Though arguably the two biggest MLS darlings of 2020 failed to survive tense Conference Semifinal tests Sunday, there are plenty of reasons to believe Nashville SC and Orlando City SC will remain key players in the East moving forward.
For the Music City bunch, this year was about overcoming an extended pause to finish strong and exceed expectations. For the Lions, it was about finally finding solidity, consistency and the path to the postseason after five years of frustration. For each, it was often thrilling, right down to the bitter playoff end. Some teams make similar shock leaps, but for some reason or another can't sustain the momentum across the offseason.
However, I'd not count on any such flash-in-the-pan behavior from these two clubs. Both have plenty of the ingredients necessary to stay viable contenders to reach MLS Cup out of the East next season, at the least. As they have perhaps a little more roster patchwork to do in the offseason, let's begin with the new kids. Of course, it all starts with defense for Nashville SC, who should return all the main cogs in their rotations.
Everyone is cast well and plays their part at the back. Walker Zimmerman is the star marshal, Dave Romney is his dependable deputy. Seasoned pro Daniel Lovitz is on the left and exciting youngster Alistair Johnston is on the right. Netminder Joe Willis is coming off his finest MLS season, and Gary Smith has a couple of reliable depth options. They were one of the best defenses in the league for good reason, and should remain to be.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the expansion team were also the picture of solidity in central park. Dax McCarty is the ring leader of a midfield crew that is hard to play against. Anibal Godoy is the muscle. Hany Mukhtar grew in impact down the stretch, so it will be interesting to see how much he can lift production in 2021. Younger guys like Tah Brian Anunga and Derrick Jones look promising, so Nashville look set for the foreseeable future on three lines.
Relatively speaking, the Nashville attack is more of a question mark. Even so, there were real final third signs of life once Smith was able to get all three Designated Players (Mukhtar, Randall Leal and Jhonder Cadiz) on the field together down the back stretch. Incorporate late season pick-up Handwalla Bwana and maybe find a suitable understudy for Mukhtar, and this team will have everything they need to top their enviable debut campaign.
Extratime: What's next for Nashville SC and Orlando City SC
If Nashville's future looks bright, Orlando City's is positively blinding. Oscar Pareja took a team tired of always sitting out the postseason and turned them into one that should fully be expected to compete for trophies in the coming years. This club has tasted success, and there should be no going back.
The Lions now know how to engineer play that allows them to tilt matches from the wide lanes. Fiery talisman Nani may be getting to the point where minutes need to be economized, but he still wreaks havoc on opposing defenses. Opposite winger Chris Mueller, however, is just getting started. They also have the all-star caliber support from wingbacks Joao Moutinho and Ruan that was missing in their tough playoff loss to New England. Add in handy back-ups Benji Michel and Kyle Smith, and you have a flank stable that few MLS clubs can match.
And yet, as good as the Lions are out wide, it's their spine that really holds the team up. Pedro Gallese comes up big in goal. Now that they took up the buy option on Antonio Carlos, bad cop Robin Jansson has the perfect partner. With Mauricio Pereyra quickly re-signed, and the purchase option on Andres Perea also exercised, the midfield is very deep and versatile. Daryl Dike is a 20-year-old goal monster that works defenders to the bone, which is one of the best things a squad can have.
This team is so good, so unified and so full of heart, clinching at least one playoff home game should be the bare minimum requirement to their 2021 regular season. It's a team that runs on emotion, and they also learned a valuable lesson about measuring their intensity in this year's postseason. If they handle roster business, Orlando City should basically boast the same bruising side, only they'll be wiser. It's not a fun thought for teams in the East, to put it mildly.
Nashville SC and Orlando City have also sharpened the intangibles that turn teams from competitive to genuine conference title threats. Both teams have forged an identity, seasoned it through playoff highs and lows, making them capable of being forces to reckon with in 2021 and beyond.