Nashville SC posted back-to-back playoff runs in its first two Major League Soccer seasons. A third straight playoff appearance won't be as easy.
Coach Gary Smith said after a deflating 1-1 draw with Vancouver Whitecaps FC on July 30, a playoff berth would be Nashville's biggest accomplishment since he became coach in 2018. He doubled down on that recently.
Not because of a lack of goal-scoring forwards or a failure to convert scoring chances or the struggle to protect home-field advantage at its three-month-old stadium. Smith cited a potential root for all of the above.
"The travel that's necessary in that (Western) conference, the eight games away from home, we have no way of really trying to measure what that did in the early stages, although we came out of it in a good position," Smith said.
Indeed, Nashville has posted a 3-3-2 road trip record. Its 1.57 road points per game through seven was the best in MLS history. But it came at a mental and emotional cost.
Nashville (8-9-9, 33 points) is winless in its last six outings, posting a 3-4-5 home record, yet remaining seventh in the West – the final playoff spot. Five of the final eight regular season games are home with the MLS Cup Playoffs just over 50 days away.
Here's what's behind Nashville's struggles and what's needed to fix them:
Early season road trips
Issue: With Eric Miller and Jack Maher sharing half the starter minutes, it was the same 12 battling with long road trips in between.
That stretch included the 1-0 season opener win over Seattle Sounders FC, a 4,000-mile round trip, and Nashville's only comeback win of the season at Sporting Kansas City. Plus two more visits to California, back-to-back poor loses and a gritty win at Columbus Crew.
All of this before spending May opening the latest and largest soccer-specific stadium in the country.
Fix: Health and bench production. Nashville needs a healthy Teal Bunbury (groin), the veteran center forward who recently scored foul goals in four games before suffering a second injury of the season last Friday. Sunday was the return of midfield engine Anibal Godoy (thigh), who missed the last nine games.
Issue: Nashville's expected goals allowed, or xGA, totaling the number of expected goals conceded, is 30.3, according to Football Reference. That's the second least in the West in 2022. But in reality, Nashville's allowed 36 goals.
“And right now we just don't have enough guys that are winning battles and winning duels to put out fires in the back and that's myself included," midfielder Dax McCarty said. "Happened against Toronto.”
Need: Part of the solution, McCarty said, is tactical. But defending better than 17 goals allowed at home, "for the most part is a mindset. It's mentality," he said.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 7, 2022
Nashville's lack of scoring goals
Smith used the word twice after Sunday's 2-1 loss to Minnesota United.
"You maybe have a shot from an angle or an area that really and truly you're forcing the issue too much," Smith said. "That's where we sit right now."
MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar has scored 14 goals. Forwards Randall Leal, CJ Sapong, Alex Muyl and Teal Bunbury have combined for just 12.
Need: "I really believe that once CJ gets a goal, once Randall gets a goal, once Alex gets a goal, I truly believe that that's when the dominoes will start to fall," McCarty said.
For stories about Nashville SC or Soccer in Tennessee, contact Drake Hills at DHills@gannett.com. Follow Drake on Twitter at @LiveLifeDrake. Connect with Drake on Instagram at @drakehillssoccer and on Facebook.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Nashville SC has a tougher road to 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. Here's why