Expansion teams and seasons will always be compared to one another, fairly or unfairly. Particularly in this era, with the league adding seven teams since 2017, with more to follow in years to come.
Each one is different and unique, of course, but we like to sort these things.
LAFC and Atlanta United typically get grouped together, as clubs that spent lavishly and made the playoffs immediately. Minnesota United and FC Cincinnati are placed in a different bucket, as clubs that struggled mightily in their first couple of seasons. When Inter Miami and Nashville SC entered MLS in 2020, it was all too easy to assume Miami were going to go the opulent route of LAFC/Atlanta, while most expected Nashville to be more like Minnesota/Cincinnati.
But Nashville showed that view was too basic and lacked nuance. They made their own path. And Austin FC seem to most resemble NSC in the first steps of their MLS existence as the clubs prepare to play each other for the first time on Sunday (9 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).
“Austin have created quite a nice identity already. the way they play, the energy and enthusiasm, plus the technical quality they have in the group, has given them a shape already," Nashville head coach Gary Smith told media on a virtual press conference. "Are players within that shape still trying to work each other out? Sure. We had that last year, it’s not easy. But i think they’ve showed to everyone that they very much mean business."
There are a number of striking similarities.
The clubs went with a domestic-based front office, with Claudio Reyna and Mike Jacobs taking over with plenty of previous MLS experience. Their coaching staffs were long in place, as Smith was Nashville's head coach for two seasons in USL leading to MLS while Josh Wolff was appointed Austin's head coach long before a player was signed. They didn't come in cheap but didn't spend to the levels of LAFC or Atlanta. They built a foundation of key in-league acquisitions (Walker Zimmerman, Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy in Nashville, Alex Ring, Matt Besler and Nick Lima in Austin).
Most importantly, they both were competitive from day one.
“Nashville did a good job coming in last year, being competitive and making the playoffs," Wolff said. "You recognize they built a strong roster, with a good mix of domestic experience and introducing some international experience. They’re a good group.”
The MLS experience helped buoy the club from day one. Ring, Besler and Lima have helped the club navigate an eight-game road trip to start the season, picking up six points in five games so far.
"I have a lot of respect for the leadership in Austin with Claudio and Josh," Jacobs told MLSsoccer.com. "It’s great that they have a domestic staff who have experience in the league, on and off the field. They provide a great foundation for the club. That’s less about comparing our team and more of a commentary as to where I see those guys. Maybe similarly to us, they value experience of players in Major League Soccer."
Nashville improved as the season went on in 2020, which was interrupted after two weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic while their city was rocked by a pair of tornados along the way. Their season wasn't derailed and the historic defensive unit for an expansion team was complimented by an attack that increased its output as the games went on.
"You have an idea of what you want your playing style to look like, then you bring in players who will support that," Wolff said. "Along the way, you keep evolving. That was seen last year with Nashville. They were difficult to play against and along the way, they became better offensively. That’s the growth that can happen but it takes time. We’re aware of that as well. We’ve had a lot of progress in our five games and we’re in need to continue to progress, but that’s part of the deal.”