Nashville SC in rarefied expansion air

Expansion teams in Major League Soccer usually aren’t very good. Only six have qualified for the playoffs in their first year.

When they get to the playoffs, expansion teams aren’t good at all. Only two expansion sides have won a playoff match in their first year.

One of those sides was Chicago Fire, who won three postseason matches to claim MLS Cup back in 1998.

The other is Nashville SC. After a dominant performance against Miami in the play-in round, Nashville picked up their second playoff win last night, pulling off an extra time upset against perennial contenders Toronto FC.

Built on a sound defensive structure, Nashville struggled to score goals throughout most of the season, but seem to be peaking at the right time.

We’ve seen it before in MLS: teams that get hot at the right time are formidable in the playoffs, regardless of where they finished in the table. Nashville certainly got hot at the right time, winning five of their last seven regular season matches. A 3-2 comeback over Orlando City on Decision Day signaled to the rest of the league that Nashville meant business.

In Hartford, Connecticut, against a Toronto side that have been to three of the last four MLS Cups, Nashville didn’t just defend and hope to survive. They were proactive and dangerous.

While the national narrative has been that Nashville parks the bus, the Boys In Gold outshot Toronto 21 to 12, creating three gilt-edged chances to score that just lacked the finishing touches. And that’s not even mentioning the three goals that were (rightfully) called back for offsides.

While the final scoreline was close, this wasn’t a match where Nashville hung on and clawed their way to a result. If anything, it was the other way around.

Now, heading into the Eastern Conference semifinals, Nashville have knocked off one of the truly elite sides in MLS. The side that struggled to score goals all season have scored four in two playoff matches, creating enough chances to double that total. And unsurprisingly for the best defensive expansion side in league history, they’ve yet to concede.

Nashville weren’t given much of a chance heading into the season, but after two wins and two impressive performances, they’re not just hoping to advance. They’re hoping to win a trophy.

“There’s not a single player in that locker room who doesn’t believe we can make it to the final and win it,” said head coach Gary Smith after last night’s win against Toronto.

And Gary Smith would know about winning in a situation like this. His 2010 Colorado Rapids side finished 6th in the Western Conference, just one spot above the playoff line. They didn’t have a dominant win like Nashville did over Miami, but put together a string of four wins (including a shootout over Columbus) to win the cup.

While it’s probably premature to talk MLS Cup too much at this point, the parallels are there for Nashville. And with an elite defense, an attack that has finally started to click, and two impressive wins under their belts, no one is counting them out.

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