Nashville’s MLS Cup dreams over, but expansion season a historic success

The morning after a season-ending loss is always a strange one. Regardless of how your team performed throughout the season, excitement about success and hope for the season to come feels like an afterthought. The prevalent emotion is disappointment.

For Nashville SC, it’s no different. Defying the odds, the experts, and a host of challenges unique to 2020, the expansion side proved doubters wrong en route to a conference semifinal appearance, demonstrating a new way to build a roster in the process. But after a 2-0 loss to Columbus Crew in a match where Nashville had their chances, it’s hard not to ask “what if?”

“The shame is tonight, we won’t be looking at what was achieved, we’ll just be disappointed about a result,” head coach Gary Smith told media after the final whistle. “But we’ll take a deep breath and let the dust settle, and try and be a little more positive about the way this season has unfolded.”

It’s hard to believe that just nine months to the day before last night’s playoff loss, Nashville SC played their first-ever MLS match. In front of 59,069 fans at Nissan Stadium, there was a sense of excitement to just be there. While inside the locker room the players surely wanted more, just being an MLS club felt like an achievement on its own.

Nashville’s only match with unrestricted attendance saw nearly 60,000 fans pack Nissan Stadium (Casey Gower-Broadway Sports)

And then came the tornadoes. And Covid-19. And the missed MLS is Back tournament. And the persistent struggles to score goals.

At times this season, it felt like the best case scenario was to survive 2020 as quickly and painlessly as possible and move on to 2021 for a “real” expansion season. After all that, it’s kind of unbelievable that losing a conference semifinal in extra time to one of the league’s best sides feels like a missed opportunity. But it really does.

 “I think the reason I feel so much disappointment and so much frustration at our season ending is because there was a real belief in our group after the Toronto game that we could go on and really win MLS Cup,” said captain Dax McCarty. “You can’t say that very often about an expansion team. These moments don’t come around too often.”

If you had told me before the season began, or even in August when the league resumed play, that Nashville SC would not only make the playoffs but win two playoff games, create buckets of chances against Toronto, go toe-to-toe with Columbus, force extra time, and ultimately come within 180 minutes of an MLS Cup in their first season in the league, I would have told you that you were crazy.

Nashville SC didn’t just put together a historic regular season that defied expectations on its own. Their three match run in the playoffs put them firmly in the conversation for best season from an expansion team.

While the disappointment of last night’s loss will sting for a while, the fact that a conference semifinal loss feels like a missed opportunity speaks volumes to the success of this 2020 season. From the deafening crowd at Nissan Stadium on February 29, to a 120 minute battle in a cavernously empty Mapfre Stadium on November 29, Nashville SC’s expansion season has been an odds-defying success that has done what first year teams so often struggle to do: set themselves up for long-term success in the near future.

With a spine of established players, a proven tactical identity, an experienced coach at the helm, and a general manager who has shown an ability to construct a cohesive team that can compete with the big spenders, this team should continue to compete. Add in the return of fans to stadiums, the kind of passionate crowd that filled Nissan Stadium on a frigid night way back in February, and the future looks bright.

“This is the foundation that’s been set. Hopefully we can get better. We need to get better in the offseason,” concluded McCarty. “I think that the coaching staff and the front-office staff know that, and we know that as players. There will be changes, but we need to keep trying to push this thing to get to the next level. Because we want to win trophies, and we want to win championships.”

Nashville will improve their roster. They’ll bring in pieces this winter and continue to build a competitive team that competes for trophies. They weren’t just competitive in their first year; they were a legitimate contender.

That’s an incredibly successful expansion season.

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