Nashville SC are in the middle of another arduous MLS season. As this is being written, they’re making an 800 mile trip to Toronto for their second match in Toronto in a week. While there’s little time for reflection or celebration in mid-September, this week is an important milestone for the second-year club.
Nashville’s 1-0 win over CF Montréal was their 23rd match of the season, matching the total regular season games in 2020’s Covid-shortened schedule. While there are plenty of differences between the two seasons, it’s an easy chance to compare their performance with their expansion season.
The numbers don’t lie. Nashville have improved significantly.
Nashville were very good in their expansion season
They were good in 2020, finishing the season as one of the best expansion sides in league history despite a slow start. One of just six sides to qualify for the playoffs in their first year, they became the first to win a playoff match since 1998 en route to an extratime loss in the Eastern Conference final.
In the regular season, Nashville were solid if unspectacular for two thirds of the season and earned a respectable 1.39 points per game, improving significantly down the stretch. The won eight matches in the regular season, scoring 1.04 goals per game, and conceding an elite 0.95 goals a game. Despite a narrow +2 goal difference, they finished in the red in expected goals with a -2.73 expected goal difference.
“The question is where do they go next? What’s the next level?” asked Charlie Davies on a December episode of MLS ExtraTime. “What’s the evolution of Nashville? Are we going to see more of the same next year, or is there a plan to change the way they play, to be a little more impactful and creative in the attacking half of the year?”
“If they want to take another step forward in MLS in 2021, they have to have more competition at the attacking spots,” added Andrew Wiebe.
Nashville level up in year two
Nashville have answered both of those questions in 2021. They made arguably the best signing of the offseason in free-agent striker CJ Sapong, who has revolutionized their attack this season. They invested $7 million in DP striker Aké Loba, whose arrival coincided with Sapong’s hot streak.
The added competition up front and the consistent match-winning performances from Hany Mukhtar have turned this side into one of the best in the league.
In 23 matches, they’re averaging 1.78 points per game, a 128% improvement from their expansion year. They’ve improved on both sides of the field, up 125% to 1.66 goals per game, and conceding a goal less than they did last season. Perhaps most significantly, they’ve been able to consistently create from the run of play, with a +12.29 expected goal difference. That’s a whopping 450% improvement from their debut season.
Nashville currently sit in second place in the East, three points clear of Orlando City and on pace to finish behind only New England Revolution.
Nashville repeat second-season history
I wrote back in February about how similar Nashville’s roster build for their second MLS season was to their second USL season.
Nashville SC and Mike Jacobs are using a familiar blueprint to build Nashville’s MLS roster. Like they did in USL, they focused heavily on building a strong defense and a team identity in year one, before adding pieces to the attack to create a more complete team.
It paid off for them in USL. Their attacking output improved by 17 goals from 2018 to 2019 without sacrificing defensive solidity, and they went from finishing in the final playoff spot in 2018 to a second place finish in 2019.
The similarities are uncanny.
Nashville still have a long way to go
There’s a lot of soccer left to play. Nashville have nearly 33% of their 2021 schedule still on the calendar, and all but three games are on the road. As good as they’ve looked at times, they haven’t actually won anything yet. Like Mike Jacobs said in Aké Loba’s introductory press conference, “I couldn’t tell you who was in second place last year after 12 games.”
Nashville are in a position now where anything other than a deep playoff run will feel like a disappointment. Hany Mukhtar is putting in an MVP caliber performance. Both he and CJ Sapong are in the race for the Golden Boot. Gary Smith should be in the conversation for Coach of the Year. FiveThirtyEight currently gives Nashville the sixth-best odds to win MLS Cup.
In many ways, it’s unfortunate that the playoff system can completely reframe the way we view a 34 match season with a single result, but it’s also a testament to the club’s success that they’re even in the MLS Cup conversation in just their second season. Nashville have been good enough in 2021 that a trophy is within touching distance. They’re firmly in the conversation for best expansion team in league history. But like it or not, fairly or unfairly, their 2021 season will be judged more by the rest of their season than what they’ve done to date.
At the 23 match mark, Nashville have eclipsed their expansion season. Can they eclipse last season’s playoff run?