It’s just their second MLS season, but Nashville SC have been in this position before.
Hitting the road for an Eastern Conference Semifinal after a big Round One win, Nashville are looking for a better outcome. Last year, they went to Ohio and faced eventual MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew. They reached extra time, but ultimately fell 2-0.
Preparing for the Philadelphia Union on Sunday at Subaru Park (5:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes), No. 3-seeded Nashville haven’t forgotten that feeling from a year ago.
“The biggest takeaway from last year’s playoffs is the feeling of getting knocked out,” goalkeeper Joe Willis told media Friday. “We all remember how that felt, I don’t think we were ready to end our season. We all have a bitter taste in our mouth. We want to right that wrong. We want to keep going and build on last year.”
Nashville and Philly are two remarkably even teams.
They finished level on points in the regular season (54), with the Union’s edge in the total wins tiebreaker (14 vs. 12) giving them a better seed. Both sides are strong defensively and have match-winners in attack. The two regular-season games they played in 2021 finished 1-0, with the home team winning both.
“Philly’s home form is very good,” head coach Gary Smith said of the No. 2 seed. “I mentioned tongue-in-cheek on Tuesday night that any other league in the world, it’d be us playing at home but we do understand the rules. The fact they’re at home will give them an advantage, there’s no two ways about it. They’ve proven, not just this year but the last four to five years, their system, style of play and players they’ve brought through, it makes it extremely difficult to play against.”
Nashville advanced past Orlando City SC on Tuesday night 3-1, behind two strikes from Landon Donovan 2021 MLS MVP finalist Hany Mukhtar. The German-born attacker enjoyed a career year and is in tremendous form before facing Philly. As such, the Union have spoken about how important it is to limit Mukhtar’s influence.
Smith is working to ensure Mukhtar, who posted 16g/12a during the regular season, has free reign.
“Hany is a bright star in our group, amongst some other very good players,” Smith said. “He’s elevated himself to be the point of focus for opposition teams, but very good players are able to still find space to affect the game, to score and create as he’s done despite immense pressure. … We know what Hany can achieve when we give him space and freedom.”
Against Columbus last year, Crew No. 10 Lucas Zelarayan assisted both goals and used his masterful postseason form to raise MLS Cup. With Mukhtar playing like this, anything’s possible for Nashville as the Dec. 11 championship game comes closer.