By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 18, 2023) US Soccer Players – Nashville SC will host the Leagues Cup final on Saturday after beating a gauntlet of clubs to reach one more hurdle. Through the knockout rounds of the Leagues Cup, Nashville took down FC Cincinnati, Major League Soccer’s top team through two-thirds of the regular season, Club America, Mexico’s most popular club and one of the richest teams in the hemisphere, and Monterrey, a financial powerhouse and the pre-tournament favorite.
Nashville coach Gary Smith deserves plenty of credit for guiding his team to this position. His approach provides defensive stability that keeps Nashville in nearly every game it plays. From there, players like reigning MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar, striker Sam Surridge who leads the club with three Leagues Cup goals, and Teal Bunbury, with four Leagues Cup starts, can supply the magic needed to score goals and win games.
Three-quarters of the backline that provides that defensive stability is made up of USMNT players. Nashville also leans on a veteran MLS midfielder with his share of USMNT experience in midfield to augment the back four.
Center back Walker Zimmerman was nearly perfect against Monterrey on Tuesday. The World Cup veteran helped shut down the Rayados’ vaunted front line of Rogelio Funes Mori and Sergio Canales while also contributing to Nashville’s quest for goals of their own.
On the defensive end, the numbers speak for themselves. Zimmerman played the full 90 minutes, won 100% of his tackles, all five aerial duels, made eight clearances, hit four accurate long balls, recovered the ball six times, and made two interceptions. “Dominant” probably doesn’t do it justice.
It was one of those five aerial duels that turned into the winning Nashville goal. Charging from his defensive position to contest for a header on a ball played to midfield by Monterrey goalkeeper Esteban Andrada, Zimmerman fired the ball back up-field and into the path of Mukhtar. Mukhtar then found Surridge, who placed a perfect shot to the far post to beat Andrada and give Nashville the lead.
Without that header, Zimmerman would have still been among the best performers on the field for either team. With it, he became one of the heroes in Nashville’s push to the final.
Zimmerman was key to the buildup to the winning goal against Monterrey. Against Club America a round before, Zimmerman scored to give his side a lead against the Mexican giants in a game resolved by penalty kicks.
Canada international Lukas MacNaughton plays alongside Zimmerman in the center of defense, and has started all but one Leagues Cup game, playing in all of them. On the left and right of the Nashville defense are US internationals Daniel Lovitz and Shaq Moore.
Lovitz is the week-in, week-out start for Smith on the left, a veteran player whose consistent play at his position makes one of the trickiest positions to fill in MLS a strength for Nashville. Throughout the tournament, Lovitz has been a rock on both sides of the ball. Primarily asked to defend, he also delivered accurate crosses from the wing when pushing into the attack. Lovitz stepped up to score the winning penalty in Nashville’s dramatic tiebreaker win over Club America.
Moore plays on the right side of the back line, one of the top tacklers at his position and is also a threat in the attack. The two Nashville fullbacks are tied for second on the club for assists in MLS play this season behind Mukhtar. Moore scored the opening goal in Nashville’s 5-0 quarterfinal rout of Minnesota United in the Leagues Cup, his first goal in MLS.
No player in Nashville’s squad bringing more experience to the table than center midfielder Dax McCarty. A veteran of 460 regular season MLS games, McCarty is a critical part of Smith’s setup and a key leader in a team pushing for its first trophy.
One of the original Nashville signings, McCarty is a central figure in the story of the club reaching its first final. He’s started four of the club’s six Leagues Cup matches and made five appearances in total. Nashville’s captain went the distance against Cincinnati and converted his penalty in the tiebreaker. He played 78 minutes in the Monterrey game, battling in midfield against one of the best teams on the continent.
During the Leagues Cup, McCarty passed the ball at a 91% rate and recovered the ball, provided two assists (against Colorado in the group stage and against Minnesota in the quarterfinal), and made eight recoveries per 90 minutes.
Facing Lionel Messi and a red-hot Inter Miami team will be daunting, but Nashville has already shown why they are a tournament team.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Nashville SC