Nashville SC: The three best players from the inaugural regular-season
After eight wins, eight draws, and seven losses, it's time to recap Nashville SC's first season in Major League Soccer and look ahead to the postseason.
The Boys in Gold exceeded the expectations of fans and members of the media around the world, grinding out some incredible results and living up to their hopes heading into the season: be competitive in every match and show everyone that they are not a pushover expansion team (like FC Cincinnati).
It's no mystery that Nashville has been buoyed by its Designated Players on the roster, but here, in my rankings of the three best players in the squad, you might be surprised by a few of the names included.
Making the jump from the Costa Rican Premier League to MLS is far from easy, yet, the 23-year-old forward Leal has been a breath of fresh air on the offensive end. Manager Gary Smith has place a lot of trust in Leal and he has delivered.
He is tied with Hany Mukhtar for most goal contributions (seven) and has had the difficult task of leading the attack while Mukhtar has been on the sideline. Not much was known of Leal coming into the season, but he has quickly become a fan favorite for the flair he plays with and his dribbling ability.
He leads the team with three Man of the Match honors.
Call me crazy for not including arguably the best goalkeeper in the league in the top three, but you will see why I did in just a moment.
Willis is joint top of the league for clean sheets (9) and allowed the third fewest goals per 90 minutes as well. At 32, this has been Willis' best season of his career and because of him, Nashville enters the postseason in seventh and will host a playoff match.
In nine seasons with DC United and Houston Dynamo, Willis kept just 18 clean sheets. For him to have kept nine this season is nothing short of spectacular.
3. Anibal Godoy
I didn't realize that Nashville SC had signed Casemiro's doppelganger in the midfield! The Panamanian international paired alongside captain Dax McCarty has been a sight to behold as the two have done a great job all season.
Godoy scored one of the best goals of the season against Inter Miami and has been a brick wall in the deep midfield. If you have watched a NSC game this season, you will have likely noticed or heard Godoy loudly communicating and directing his teammates around him.
I like to call Godoy the quarterback of the outfield because of what he does both with and without the ball. The most telling statistic that sums up just how Anibal has been is his passing completion percentage. With a 91.9 percent success rate, he ranks second in MLS only behind Philadelphia's Darlington Nagbe (94.2 percent successful).
Godoy completed 900 of his 979 passes and had the second most passes into the final third (105) on the team only behind his partner McCarty. Nashville struck gold with the MLS veteran and he seems to be hitting his prime at the age of 30.
2. Hany Mukhtar
My worlds will not do the German attacker justice here, but I will try my very best.
Quite simply, without Hany, Nashville SC might not have been able to score any of their set piece goals or create anything from open play, either. The former Bronby standout has been THE guy for coach Smith and his recent form is off the charts.
As I mentioned in my recap of the stunning win over ORlando City SC, Mukhtar came on with 14 minutes to play and single-handedly led the comeback. He has three goals and an assist in his last 59 minutes on the pitch, and now that he is getting back healthy, he will be expected to lead the way in the postseason.
Here's a crazy note for you all: Mukhtar and Leal have not started a match together since September 7th! SEPTEMBER 7th! Imagine having these two playmakers healthy and in the starting XI together again next Friday. The last time they started together was against Inter Miami in a 0-0 draw.
1. Walker Zimmerman
He was named the player of the regular-season by the club, so I am going to follow suit and do the same thing. Where in the world would Nashville be without center back Walker Zimmerman?
Though Dax sports the captain's armband, Zimmerman is not only a vocal leader on the pitch, but he plays with such passion and intensity it rubs off on his teammates. Zimmerman has elevated Dave Romney's game and Joe Willis' as well. Though the comparison is a bit of a stretch, I look at Walker as the Sergio Ramos of this team.
He is more than willing to jump into the attack and help find a goal, he is so strong winning the ball out of the air it blows my mind, and he is always making sure he communicates with his defensive line and midfielders.
He was Nashville's big trade weeks before the season and my goodness did he live up to the billing. He scored the first goal in the club's history and has been so good on defense. He played the second most minutes (1,955) on the team and had three goals! Not a bad mark for a defender!