Ahead of their expansion season, external expectations for Nashville SC were low to mediocre. Without the high-end attacking budget of previous additions to the league like LAFC or Atlanta United, Nashville were touted to struggle. And in fairness, they did struggle, with their 23 goals scored tied for the third-lowest total in the league.
Nashville were always set to be strong defensively. In addition to hiring Gary Smith to coach the team, general manager Mike Jacobs spent a league-record $1.25 million on Walker Zimmerman, as well as bringing in Dave Romney and Jalil Anibaba, and using the second-overall SuperDraft pick on center-back Jack Maher.
It played out about how you could expect. In the regular season, Nashville were elite defensively. They allowed just 22 goals in 23 games, the third-best defensive record in the league. On top of that, they conceded the fewest goals by an expansion team in their first 23 matches in MLS.
Only four expansion sides have bettered their total of 32 points from their first 23 matches in the league.
Before the season began, I wrote about five benchmarks that would define a successful inaugural season. With the regular season finished, I think it’s worth taking a look back at those benchmarks to evaluate where this Nashville team stands.
1. Be competitive in every match
This was a publicly stated goal for the club, and while it may seem to be the minimum expectation, expansion sides tend to get embarrassed at least a couple times.
FC Cincinnati were beaten by scorelines of 7-1, 5-1 (twice), 5-2 and 4-1 (three times) in their first year.
Minnesota United lost 6-1, 5-1, 5-2 and 4-0 in their first season.
Even LAFC, who were one of the most successful expansion sides in league history, had a couple bad results, losing 5-0 and 5-1 in their first year.
Nashville SC haven’t been beaten by more than two goals.
Their largest defeats were a 2-0 loss in Atlanta and a 3-1 loss in Orlando. They have yet to concede more than three goals, and they’ve done that just once.
I think you’d be hard pressed to make an argument that they’ve been truly played off the field in any match this season. There have been stretches of matches where they’ve been dominated, like the second half against Orlando City in their 3-1 loss or their 1-1 draw in New England. But by and large, they haven’t looked out of place in any match they’ve played.
2. Be miserable to break down
Here’s what I wrote back in February:
“Nashville’s defense should be solid. On paper, their backline is possibly the best defense an expansion side has had from day one, and with McCarty, Godoy and Jones ahead of the defense, their core is strong… A goal for this side should be to finish the season as a Top 10 defense. That will inevitably make this team competitive.“
Nashville absolutely lived up to that. On top of being the best defense in expansion history, they had the third-best defense in the league. They also allowed the sixth-fewest expected goals against per match and the tenth-fewest shots against per match. They’ve absolutely been miserable to break down, and that’s been the foundation for their run to the playoffs.
3. Stay relevant
Again, from February:
“If Nashville go into Decision Day with a chance to make the postseason, that’s a win in my book.”
Nashville did more than just stay relevant. They clinched a playoff berth with three matches left to play.
Even with 2020’s expanded playoff field, Nashville’s seventh-place finish would have been good enough for a playoff spot pre-Covid. Their 1.39 points per game would have seen them finish in seventh place in the 2019 Eastern Conference, and miss the playoffs in the West by less than a point.
4. Develop a consistent attack
This was the big question mark before the season began, and it remained a question throughout.
Nashville especially struggled to both create and finish chances at times throughout the season. Dom Badji got the bulk of minutes at the forward position to start the year, but only managed a single goal. Things improved when Daniel Ríos got a run, and the USL standout managed to score four goals.
DPs Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal each managed to combine for seven total goals, and new signing Jhonder Cádiz scored twice in under 300 minutes to round out the season.
Injuries to Hany Mukhtar and David Accam certainly took their toll, but other than Randall Leal, no single player really stepped up to fill the creative void.
Nashville rounded out the season in better attacking form, scoring 13 goals in their final eight regular season matches. Improvement is great, and it bodes well for 2021, but on the whole the attacking performance has been disappointing, if not surprising.
5. Build momentum
This is a tricky one. Back at the start of the year, with nearly 60,000 fans at Nashville’s MLS debut, it looked like the club was in prime position to build momentum and carve out a place for them in a competitive southeastern sports market.
Then Covid-19 took its toll on Nashville and the rest of the world. Without the ability to allow fans to attend matches for most of the season, it’s hard to accurately gauge fan interest in the team.
The club has gone to great lengths and spent a sizeable amount of money to allow fans to stream games at home through platforms like YouTube TV and Hulu Live, as well as the club’s own website. That’s not a replacement for fans in stadiums, though.
2020 has not been the introduction to the Nashville market that the club would have hoped for, and with the way the virus is trending in the United States as we head into winter, 2021 probably won’t be either, at least not until late in the year.
2022 will be a pivotal year for Nashville SC. With Covid-19 hopefully contained, and a new 35,000 seat stadium opening, their third year in existence will likely look more like a typical expansion year, and will be crucial for their standing in the Nashville sports hierarchy.
Verdict: to be determined
On the whole, Nashville SC have exceeded expectations in their first year, and with the playoffs still to come, it may get better still. After their regular season campaign, though, a successful expansion season is in the books. Anything from here on out is an extra chance to build success in Major League Soccer.