Just like first-time parenting, everything’s an unknown with an expansion team. You’ve waited months, maybe even years, for this. There’s a heady mix of expectations, anticipation and anxiety coursing through your system. Obsession will soon become reality. The countdown in on.
The questions come freely and at all hours of the night. Do we have everything we need? How will our lives change? Will we even like it? Will we be good at it? What will it be like anyway?
We’re less than a week away from the dates this year’s two expansion teams have had circled on the calendar for years. Their lives, between the lines, are about to begin. They’ve planned for this. They’ve arranged all their pieces accordingly. But nobody yet knows how it’s going to go: good, bad or perhaps even ugly.
Dating back to 2015, here’s how Nashville and Miami’s expansion predecessor’s found life in Year No. 1:
- 2019 –FC Cincinnati (6-22-6, 24 pts … Wooden Spoon, conceded an MLS-record 75 goals)
- 2018 –LAFC (16-9-9, 57 pts … 3rd in Western Conference, Lost in KO Round)
- 2017 –Atlanta United (15-9-10, 55 pts … 4th in Eastern Conference, Lost in KO Round)
- 2017 –Minnesota United (10-18-6, 36 pts … 9th in Western Conference, 70 goals allowed)
- 2015 –Orlando City (12-14-8, 44 pts … 7th in the Eastern Conference)
- 2015 –NYCFC (10-17-7, 37 pts … 8th in the Eastern Conference)
That’s what I’d call a healthy mix of good, bad and, most recently, ugly. Which category will Nashville and Inter Miami fall into in 2020? Who will be their closest expansion comparisons be? We’re expecting. Those questions are natural. Let’s set the stage and the expectations.
I’ll just say what everyone already knows: Inter Miami’s expansion season will not be a success unless they make the playoffs. No exceptions. No excuses. Nada.
Inter will be measured through what LAFC and Atlanta United did before them. Not only on results, but also on aesthetics. Such is life when your owners are who they are, you hire a Concacaf Champions League-winning coach, represent the city of Miami and splash the cash to build your first squad. And that spending, by the way, is not done yet.
They may not have a Galactico, but general manager Paul McDonough knows a thing or two about building an expansion squad. He also took his time getting to the group that’ll be available for Diego Alonso on March 1 (5:30 pm ET | ESPN in US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) at LAFC. The foundation is good, if still incomplete.
We know that Luis Robles is a rock at goalkeeper. Nico Figal and Roman Torres are a formidable combo at center back, and there's some depth behind them. Ben Sweat is a starting-caliber left back, and there are three right backs with only enough minutes to keep one truly happy. Wil Trapp will dictate play and Victor Ulloa (eventually a DP No. 8, it seems) will be next to him. That’s a playoff-caliber group.
The talent is there further up the field, but the right mix is a little dicey. Where does Rodolfo Pizarro, supremely talented but inconsistent, play? Is he the No. 10, as his price tag and pedigree suggests? Or is he better wide left to get Lee Nguyen on the field? Will Lewis Morgan translate to MLS? Will Juan Agudelo finally make good on his prodigious talent? Is Matias Pellegrini closer to Miguel Almiron or Jesus Medina? Will a rookie really start up top?
Miami is supposed to be a sexy team, and they may yet be. There’s still one DP spot left, and McDonough says the plan is to fill it now. They may not be that from the jump, since Alonso’s Monterrey teams countered their way to success, then tried to shift towards a more proactive style. Their coach didn’t survive the transition, but he’ll have more time to work in Miami.
No matter which path Alonso chooses, the expectation is that this team will make the playoffs and do so in style.
Now, the opposite side of the spectrum: Nashville don’t need to make the playoffs for their first season to be defined as a success. They just need to be respectable on the field, in the playoff hunt for most or all of the season and not set records for goals allowed. Given the city they’re in, their home games also need to be a fun time. That’s it. Everything else is gravy.
They’re approaching a sellout for their first-ever home match against Atlanta United on Feb. 29 (8 pm ET | FOX in the US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada). That sounds like a fun time. Whether the team Gary Smith puts out there will be “fun” remains to be seen.
This roster wasn’t built to be flashy from day No. 1. It was built to raise the team’s floor, both now and in the future. Nashville aren't going to be 2018 LAFC or 2017 Atlanta United. They still have two Designated Player spots unfilled. They aren’t going to run anyone off the field. There are no $10 million South American internationals here.
More pertinently, Nashville aren't going to be FC Cincinnati 2019 or Minnesota 2017. This group will not set a new record for defensive ineptitude. Their back six is too experienced and talented and Smith too pragmatic a tactician to put up with defensive shenanigans of that magnitude.
No, Nashville SC is a different kind of expansion experiment. They’re doing something no other expansion team of the past five years has done. What if you start with keeping the ball out of the back of the net and hold onto those DP spots until you have a fuller picture of your team’s needs? What if, instead, you break the bank for a Best XI central defender (Walker Zimmerman) and surround him with proven MLS veterans? We’re about to find out how the formula looks in practice.
The goal for Nashville should be to give up fewer than 50 goals this season – only 11 teams did that in 2019 – and score enough at home to keep the good times rolling. The first part will likely be easier than the second one.
Then again, what if one (or dare we dream even two) of Dom Badji, Daniel Rios and Abu Danladi reach double-digit goals? What if Hany Mukhtar is an above-average No. 10 in MLS? What if Randall Leal settles quickly and impacts the game in the final third? What if general manager Mike Jacobs signs a difference-making DP striker, winger or both to elevate the group in the summer?
The answers to those questions will determine where Nashville falls on the spectrum. For now, the expectations are simple: be competent on the field, grow into the season and keep people coming back. If Nashville can do that, they might even end up in the playoffs after all.