Playoffs in year one? It’s a feat accomplished only by six other expansion teams in the 25 years of MLS. Several Nashville SC blogs and podcasters had the club as a bubble playoff team, a group in the hunt, but probably one who would be disappointed come Decision Day.
Rightfully so since, as an expansion team, Nashville didn’t have the advantage of forming chemistry by time spent playing together. COVID-19 cases sent the team home from the MLS is Back tournament without playing a match. The club also didn’t have a huge-name DP to push the team forward, but instead brought a total of seven players up from the USL Championship club and only kept two players from the Expansion Draft, choosing to trade players selected for GAM and TAM (Garber bucks) as well as Joe Willis, a 32-year-old goalkeeper who had spent most of his career as a backup.
But Nashville isn’t Atlanta or LAFC, who spent big money and brought in big players. General Manager Mike Jacobs and Head Coach Gary Smith think differently. They searched for hard-working players who could play multiple positions, such as Derrick Jones, who can play a number 6 or 10, and Abu Danladi, who can play up top as a striker or on the wing.
Smith has been pegged as a defensive-minded coach, but he doesn’t exactly park the bus. He instead likes to build his teams from the back, as he did with this squad by anchoring the defense with MLS veteran center backs Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney. This approach typically leads to struggles scoring, as Nashville had this season, but his teams do not allow many goals. In fact, that same Joe Willis, who some saw as a placeholder, had a career best in clean sheets.
Nashville is a small market. The city is used to being overlooked for its sports and chosen by bachelorette parties instead; however, this club has now made the playoffs in each of its three professional seasons. 2018 saw the brand-new USL club make the playoffs and take league leader FC Cincinnati to PK’s. In 2019, the club’s last year before moving up, Nashville was more established as one of the top teams in the conference and won their first playoff match. 2020 sees the Boys in Gold back in the postseason in the top tier of American soccer.
Jacobs said last week that “[m]ost expansion teams in any professional sports franchise are happy to simply be competitive in their first year, so to be able to advance to the MLS Cup Playoffs in our inaugural season is something special that everyone can share.” As someone who has supported this club since 2014 in the NPSL, I can most certainly agree.
Nashville has two more matches against FC Dallas and Orlando City FC before the postseason begins. How they will fair is yet to be seen, but with a defense that leads the league in clean sheets and an offense that is heating up at the right time, Nashville just might shock some people. Whatever happens, this has been an amazing season for the Boys in Gold and a city who will never give up on them. #COYBIG
Follow Ben On Twitter: @NSCGoldenBoy