Nashville SC couldn't insulate themselves completely from the external noise or narratives beginning to form about their club as they prepared for their inaugural expansion season.
Despite recent successes of LAFC and Atlanta United, it is notoriously difficult to succeed immediately in MLS as an expansion side. Minnesota United and FC Cincinnati were conceding goals at historic rates and finishing far below the playoff line.
With a domestic-based core and only Hany Mukhtar to point to as a big Designated Player, while Inter Miami promised and ultimately delivered on adding global stars to their inaugural roster, the narrative was formed: Nashville would be another Cincinnati/Minnesota, Miami would follow LAFC/Atlanta.
It's not quite how 2020 turned out.
Led by that defensive core, Nashville officially clinched playoff qualification on Wednesday night, becoming just the sixth expansion side to do so. Miami could become the seventh later.
Nashville didn't mind proving a few people wrong.
“When you can prove people wrong, it puts a smile on your face," head coach Gary Smith told media on a virtual press conference. "I’m not sure you even need to remind people, you just need to have a wry grin at the comments made early on.”
"My father has an interesting saying about opinions," club captain Dax McCarty said with a chuckle. "I don’t think it’s quite appropriate.”
Nashville SC and captain Dax McCarty (above) thwarted many preseason projections by qualifying for the playoffs in their expansion season. | USA Today Sports
Our season preview at MLSsoccer.com was one of the chief culprits. Of the seven experts, none picked Nashville to make the playoffs. Five picked them to finish bottom of the Western Conference (before the COVID-19 pandemic moved them East). FiveThirtyEight gave Nashville just a 17% chance to make the playoffs in February, third-worst in MLS. Three of NBC Sports' four experts picked Nashville to finish last in the West, while the other opted for second-last. None of The Guardian's five experts picked Nashville to make the playoffs.
ESPN's team of eight experts were split 4-4 on who would finish higher between Nashville and Miami, which is about as high praise they got from a national perspective entering the season.
“I think the expansion thing played against us a little bit in what people expected of us, that’s fair," McCarty said. "Other expansion teams who haven’t been as flashy have fared significantly worse in the pass so I understand it, but it just makes you laugh. Internally, you have to have this self-belief that you want to prove people wrong. You want to prove to people that, quite frankly, they have no idea what they’re talking about in terms of how successful a team can or can’t be.”
Nashville currently sit sixth in the Eastern Conference on points per game, which will determine seedings this year, with three games remaining. They have just one loss in their last nine and have won three of four as they continue to charge up the table.
“Our best has been better than almost anyone expected," CEO Ian Ayre said.
While proud of the season so far, qualification isn't the end goal for Nashville.
“I’m pleasantly surprised with what we’ve achieved this season, but no one is getting carried away," Ayre said. "We all know we have a lot of work to do the remainder of this season and 2021 and beyond.”
In the one-game rounds that is the playoffs, anything can happen.
“I want us to fight for more, we have more to give than to just make the playoffs," McCarty said.