After spending my rookie year on an expansion team — the 2009 Seattle Sounders — I learned very quickly how difficult it can be for an expansion team to make its mark in MLS.
Several things have to go your way, you must have a plan and you also have to build the right way. Our Sounders team did things the right way and we were very successful by qualifying for the playoffs and winning the U.S. Open Cup in our very first year. That foundation is still partly responsible for all the success the organization continues to experience.
With that said, I have to congratulate both Inter Miami and Nashville SC for making the playoffs in their expansion seasons. People can complain about the expanded playoff field and limited schedule and say it was easier than ever to make the playoffs, but the reality is that nothing about 2020 has been easy for any team, let alone one in their expansion year. Although both teams deserve credit for making the playoffs, only one can advance past the Play-In round on Friday (9 pm ET | TV & streaming info), and while I think it’s going to be close, I have a feeling about who will win.
How their inaugural seasons compared
Anything attached to David Beckham is going to get attention and so I wasn’t surprised that most of the offseason was spent talking about Miami — who they’ll sign, who will coach them, where they will play, and how they will play — while very little was said about Nashville. There was more pressure on Miami simply because of all the noise surrounding them, whereas most of us weren’t sure what to make of Nashville even though they ultimately proved to have the better plan out of the gate.
Firstly, Nashville got the right coach in Gary Smith. He’s not necessarily the flashy brand name with a renowned philosophy, but he has MLS experience — championship-winning experience at that — and even though the league has changed, he understood that the regular season is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Smith got his team to focus on being defensively sound first and foremost, and then he slowly fine-tuned their attack which got better as the season wore on. This is the right way to build because any time you can play to zero at the back, you are guaranteed to get points. The signing of center back Walker Zimmerman was also huge as he went on to be named MLS Defender of the Year while anchoring the third-best defense in the league.
Inter Miami on the other hand, struggled out of the gates as they failed to play with any real identity and were caught between what they should be — a hard to beat, defense-first team (kind of like Nashville) — and what we all imagined they would be: a free-flowing, attacking team with big stars and lots of entertainment.
The result was a team that conceded goals far too easily and didn’t record a clean sheet until their eighth game of the season. Eventually, they did steady the ship, which was largely down to their manager, Diego Alonso.
Highlights: Last time Miami-Nashville faced off
He always struck the right notes in his press availabilities as he kept aiming high and speaking optimistically, while admitting that they needed to get better. He was able to be both realistic about where they were, but also clear about how they would turn things around. In the end, a dramatic turnaround never arrived, instead it was a series of small things that led them to climb up into a playoff spot.
Defensively they stopped leaking goals so easily, Gonzalo Higuain arrived and brought instant quality, if not goals, to the attack and once they smelled the playoff line, they dug deep and willed themselves over it.
Nashville had the better season and they are the better team right now, but both of these expansion sides should be pleased with their debut efforts.
What will happen Friday
On Friday night I expect to see a very close game decided by one or two goals at most and that’s why Nashville will win.
They simply don’t concede many goals, especially at home, and although scoring goals was a struggle earlier in the year, they’ve now scored in seven of their last eight games while Miami have only one clean sheet in their past 14 games.
Watch: Alonso pregame presser
All signs point to a 1-0 Nashville win, but these are the MLS Playoffs and anything can happen, especially with the kind of offensive quality that Miami possess. Rodolfo Pizarro, Lewis Morgan and, of course, Higuain have the quality to win this game for Alonso’s men. I
I love what Higuain does — the little clever touches and layoffs, the movement, the first touch and the passion — but ultimately he’s here to score goals and having a breakout game in the playoffs would be fitting of a player with his resume. He’s more than capable of ruining Nashville’s night, but my money is on Zimmerman to come out on top in this particular battle.
Who's better placed for 2021
Although Nashville are the better team right now, I would rather be Miami going into 2021 for a couple of reasons.
While I believe that Nashville are playing very close to their ceiling — excellent defensively and getting as much as they can out of a decent, but far from spectacular attacking group — Miami haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what they can do. With a full preseason and more time to build chemistry, the Pizarro-Higuain partnership will only improve, and it has already shown signs of being special.
Miami are more likely to aggressively recruit established players for the key areas they need to improve and I also think Alonso will continue to get the hang of MLS and better position his team to play an entire season at a similar level to how they finished this past one with four wins in their last eight games.
Nashville will remain solid — they won’t score a ton, but they also won’t concede too many — but Miami can become the exciting team we expected them to be, a team that thinks attack first and wants to win 3-2 and 4-3 and entertain their fans and neutrals alike. That’s where I see them headed and it’s why I think they will be the better team in 2021, even though Nashville will be the better team on Friday.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.