Following up a disappointing collapse last week against the New York Red Bulls, the focus of the Chicago Fire shifts to what promises to be a very difficult matchup this Saturday on the road in Nashville. Playing in their beautiful brand-new soccer-specific stadium (the largest in North America), Nashville have quietly been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference this season, and the Fire are yet to defeat them in their three previous meetings. For this week’s Opposition Report, we spoke with Noah Maddox to look at the game from the opponents’ perspective.
It’s been almost two years since the Fire and Nashville last met, a 0-0 draw at Soldier Field in late 2021. How has Nashville changed over the last year?
Nashville has changed a lot since that matchup, and I think a lot of it has been for the better. Just by looking at the lineup that was put out that day, there are going to be at least four different starters due to transfers out. Bringing in Shaq Moore, Jacob Shaffelburg, Teal Bunbury, and Fafa Picault while letting C.J. Sapong, Jhonder Cadiz, Alistair Johnston, and long-time club staple Dave Romney go are the most notable changes, but it’s the quality and style of play that has grown since 2021 that really is most notable. Yes, they still play compact defensively, but the increased threat in attack is the biggest change. Those four additions, combined with Hany Mukhtar’s surge as the best player in MLS over the last year or so, combine to form a very dangerous side in 2023.
Nashville is in 4th place in the Eastern Conference. How have they looked in general this season?
For the most part, it has been pretty promising. Outside of a 2-0 loss at Yankee Stadium against NYCFC, most games have been pretty competitive and tightly contested until the big win against Atlanta at home this past weekend. The defense is very good once again, but I think the biggest thing has been the resurgence of Joe Willis at the start of this season. He has been absolutely incredible for the most part, and he has really solidified an already solid back four. Going forward, Hany is still amazing, and thanks to him, the counterattack is very dangerous, but this team is still missing a bonafide number nine, which will most likely be addressed in the upcoming summer transfer window. This team has had to deal with a couple of injuries in the midfield but has managed to patch results together anyways.
Fresh off of the demolition of Atlanta at home, Nashville have only lost once in their last six. How will they likely approach the game against the Fire?
With the game being at home at Geodis Park, I expect Gary Smith to play pretty aggressively, relatively speaking. I would expect to see most of the same lineup from last week except for one or two changes in attack to the starting eleven, but overall I’m excited for a pretty fun game from a very confident side playing at home.
In addition to reigning MVP Hany Mukhtar, which players from Nashville SC should Fire fans keep a particularly close eye on?
Jacob Shaffelburg, assuming he gets the start, and Jack Maher. Everyone knows how good Walker Zimmerman is at center back, but his young partner Jack Maher is blossoming this season after becoming the full-time starter with the departure of Dave Romney and seems to have an awesome relationship and chemistry with Zimmerman at the back. Shaffelburg is probably the fastest player on the team, and he has been a revelation since coming over from Toronto in the middle of last season. His pace has been a welcome sight, and he and Hany Mukhtar complement each other very well. Shaffelburg scored the third goal against Atlanta last weekend, and it was really a perfect encapsulation of the benefits he provides when he is on the pitch with Mukhtar.