Nashville SC have been underestimated for the majority of their two seasons in MLS. They entered the league with little to no expectations of success in 2020. In 2020, MLSSoccer.com‘s staff predicted them to finish 12th in the East. They finished in 7th place and won two playoff games before falling to eventual MLS Cup winners Columbus Crew in extra time. In 2021, they were picked to finish in 7th place, but ended up in 3rd place and tied on points for second.
Nashville’s playoff campaign begins today, and they’re poised to once again exceed expectations.
Why? Because despite the record-tying 18 draws this season, Nashville are consistently competitive, nearly impossible to beat, and dominant at home.
Throughout Gary Smith’s tenure in Nashville, dating back all the way to the 2018 USL Championship season, Nashville have never lost a match by more than two goals. In 2021, that happened only once in a 2-0 loss to New York Red Bulls in mid June.
Nashville consistently find ways back into games. They conceded the first goal in 16 matches this season. They only lost four of those, coming back to win three and draw nine.
Nashville have performed well against the top sides in the conference. They lost just once to a top four side in the East this season, and have the highest points per game of top 4 sides in the East.
Less flashy than recent expansion teams to have postseason success, Nashville have emphasized the team rather than the individual in constructing their roster. They’re in the middle of the pack in terms of overall wages, and haven’t spent the record-setting transfer fees like Atlanta, Cincinnati or LAFC.
That’s not to say there isn’t individual talent in Nashville’s squad. Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman are two of the best players in the league, and the team will lean heavily on them for a deep playoff run.
Mukhtar has been arguably the best player in MLS this season and is an MVP finalist. He leads the league with 28 combined goals and assists. He has been at the core of Nashville’s revitalized attack, improving their tally from 1.04 goals per game last year to 1.62 in 2021. It’s not just the numbers he puts up; it’s how he does it.
The German-born midfielder is one of the most dynamic players in the league, capable of single-handedly taking over a match.
Zimmerman is the best defender in MLS. He’s dominant in the air in both sides of the ball, winning 73% of his aerial duels and contributing a surprising three goals and three assists this year. His partnership with Dave Romney has produced one of the most consistent defenses in the league; their 55 goals allowed in the last two seasons are the joint-best in MLS.
With a combined 119 playoff matches between the players and an MLS Cup winning head coach, Nashville aren’t strangers to the postseason. They played their best soccer of the season last year in the playoffs, and still feel the frustration of their 2-0 extra time loss to Columbus last season.
“It was very bitter,” says Mukhtar. “They were a great team, but we could compete with them. Who knew how far we could go if we could beat Columbus?”
Heading into a fascinating contest against Orlando tonight, Nashville have had a successful season. They’ve once again proved doubters wrong and showed that foundation is better than flash, substance is more sustainable than style, and that sticking to a sound blueprint guided by experience is an maintainable path to success in MLS.
The future of soccer in Nashville is bright, regardless of what happens on the pitch tonight. But in the present, Nashville are living in a rare moment, with a chance to earn the ultimate prize and write their name on the MLS Cup trophy.
“These moments don’t come around too often,” said Dax McCarty after Nashville’s 2020 season ending loss to Columbus. “There was a real belief in our group that we could go on and really win MLS Cup… This is the foundation that’s been set. We want to win trophies.”