Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith needs no reminding of how challenging the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs push will be in 2022.
If the postseason started now, at sixth place in the Western Conference standings, they’d qualify for a third straight year since entering the league in 2020. But with the Music City side sitting just two points above the line, the Englishman recognizes the arduous road ahead (32 points; 8W-7L-8D record).
“There is so much to fight for here,” Smith said after their 1-1 draw with Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Saturday. “We’ve got so many games that we can look forward to, but they’re not going to be easy. Nobody is going to give us points, but we’ve got to make sure we don’t give any to anyone else.
“It’ll be a real challenge in this Western Conference given what we’ve got to deal with to be above that line. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if we’re above the line at the end of this season, it will be the biggest achievement of this group since I’ve been here.”
Home sweet home?
That’s a weighty statement from Smith, whose team reached the postseason via the Eastern Conference the last two years. They switched to the West this season as it became Charlotte FC’s turn as an expansion club, presenting a whole new set of challenges.
The Eastern-most team in their conference, Nashville started 2022 with an eight-game road swing while awaiting GEODIS Park’s May 1 opener. They haven’t quite made their new 30,000-seat home a fortress, however, going 3W-2L-5D after an 87th-minute equalizer from Whitecaps defender Javain Brown canceled out Teal Bunbury’s first-half opener Saturday night.
In Smith’s view, Nashville’s postseason hopes may hinge on seeing out games and pulling away.
“It’s about consistency,” Smith said. “We have produced some really nice moments. We have put ourselves in a good position again. But you’ve got to back that up with a consistent level of performance with and without the ball.
“When it doesn’t reach a standard, you allow the other team to get back into the game and you know full well, there’s no easy game in MLS. So if you don’t take advantage of being in front, advantage of the confidence you should have, the way we started, you allow the other team to get a little bit of a stranglehold.”
Nashville, led by center back Walker Zimmerman and attacker Hany Mukhtar, will face five teams currently above the playoff line during their season’s final 11 matches. Seven of their remaining games are home, too, at the largest soccer-specific stadium in the United States and Canada. But with eight points separating third through 10th place in the West, much can change in the weeks ahead.
The Coyotes’ toughest stretch will come in their last five games, where two tests against Austin FC (Sept. 3, Sept. 17) and a Decision Day matchup at LAFC (Oct. 9) await – two leading Supporters’ Shield candidates. There won’t be any cakewalks, though, as red-hot Portland Timbers (Aug. 3) and Minnesota United FC (Aug. 14) are both on the immediate radar.
It’s crunch time, Smith stressed.
“We’ve got to find that ruthless streak again,” said the MLS Cup 2010-winning manager with the Colorado Rapids. “That’s what being at home is all about. We’ve just slightly shifted away from being that team [where] we’re very, very difficult to play against at home. We’ve got to find that again, that groove.”