MLS Footnotes: Does Nashville have time to turn things around?

August 12

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

Editor's Note: MLS Footnotes takes you inside the major talking points around the league and across American soccer.

This week was all about the MLS All-Star game in Minnesota. This weekend, it's all about Minnesota United.

The surging Loons travel to Nashville on Sunday (9 p.m. ET FS1/FOX Deportes/FOX Sports app) with a chance to move up to third in the tightly packed Western Conference. While second-place Austin and runaway Supporters Shield leaders LAFC are well ahead of the pack, just six points separate the next nine teams out West — with only five playoff spots available after the top two. 

Minnesota has been climbing the table steadily despite last week's loss in Colorado. Following a midseason lull that saw Adrian Heath's side drop six of eight, United had gone 5-1-1 before falling to the Rapids in a seven-goal thriller in which they were without three key contributors because of yellow card accumulation: captain Michael Boxall, Finnish national team midfielder Robin Lod and star attacker Emanuel Reynoso.

With Boxall, Lod and Reynoso now rested and available, the Loons will look to get back on track against a team that appears to be heading the opposite direction.

Led by two-time reigning MLS defender of the year Walker Zimmerman and MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar, Nashville has been viewed here and elsewhere as an MLS Cup contender this season. There are serious doubts about that now.

Gary Smith's side is winless in the last five games following last week's loss to Toronto FC — their third home defeat in six games after a 24-match unbeaten run in Tennessee. Nashville lost just two of its first 35 MLS games at home, but most of those came at Nissan Stadium before the club moved into sparkling, custom-built Geodis Park earlier this year. The new arena is among the finest — and largest — soccer-specific venues in the league. Yellow-clad fans have come out in droves, but it's not the fortress the old place was — at least not yet.

"We have to find a way of course to making this arena as difficult to play in," Smith said after his team conceded a season-high four goals to TFC. "It may take a little bit of time."

Time, however, is getting short. Nashville has just nine games left. They're tied on points with the seventh place Portland Timbers, who occupy the West's final playoff spot. The Seattle Sounders, for all the hand-wringing about their chances of keeping their streak of postseason appearances alive, are just one point behind with a game in hand. 

It's going to be a dogfight the rest of the way.


1. Amarilla can't stop scoring …

With five goals and four assists in his past eight outings, Luis Amarilla has been lights-out recently for the Loons. It's exactly the sort of production Minnesota hoped it would get out of the Paraguayan forward when they originally signed him on loan two years ago.

Amarilla got off to a hot start in 2020, scoring three times in his first two games. Then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down MLS for four months, and Amarilla suffered an ankle injury that limited him to just eight appearances the rest of the year.

After spending 2021 with LDU Quito in the Ecuadorian league, Minnesota brought the 26-year-old back as a full-time designated player. Shrewd move.

2. … but the Loons can't stop leaking goals

One thing Heath must sort out if Minnesota is to make noise this fall is his porous backline. Despite scoring seven goals in their previous two games, they won neither of them — the first time in league history that that has happened. 

Getting Boxall back should help, and the club on Thursday added defensive-minded two-way midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez on loan from Monterrey in Mexico. But it's something to keep an eye on in the North Star state. Only three of the 14 clubs currently in playoff position league-wide have allowed more goals this season than the Loons: Cincinnati, Montreal and Portland. 

3. Nashville has issues at both ends, too 

Zimmerman, a projected starter for the United States at the World Cup in Qatar later this year, is hands-down the best center back in MLS. Left back Daniel Lovitz and summer signing Shaq Moore on the right give Smith two of the league's best fullbacks. Yet Nashville have been oddly suspect in their own end all year, shipping 34 goals in just 25 games. That's hardly championship-caliber.

And as good as Mukhtar has been up top, he has also been something of a one-man show. With 13 goals and eight helpers, he has been involved in almost 64% of his side's 33 strikes. It's difficult to win games when you give up more than you score.

4. All-Stars make a statement

The MLS All-Star game continues to be the most competitive exhibition game in American sports. (Which isn't saying much, but still.) Wednesday's midsummer classic at Allianz Field in St. Paul was the latest example, with the home side beating a collection of Liga MX's best for the second consecutive year.

Seattle's Raúl Ruidíaz sealed the victory for the hosts with a second-half spot kick after LAFC star Carlos Vela opened the scoring less than three minutes in.

Will this be the last MLS-Liga MX All-Star game for a while? With the introduction of the expanded Leagues Cup — which will feature every top-flight team on either side of the border competing in a month-long tournament for North American supremacy — next summer, the format probably doesn't make sense going forward. MLS commissioner Don Garber admitted as much Wednesday. 

5. Can anyone stop LAFC?

The league's best team will go for its sixth straight win when LAFC host expansion Charlotte FC in Saturday's nightcap at Banc of California Stadium. LAFC is 5-0 against first-year teams all time. Meantime, the visitors have lost nine of 12 away games during their maiden season.

We know how this should go. Yet results don't always happen the way logic says they ought to in MLS. Who would've picked West doormat Sporting Kansas City to run out to a 4-0 lead over a desperate LA Galaxy team last weekend (SKC held on to win 4-2)? Or how about the East-leading Philadelphia Union losing 3-1 in Cincy on Aug. 6? 

As much as this feels like a potential trap game for LAFC, though, the talent disparity between the sides could be too much to produce an upset. In Gabon striker Denis Bouangato, Steve Cherundolo's side just added another DP to an attacking stable that already features Vela, 11-goal man Cristian Arango and Wales captain Gareth Bale.

Bale, who's still waiting for his first league start after arriving from Real Madrid last month, came off the bench to score the MLS goal of the week at Real Salt Lake.

6. Travel trouble

When USMNT veteran DeAndre Yedlin returned to MLS in February after seven years with Tottenham, Sunderland, Newcastle and Galatasaray, he spoke glowingly about how much the league had grown since he left Seattle in 2015.

But Yedlin and the rest of his Inter Miami teammates were left furious last week at a grueling travel itinerary that sent them from South Florida to San Jose then back east — and up across the Canadian border — to Montreal for three games in a seven-day span.

"It's something that really needs to be looked at," Yedlin told FOX Sports after the 2-2 draw at Stade Saputo. He then headed to the Twin Cities for the All-Star game. "If I'm a foreign player looking to come to the league, it's one of the things that can determine if I come. We had three days between games, and we had to travel across the continent. That doesn't make any sense to me. At least give us a week in between."

Miami coach Phil Neville called his team's travel schedule "inhumane."

"There's no reason we couldn't have played another Western Conference side before taking a second cross-country flight," Neville told FOX. "This is a brilliant league, but there's that feeling that's just how it is in MLS. But for this league to get that little bit better, it has to change. It affects the product."

One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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