Nashville SC’s long road home

Nashville SC begin the 2022 season in less than two weeks with an epic road trip worthy of a midsummer Hollywood coming-of-age story. 

Nashville will trek across the country for their first eight matches as the club puts the finishing touches on their new Fairgrounds stadium. Two months on the road is tough for any team. But the schedule makers at MLS made the task even more daunting by moving Nashville to the Western Conference. In total, the Coyotes will cover 37,000 miles air miles, the equivalent of one and half times around the globe, before their home opener on May 1. 

It will be tied for the fourth-longest road trip in MLS history. 

Any longtime observer of MLS will tell you that early-season struggles can be overcome. The league’s expansive playoff field makes late runs possible. But points in March count the same as points in September. Nashville cannot afford to dig themselves into a deep hole. 

Before Nashville embarks on their spring 2022 roadshow, it is worth looking at how other clubs fared under similar circumstances. 

Long road trips are historically difficult

In MLS’ first decade, the 2003 Los Angeles Galaxy also spent their first eight matches on the road, as they prepared to open their stadium in Carson. The Galaxy went 0-4-0, securing only four points. They made the playoffs, but in those early days, all but two teams made it to the postseason. 

In 2006, the Chicago Fire played nine straight matches away from the Windy City while putting the finishing touches on their Bridgeview stadium that they have since abandoned. Chicago picked up ten points, better than the expected pace of one point per road game. Dave Sarachan’s side finished third in the Eastern Conference before bowing out to the second-seeded New England Revolution in the first round of the playoffs. But they did manage to pick up a US Open Cup trophy along the way.

Nashville’s own C.J. Sapong can provide some pointers on navigating a prolonged road trip to start a season. In 2011, Sapong’s Sporting Kansas City set a league record with an 11-match away trip. With Children’s Mercy Park (then named Livestrong Sporting Park) not open until June, Sporting knocked out a large portion of their yearly travel in just a three-month span.

Over those 11 matches, Peter Vermes’ side only managed six points. It was a rough start to the season. But when you knock out most of your away games early, the occasional road trip later in the year is less daunting. In the remaining seven away matches, Sporting Kansas City went 3-3-1, picking up twelve points and putting them back on pace for the 51-point target line. In an incredibly weak Eastern Conference, Sporting’s 51 total points were enough to secure the number one seed.

Sapong also had a banner year. He tallied five goals and four assists on way to earning the 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year award.

Sporting Kansas City’s recovery from the poor away trip should not be read as to excuse early-season results. Points in March count just as much as points in September. A year later, early-season road points saved Houston’s season. The Dynamo started the season with a seven-match away trip in which they secured eight points, one point over expected. That extra point proved vital. The Dynamo finished on a razor’s edge, just one point above the playoff line. 

The Portland Timbers are a more recent example of an extended road trip to start a season. They played the first 12 matches of the 2019 season away from home while Providence Park underwent renovations. The Timbers won four and drew two, for an above-average return of 1.16 points per game. They struggled after returning home, winning just eight matches, but their ability to keep their heads above water during their early road trip was enough to push them into the playoffs.

Last year, Austin FC completed the objective. The expansion side earned eight points from eight away matches before opening up Q2 Stadium. But the good feelings did not last long. Austin lost 17 of their remaining 26 matches. Verde finished with the fourth worst record in MLS.

Dropped points matter, even early in the season

MLS clubs have navigated early-season road trips with varying levels of success. History shows that not all hope is lost with a few dropped results and champagne bottles should not be popped just for picking up a couple of road wins. But more points never hurt in a long race for the playoffs, and dropped points early in the season count just as much as points dropped later.

In less than two weeks, Nashville begins the 2022 campaign with a trip to the Pacific Northwest to take on Seattle. Given the success of Nashville’s first two seasons in MLS, there are high hopes for another strong season from the Coyotes. A loss to the loaded Sounders should not dent supporters’ high expectations for the season, nor should a win cause premature declarations of impending silverware. After all, it is a long road home for Nashville SC.

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