For Nashville SC, the season’s ride could end Tuesday.
It’s Game 2 of the best-of-three first-round MLS Cup playoff series between host Nashville SC and Orlando City SC (8 pm CT, Apple TV),
Orlando, the second seed in the Eastern Conference, took the first game 1-0 on Oct. 30. Nashville, the seventh seed, must win to extend its season.
Should Nashville win, the series will shift back to Orlando’s Exploria Stadium for the third and deciding game Sunday (4 pm CT, Apple TV).
Here’s what to watch for in Game 2, as well as a score prediction:
First-ever playoff game at Geodis Park
Nashville has won just two of its past 11 matches dating to a 4-0 loss to Atlanta United on Aug. 26, its first game after the Leagues Cup final. The Boys in Gold have four losses and five ties in that span and have been shut out seven times.
But Nashville has played its best soccer at home this season. It is 14-5-6 at Geodis Park across all competitions, compared to a 4-9-7 mark on the road.
Geodis Park, which opened in May 2022, has never hosted a playoff game. But Nashville hosted playoff games at Nissan Stadium in 2020 and 2021 and won both, including a 3-1 victory over Orlando City in 2021. Nashville is 1-3 in road playoff games.
“I just have a great feeling that the atmosphere is going to be one of the best that we’ve played so far,” midfielder Dax McCarty said.
Return of Dax McCarty
Tuesday will be McCarty’s first game since Oct. 14. He missed Nashville’s 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls on Oct. 21 due to yellow card accumulation, and picked up an ankle injury in training the day before Game 1 against Orlando.
Although McCarty was listed as active for the game, Nashville coach Gary Smith opted not to start him or bring him off the bench. Smith described McCarty as “bitterly disappointed,” but said after Game 1 that he didn’t want to risk McCarty aggravating his injury and being out for a longer period of time.
With McCarty at 100 percent, as opposed to the “85 to 90 percent” he was a week ago, Nashville’s midfield is near full strength. The 18-year MLS veteran started 23 games this season, is third on the team in tackles and ranks third among Nashville’s starters with an 85.4 pass completion percentage.
Nashville looks to get Hany Mukhtar going
It’s hard to go anywhere but down after a 23-goal season, and it’s impossible to complain about Hany Mukhtar’s production in 2023. The reigning MLS MVP has done everything for Nashville on offense, and his total of 15 goals ranks far ahead of his next -closest teammate.
Maybe the most important part of that statistic is how much of it came early in the season. Mukhtar is tied for fifth in MLS in goals despite having scored just twice in league play since June 17. Overall, the designated player has found the net just four times in his past 24 games and is on a seven-game goalless streak.
In Game 1 against Orlando, Mukhtar played closer to the midfield at times to help Nashville build possession, a contrast from his normal position up top. McCarty, though, thinks he and his teammates need to find Mukhtar higher up the field, where he has better opportunities to score.
“Hany is such a good player that he can adapt to whatever the game is calling for,” McCarty said. ” . . . When we’re at our best, he’s at his best. He’s close to the goal, he’s getting chances. . . . We need to make sure that we let him do his thing. I don’t think anyone’s concerned about him not scoring as many goals. I think that Hany, when the pressure is highest, we’ve seen that he’s going to step up and he’s going to contribute and he’s going to be the guy.”
NO STRESS: Why Nashville SC is calm going into fourth MLS Cup Playoffs in four seasons
Game 2 score prediction
Nashville 1, Orlando City 0: Boosted by a raucous home crowd and the urgency of having its back against the wall, Nashville finds the net in the first half and goes all-in on protecting the lead in the second, using its stiff defense to send the series back to Florida.
Jacob Shames can be reached by email at [email protected] and on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.