Is that the case, or is there a deeper storyline? What type of a game should Atlanta expect to face come Saturday?
A: Defense is absolutely the strong suit of this team. It was always going to be, but signing Walker Zimmerman took that to the next level. As far as their attack, they’ve actually created a decent amount of chances and have struggled to convert. I think Ríos is the best finisher on the roster and hope he gets more looks, but he looked really isolated in his start against Dallas. Dom Badji is a great defensive option as a striker, but he hasn’t shown he can consistently finish chances in this league.
Against Atlanta, I would expect Nashville to play strong defense out of a midblock, with some pretty intentional pressing from the front four. Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy are excellent at breaking up play in midfield and getting the ball to feet quickly, so I think we’ll see them at times invite pressure and look to counter. That being said, they’re also not afraid to use the ball, and as they play more games we’re seeing them utilize possession more efficiently. If they can get Mukhtar centrally and linking up with Leal and maybe Ríos, look for them to try and consistently create. After two strong performances against Dallas, it seems like they’re confident in their identity and probably feel like they’re catching Atlanta at a good time.