Nashville SC celebrate - Oct.
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How Nashville SC became a historically good MLS expansion team and potential playoffs dark horse | Sam Jones

It could be going fine in Nashville and everyone would have been happy. Expectations for this team weren’t that high. But we’ve been gradually moving away from fine and knocking on the door of “hey, this is going, like, really well” since the league restarted in August. 

Nashville have settled into a playoff spot after two straight wins and, especially as they still have a game on hand on the next three teams above them, it seems far more likely that they move up a couple of places then down over their remaining five games. And if you’re one of the higher-seeded teams in the East, Nashville has turned into exactly the kind of upstart team you don’t want any part of in a single-elimination playoff game. They play notably solid defense and don’t freak out or anything but they’ve put up six goals in their last two games. Real “Happy learned how to putt, uh-oh” vibes. 

They got a little help from a couple of deflections last night, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that they deserved the win and that Daniel Rios forced Reto Ziegler to retire from soccer, dye his hair and legally change his name in the hope that no one will ever associate him with this goal ever again.

Even if they don’t end up inducing chaos and a couple of upsets in the playoffs, this is still an expansion team that should be proud of the fact they’re even being talked about as a potential disrupting force. A first-year expansion team of any kind being talked about as a force of any kind is remarkable really. Much less one without the financial resources or big names associated with it that Atlanta, LAFC and Miami have all had at their disposal. Genuinely, can you believe that round one of the 2020 class looks like it's going to go to Nashville over Miami in a unanimous decision?

But it’s not just in comparison to Miami where this team is proving itself to be special in year one. And it starts with a defense that everyone immediately brings up in any discussion of Nashville. Which they should. Because they’re historically good. Through 18 games, 2020 Nashville is the second-best expansion team defensively in the history of the league. 

That’s even with Walker Zimmerman losing my confidence in his ability to make good choices after releasing his personal playlist the other day. But just as soon as I’m out, he pulls me back in. He made an excellent read to cut out a through ball last night that kickstarted Nashville’s first goal. And just like that, I’m back to acknowledging that he could have come into a new team after being let go by LAFC for ... literally no reason honestly and he could have tanked it. Instead, he embraced the role as the club’s foundational piece and has established their identity as a stalwart defensive side that’s put up eight clean sheets so far this season and is giving up a little less than a goal a game. 

Even with an attack that’s struggled, that level of defensive output is going to earn a team points. And compared to other recent expansion teams, Nashville has done a pretty good job of that. 

The simple fact that they aren’t being run off the field every other game can be seen as an accomplishment. Remember some of the results in Minnesota’s first season? Or just Cincinnati’s results? To be fair to Minnesota, they’ve clearly built toward a better product and seem to be improving every year. Meanwhile, Cincy have said they’re still a few transfer windows away from competing. But Nashville have come out of the gate challenging for points and has not only shown a clear path toward improving as a team, they’ve already done it this year. 

The decision to build the team from back to front made a lot of sense for the makeup and infrastructure of the club. But to their full credit, they haven’t just sat on their hands and accepted life in a soccer purgatory where they play 0-0 games each time out. I mean, there have still been a few 0-0 games, but by bringing in players like Alex Muyl and Handwalla Bwana, there’s an effort to bring in supporting attacking players within the club’s means and capabilities as an expansion roster. By bringing in a DP like Jhonder Cadiz, they’ve shown they’re willing to spend to improve their weak spots with potentially game-changing talents. 

They’ll have a chance to improve on their roster this offseason and the path is incredibly clear toward improvement in a way that it’s generally not for other expansion teams. Keep the defensive spine intact, get rid of any expansion-level dead weight in exchange for a little more legitimate attacking talent and this is a good to maybe even very good team next season. 

Of course that’s not to ignore that the guys who have been around the Music City for a while have been as good as anyone could have asked for.

This club has done nearly everything right to set themself up for a playoff spot, a potential dark horse run once they’re in that spot and a triumphant return to a full stadium when we’re allowed to have those again. Next year should be even better and the fact that statement feels like a statement of fact should be taken as high praise.