The fact that Nashville SC was in this situation to begin with is something of a marvel in itself.
Heading into their 2020 expansion season, Nashville found themselves in the shadow of a glitzier and flashier first-year club in Inter Miami CF, which had big-name owners promising global superstars and early returns on the field.
As it turned out, it was Nashville that got two Audi MLS Cup Playoff wins and found themselves just one game from hosting an Eastern Conference Final, a goal of which they fell tantalizingly short with Sunday's 2-0 defeat to Columbus Crew SC in an Eastern Conference Semifinal that went all the way to extratime before it was decided.
"It goes without saying I'm bitterly disappointed and very deflated in the way that we've crashed out of the playoffs," Nashville head coach Gary Smith said after Sunday's match. "But I have to say I'm incredibly proud of the way the guys have gone about their business. We've lost a very, very tight game tonight against an exceptionally good Columbus team with many, many different avenues to create and score. And in the end it's taken 120 minutes for them to beat us after a very difficult journey to this point.
"There will be a lot of reflection in the coming days and weeks on what we've been able to put together here, how we have navigated a very difficult season, what we've achieved obviously and how we strengthen. And that will be happening in many, many cases. But on that basis, I'm delighted not only with where we've been able to extend ourselves to in this second round of the playoffs, I'm delighted in the way the guys have conducted themselves. ...I think we've given a very good account of ourselves."
Full highlights: Columbus Crew SC 2, Nashville SC 0
For almost 100 minutes on Sunday, Nashville were right there, keeping Columbus off the scoresheet, and narrowly missing taking the lead themselves twice in the first half on a pair of golden set-piece opportunities.
Captain Dax McCarty described the pair of extratime concessions as simple individual mental lapses at the back — the type of which Nashville had become so proficient at avoiding for much of 2020 — while Smith said his side on the whole didn't generate enough going forward to keep Columbus honest.
"The real difficulty is, good sides like this Columbus group keep pushing, keep asking questions, there's some very, very talented attacking players in this group," Smith said. "And for a long, long time, we've been able to keep them under wraps. But it was always going to be a tough task and we certainly needed to be more of a threat going forward, to maybe just question their confidence as they committed players forward."
There's plenty of reason for optimism for Nashville as they look ahead to 2021. If they can make it this far in their first year, in a season with tons of roadblocks and adversity, what can they do with a full offseason to improve the roster and give their returning players another preseason to train together?
It's hard to think about all that at the moment, McCarty said, but when the dust settles, the veteran captain said that he'll be able to look back on the positives of an odds-defying expansion campaign.
"Right now, the reason I feel so much disappointment and so much frustration at our season ending is because there was a real belief in our group I think after the Toronto game that we could go on and really win MLS Cup," McCarty said. "And you can't say that very often about an expansion team. These moments don't come around too often.
"I think the way that the city of Nashville embraced us throughout our season is something that I'm so proud of and I'm so thankful for a city and a club that really supports its players. This is a foundation that's been set and hopefully we can get better. We need to get better in the offseason, I think the coaching staff and the front office staff know that and we know that as players there will be changes. But we need to keep trying to push this thing to get to the next level because we want to win trophies and we want to win championships and in order to do that you need to keep pushing the envelope, so hopefully we can do that."