Hany Mukhtar – CJ Sapong – Nashville SC

Nashville SC are familiar with being outside of the limelight. Relatively speaking, at the very least. And they don’t mind it all that much.

The 2020 expansion club entered MLS alongside David Beckham’s Inter Miami CF, a club that made grandiose promises and expectations of star power flowing from the owner’s suite down to the playing field. Nashville made no such promises, with their motto being to underpromise and overdeliver.

Nashville’s first MLS acquisition (Daniel Rios) wasn’t a big-name star or a multi-million transfer from South America. Their early MLS rivals, like Atlanta United, were more used to attention thanks to stars and opulent transfer fees. The first matches of Nashville’s expansion campaign were neither high-flying nor disastrous. Just a ho-hum, defensively solid, competitive expansion team looking to stay around the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line. That doesn’t make for a strong headline.

At some point during that debut season, around the COVID-19 pandemic as well as two tornadoes, Nashville’s trajectory pointed up from “ho-hum” to “legit playoff team” with little detection outside of Music City. Their historic defensive record for an expansion team led the way, while the attack came to life. They went out and demolished Miami in the Play-In Round for the playoffs, upset Toronto FC on the road in Round One and took eventual MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew to extra time.

This year, they kept ascending. Nashville finished third in the Eastern Conference standings, earning a home playoff match against Orlando City SC on Tuesday evening (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes). Nashville are one of 18 expansion clubs in MLS history. They are only one of five to make the playoffs in each of their first two seasons (Chicago Fire FC 1998-99, Seattle Sounders 2009-10, Atlanta 2017-18, LAFC 2018-19).

"That was our hope and aspiration"

For a team operating often out of the national eye, one without a lavish budget, could things have realistically gone much better in their first two seasons?

​​“I honestly don’t think so,” head coach Gary Smith told MLSsoccer.com. “I mean, you want to have a clear picture in your mind of where you want to go, a perfect world with blue skies. I think we’re close to that, some puffy clouds in it, but pretty clear and pretty blue.”

General manager Mike Jacobs struck a similar tune.

“Our aspirations are to be a team like Seattle or Kansas City or Portland or Red Bulls or now Philly that, every year, we’re in contention for a playoff spot,” Jacobs said. “That’s our aspiration. For us to have gone two years in a row, that was our hope and aspiration. You’d probably have to have your head examined if I was telling people in preseason last year that we will be in the playoffs our first two years.”

Things could always technically be better – these are insatiable coaches and front-office executives, after all. Coachspeak dictates that work is always ongoing, things can always be improved, with the focus onward and upwards. But for realistic expectations? Pretty damn close, with the potential for even more as they prepare for the playoffs.

“I couldn’t be more excited for the future at this point,” Smith said. “I’m really looking forward to the playoffs.”

Nashville carry several ingredients a club would desire ahead of a playoff journey. Let’s break out the ol’ bullet points.

  • Nashville are defensively strong, tied for the fewest goals conceded (33) in MLS this year. Digging deeper, per Second Spectrum, Nashville had the best expected goals against (xGA) both in defensive transition (10.92 xGA, two goals better than second-best Philadelphia) and in defensive organization (17.75 xGA). Simply put: They are very hard to play against.
  • Nashville are unbeaten at home (though nine of their 17 games ended in draws) and they host a Round One game. They were strong on the road as well, losing just four of their 17 road matches while posting 0.88 goals against, the fourth-best mark away from home in league history (!).
  • Nashville have quality veteran experience in key positions (Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy in central midfield, Walker Zimmerman in central defense and more) as well as a bonafide MVP candidate (Hany Mukhtar).
  • Nashville also have a manager whose style lends well to these kinds of scenarios, one who has won MLS Cup before, with Colorado in 2010.

“Gary is someone I’d describe as a cup-manager,” Jacobs said. “The way he organizes his team, and the way he prepares, he’s so hard to coach against. His teams usually don’t make mistakes. To be pragmatic in one-off games, that’s why teams he coaches are well equipped to do well in a knockout competition.”

"Flying in a blind spot"

The playoffs can be a cruel beast. In the small, unforgiving one-game sample size, there's only so much each club can control. It's a lesson Jacobs reluctantly learned as a young assistant coach at Duke University. Preparing for the ACC Tournament, then-head coach John Rennie told Jacobs there was an element of luck involved for every trophy-winning team. He didn't like the idea of relying on luck or even admitting its existence in soccer.

“I was super upset when he said you need luck,” Jacobs recalled. “I said we’re a good team, we don’t need luck. But he told me, 'You don’t get it. Everyone needs some luck.' … So having a first-round home game is fortunate, but we’re playing a strong team that we have a lot of respect for.”

That’s why Jacobs and Smith are focused on sustainability, that’s why the goals are to be competitive and challenge for the playoffs year in, year out. Nothing is guaranteed in November and things are unpredictable. All a club can do is try to tilt the probabilities in their favor and earn as many chances at the playoffs as they can.

Orlando, as Jacobs alluded to, will be a very difficult opponent. All three games between the two teams this season ended in draws.

“One-off games are very different than the consistency of the season,” Smith said. “Yes, we have the ingredients [for playoff success], but there is a reliance on the individuals to have a good performance. In a one-off game, there are things that can go wrong. The referee’s choices, there are mistakes in every game and let’s not forget Orlando have match-winners in the team.”

Irrespective of what happens against Orlando (and potentially beyond), in their first two MLS seasons, Nashville hit those goals of being competitive and making the playoffs. Last year they won a couple of playoff games. This year comes with higher expectations given the increased regular-season success.

And they aim to be right back here in year No. 3. Whether we’re paying attention or not.

“I think it’s amazing that there’s not more attention given to our players and coaches because it’s so unique what’s happening,” Jacobs said. “But a large part of me kind of likes flying in a blind spot. It allows us to do what we’re doing in the shadows."