It’s the day after the Major League Soccer All Star game. The 21 matches Nashville SC has already played make up 62% of their 2021 regular season schedule, so it’s not quite the midway point of the season. But it’s close enough that this week is a favorite for midseason reviews and reflections.
In Nashville’s case especially, I think there’s a lot of value to reflection based in perspective. That’s what I’ll try to do here, with five key takeaways I have from this season.
Nashville are elite at home
Nashville finished their expansion season playing an exciting and open style of play. From mid-October 2020 through the end of the season, they were third in MLS with 12 goals scored and first in MLS with 14 points from seven matches.
Nashville has kept up that form in 2021. Only New England have performed better than them at home. The stats are incredible.
They’ve taken 27 points from 13 games, scored a league-leading 28 goals, and created a league-leading 24.51 expected goals. They’ve taken an extraordinary 218 shots and allowed just 120 shots. Their goal difference at home is 15, and their xG difference is 13.30.
The stats back up what we’ve seen on the field. At Nissan Stadium, this team is fun to watch. The club and the Backline have created a fantastic gameday environment, the atmosphere is incredible, and the play on the field is entertaining.
Sure, there have been frustrating draws. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that Nashville are unbeaten at home, score goals, and are fun to watch. For a side that was called “defensive” all last year, that’s a big deal.
Winning on the road is hard
On the flip side, though, Nashville look like a different team away from Nissan Stadium.
They’ve scored four goals in seven games, the lowest in MLS. They’ve taken 69 shots, the second-lowest in MLS. They’ve created 6.36 xG, also second-lowest in MLS. Only Chicago have earned less points on the road than Nashville’s five.
It’s hard to win on the road, though. In Europe’s top five leagues, the visiting team wins 31% of the time. In MLS, the away team wins just 26% of matches. In 2021, that’s down to 23%.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Nashville looked different away from Nissan Stadium, but there are valid concerns about how drastic the differences have been. With 10 away matches left to play, it’s an issue that can’t be swept under the rug.
On the positive side, and despite their struggles, they’ve only conceded seven goals on the road. That’s the best record in MLS, and something to build on.
Nashville are in rarified air
Even if Nashville continue to struggle on the road and miss out on a Top 4 spot and a home playoff match, qualifying for the playoffs would still be an unequivocal success.
Nashville were the first expansion side to win a playoff match in their first year since Chicago in 1998. They were just the sixth expansion side to make the playoffs in their first season. Given the national and sometimes local conversation around the team heading into 2020, it’s an impressive and immediate reversal.
It’s easy to get caught up in single results, and it’s fair to point out issues on the field. I do both. It’s how sports work. But in the midst of that, I think it’s important to remember the big picture and look at this season from a 5,000 foot view.
Winning in MLS is hard. Winning as an expansion team is even harder. Nashville are doing both. It’s ok to enjoy that.
Nashville have themselves to blame for raised expectations
If you think about it, it’s kind of extraordinary that fans are even able to make the argument that Nashville should be disappointed to be in third place. After last year’s painful struggles to create and score goals for most of the season, I’ll wager most fans would bite your hand off if you had told them before the year that their team would be two points out of second place at this point in the season.
But Nashville’s own performances this year have put them in this position. They’ve been dominant at home. They’ve beaten two of the three teams ahead of them in the table, and drew the other. Their front three of CJ Sapong, Hany Mukhtar and Randall leal has captured the imagination of fans and garnered national attention.
They’ve raised the bar for themselves with such a strong showing to kick the year off. While squeaking into the playoffs may have satisfied fans before the season began, dropping to the fringe of playoff qualification would feel like a disappointment to many.
The fact that Nashville are being talked about alongside the best in MLS (MLSSoccer.com’s power rankings have had them in the Top 10 on ten occasions this year) is an unmitigated success. Mike Jacobs and his staff have built an incredibly competitive roster that’s outperformed teams who spend significantly more. Gary Smith has set up the perfect system for the players in his team and has maintained a remarkably consistent level, not just in MLS but going back to his time in USL.
Sure, this is an expansion team in their sophomore season. But they’re also just a pretty damn good team. And regardless of how long they’ve been around, their final results will be judged according to the tone their early season performances set.
It’s a long season
There’s still a lot of soccer left to be played. Nashville still have 13 matches on the docket. The table will look very different on November 7 than it does today on August 26.
MLS is all about peaking at the right time. Seattle, while in a different category of spending and success, are the masters of this. Atlanta did this under Tata Martino en route to an MLS Cup win. Hell, Nashville themselves did it last year.
Teams who get hot down the stretch do well in the playoffs, regardless of where they finish in the table. Nashville already look like a postseason contender. If they can clean up things like set piece defending and continue to develop their attack to where they’re hitting the playoffs in stride, they’ll be downright scary.