Sports are brutal. Only one team finishes the season on their own terms. The majority are unceremoniously and instantly sent home to rue missed chances and lick their wounds, and hopefully to use the pain to motivate them to try again next year.
Nashville SC’s ending was particularly brutal.
After overachieving their pre-season expectations en route to a third place finish, rolling a developing rival in Round One, and holding last season’s Supporters Shield winner to a 120 minute deadlock, Nashville missed all four penalty kicks in their shootout to crash back to earth just when they felt set to launch.
“It’s a cruel way to go out for sure,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, who missed the final kick to secure the loss. “We know we had a really good opportunity to move one. That was the expectation – to move on and to go another round further and keep pushing towards our first piece of silverware. And it’s always tough when your expectation is crumbled in and kind of flipped on its head.”
For the second straight year, Nashville are left on the outside looking in. A season defined by more highs than lows ends in arguably the lowest way possible; a penalty kick shootout, where the traits that made them so successful are thrown out the window, and winners and losers are determined as much by luck and mentality as they are by skill.
“It’s an incredibly exciting way to end a game,” Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin said after the match. “It’s also an incredibly stupid way to end a game. You wouldn’t end a basketball game with a three point contest.”
Again, it’s a brutal way to end a season.
And while the sting of the loss won’t go away quickly, it shouldn’t be the defining moment for Nashville’s second season in Major League Soccer. The club blew expectations out of the water and cleared the high bar they set in year one, going from plucky overachiever from one of the premier teams in the league at a breakneck pace.
Nashville’s 2021 season was an unmitigated success.
They finished the regular season with just 33 goals conceded, the joint-best record in MLS in 2021. Their 0.97 goals allowed per game is among the ten best returns in MLS history.
Their attack improved exponentially in their second year. Only five teams scored more than Nashville’s 55 goals, and they increased their goals per game from 1.04 in 2020 to an impressive 1.62 in 2021.
Hany Mukhtar put together one of the best individual seasons in MLS history, scoring and assisting a combined 31 goals and assists in 33 games.
Walker Zimmerman built on his 2020 Defender of the Year season, continuing his dominance at the club level and turning into a core piece for the US Men’s National Team.
Nashville went an entire season without losing a home match, just the seventh team in league history to accomplish that feat. It’s been 390 days and counting since their last loss at home.
Nashville lost just four times in the regular season. No team in the history of Major League Soccer has been defeated fewer times, and it’s even more remarkable when considering they played from behind in over 50% of their matches this season. Their consistent ability to come back from behind was special.
Nashville have surpassed every expectation laid out for them when they entered the league. It’s why the sudden end to their historic season feels so bleak. Inside the locker room and throughout the city, there was a growing belief that this team could defy all the odds and take home MLS Cup in their second year. All those hopes died in a numbing three minutes and 36 seconds.
It’s cruel because after all the special moments in Nashville’s regular season, the postseason almost seemed destined for more.
Now, Nashville have to quickly transition from planning for a playoff run to preparing for a season that begins in just 90 short days.
The core of Nashville’s roster will return. Gary Smith has established a tactical identity that delivers results. General manager Mike Jacobs has constructed a squad with flexibility to improve. And Nashville will play their 2022 season in a brand new, state of the art facility instead of a borrowed venue.
Yes, Nashville needs to improve and fix some areas of their game. But the brutal way things ended shouldn’t be the lasting memory, the defining moment of a wildly impressive season.
2021 was an unmitigated success for Nashville SC. And the future is even brighter.