Expansion has made for some odd couples over the years.
Minnesota United FC and Atlanta United shared an entry point but little else in their dramatically different starts to MLS life. Orlando City SC and New York City FC presented two distinct sets of styles, stars and philosophies. Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps FC brought the Cascadia Cup and its rich supporter culture into the spotlight.
Last year it was Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC who got partnered up, clubs with contrasting contexts who nonetheless had to endure constant comparisons. Miami were the glamorous ones, flush with cash and celebrity and ambition, while Nashville elected for a slower burn that benefited from the roots laid over two years in the USL Championship.
“There's always going to be those comparisons because we came into the league at the same time,” acknowledged Nashville head coach Gary Smith ahead of their Sunday meeting at Nissan Stadium (1 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes). “And I would suspect that even though they're not our closest rivals, there's always going to be a bit of an edge to the game because of that. As far as how both organizations went about their business, it was very, very different.
“We needed a foundation, which I felt we achieved in our first year, and it's given us a nice platform to try and push on from.”
Just how different? The 2020 standings tell most of the story. Buttressed by one of the league’s toughest defenses, Nashville soared eight points ahead of the expensive yet erratic Herons in the regular season, including taking four points out of six from their head-to-head meetings. Then they drove it home with a flourish in the Play-In Round of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, a 3-0 thumping in Music City that brutally exposed Miami’s flaws.
If Miami thought that nearly missing the postseason was the worst possible outcome in their inaugural campaign, getting humbled in such fashion by their supposedly less-sexy expansion counterparts may have beat it.
It certainly was sweet vindication for NSC, too.
“It was definitely a good thing last year, kind of being projected worse than them and finishing better,” said center back Dave Romney, who grinned and agreed that the louder hype around Miami “definitely” made that playoff rout more satisfying.
The result sealed the overall dissatisfaction among Miami’s leadership, and significant offseason changes followed. Most prominent was the dismissal of head coach Diego Alonso and the arrival of Phil Neville, who’s set about the same sort of methodical construction that Smith and his colleagues pulled off in Tennessee.
“There's a tremendous amount of attacking ability in the group. It would seem that Phil Neville has got the group far more organized, and is starting to put his own fingerprints on that team,” noted Smith. “To what I've seen, it hasn't affected their ability to score goals or create, but I believe there is a far more disciplined and determined edge to that group than maybe we saw last year.”
“The biggest thing about the Philadelphia game was the belief that they had probably in me, and the style of play, and our training,” Neville said. “That was what I felt, as if the team, because it takes time, believed in what we're trying to do, believed in the tactics, believed in what the philosophy was.
“And that's why I think the win was more important, it was more important than the three points because it gives everybody in the whole club belief that what we're doing is right, because we feel as if we're doing really good work.”
That victory ensured Miami enter Sunday ahead in the Eastern Conference table, with Smith’s side conceding early goals that forced them to claw back for 2-2 home draws in both of their first two matches. Neville, however, extended the tone of mutual respect with his praise for the Boys in Gold, whose front line looks markedly more dangerous than in year one.
“[Nashville] I think has been unlucky,” said the former England international. “Probably should have had six points from the first two games, the amount of chances, the amount of opportunities that they create and the pressure that they put on the opposition – outstanding team with a brilliant manager.”
“We've got a really, really good squad with two players for every position with real quality, and I'm like, now's our opportunity to show this quality,” declared Neville, who has implemented a proactive 4-3-3 approach. “You've got players that are now champing at the bit to play, to be given the opportunity, and the style of play will be non-negotiable.”
Though it’s still early days in 2021, the clubs’ intertwined history makes them useful measuring sticks at this juncture. The paucity of pregame trash talk reinforces a keen desire on both sides to lay down a marker as they seek progress on their respective journeys.
“It's up to us as a team to decide what we're all about and I think everyone involved in the club has shown we’re a big family and we've got a great network of fans, fantastic owners and whatever everyone else thinks is irrelevant,” said center back Ryan Shawcross, one of Miami’s most prominent winter reinforcements. “It's what we do on the pitch and how successful we are and how successful we are off the pitch. And everything I've seen so far has been very impressive.”