Nashville SC have qualified for the playoffs in their expansion season. That’s something only five other expansion sides can claim, and only three others since 2009.
Nashville haven’t just snuck into the playoffs, either. With three matches left to play in the regular season, they’re seven points clear of the playoff line, and could realistically finish as high as fifth in the Eastern conference.
Nashville have oversold on what Mike Jacobs promised before the season.
“Without being vanilla or non-committal, our goal is to be as competitive as possible straightaway,” he told Speedway Soccer in November. “Teams that stand out tend to stand out for either being really good or really poor. I think for us, a realistic goal is to not stand out, but to blend in. The goal is when you watch us play against team x next year, that you see two teams that are comparable to each other.”
Nashville have certainly been comparable. From their debut match against Atlanta United (who were still considered an elite squad at that point in the season) to hard-fought road losses to Columbus Crew and Sporting KC, they’ve hardly looked out of place. In fact, they’ve rarely been outplayed.
And while Jacobs almost certainly has higher goals than what he’s stated publicly (he’s previously referred to his job as “under-promising and over-delivering”), you’d be hard pressed to argue that Nashville haven’t met the benchmark that he set before the season.
With three games left in the season before a shot to make some noise in the playoffs, Nashville are finishing the season with the potential to do much more than simply “blend in”. And while they’ve been written off by fans and media around the country (I picked them to finish 10th and miss the playoffs), Gary Smith has always wanted more.
“Every team that goes into the season has got to be thinking they’re going to win a championship,” he said in back January. “If you don’t, then I don’t see a point in taking part in the year. I would expect it’s going to be a challenge, while most people will certainly write us off for any sort of silverware, we have to place some sort of expectations on ourselves to be challenging for that.”
Winger Alex Muyl, who was brought in from New York Red Bulls mid-season, echoed those sentiments after Nashville’s 1-0 win against Montreal.
“I think we’ve shown that we’re very much good enough to make the playoffs, and that really shouldn’t be the goal for us,” he said. “For us it should be placement; how high can we go, how much can we continue to build on form and continue to get points and move our way up the table? I think we have guys in this team who are very ambitious, where just making playoffs, as much as that might be an accomplishment, that’s the very least for us.”
Heading into the playoffs, Nashville will be a long shot to win MLS Cup. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 1% chance to win.
There are certainly concerns. Fans and detractors alike will point to their issues scoring goals. Only three sides have scored less than Nashville’s 20 goals, and the attack really struggled from September to early October.
However, recent weeks have seen Nashville’s form improve. Since October 11, they’ve scored the third-most goals in MLS, and they’ve done this without their three designated players (all attackers) on the field at the same time.
If Nashville’s offense has been mediocre at times, their defense has been anything but. They’ve allowed just 18 goals all season. Only Seattle (first in the West) and Columbus (third in the East) have allowed fewer. No expansion side in league history has allowed fewer goals in their first year. Without the ability to really hold their own in a gunfight against the league’s best, their stingy backline will at least give them a fighting chance.
Nashville will be a longshot to win MLS Cup. They’ll have to go on the road against the elite sides in the East, a tough task for any team. But after defying expectations in the regular season, it would be foolish to completely write them off.