Major League Soccer is typically an uphill fight for expansion sides. Since 2005, just three of 14 expansion sides have qualified for the playoffs. For newcomers Nashville SC, Covid-19 threw a wrench into their 2020 plans, as the expansion side played just two matches before the season went on hold for nearly four months. And now, the #MLSisBack Tournament is heading at the expansion sides like a well-hit free kick, dipping over the wall and swerving on its way towards goal.
By formatting the tournament so that a maximum of three of Group A’s six sides can advance, Nashville SC and the other five teams in Group A are at a mathematical disadvantage.
“Structurally, each of those six teams – Orlando City, Inter Miami, NYCFC, Philadelphia Union, Chicago Fire and Nashville – has a less than 50 percent chance of advancing to the knockout stage,” says Henry Bushnell of Yahoo Sports. Each of the other 20 teams has a greater than 65 percent chance of advancing.” The betting odds aren’t in Nashville’s favor, either, with the Boys In Gold listed at +400 to advance from the group and +1800 to win the tournament.
But, with the winner taking home $1.1 million and automatic qualifying berth for the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, the #MLSisBack Tournament provides Nashville an unprecedented opportunity to earn international competition in their first season. Putting together a seven match run to win a tournament is mathematically easier than qualifying for the playoffs and lifting MLS Cup, and Nashville have a huge opportunity to qualify for CCL in their inaugural season. The Boys In Gold have several strengths that could help them lift a trophy.
Despite only playing two matches as a team in MLS, Nashville’s roster hardly lacks in experience; the group that started the first two matches boasts a combined 105,353 MLS minutes and 1,363 MLS appearances. Only three players in the lineup had less than 100 MLS appearances.
As well as MLS experience, Nashville’s squad is well versed in World Cup-style tournaments. Brayan Beckeles represented Honduras at the 2010 World Cup. Daniel Lovitz, Dax McCarty, Aníbal Godoy, and Randall Leal have each represented their countries at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Others, including Hany Mukhtar, have played in various FIFA youth World Cups.
Nashville’s squad is full of experience in MLS and in knockout tournaments, and that experience going into the tournament will be vital.
Two matches is a very small sample size, but Nashville is built to limit chances.
Playing against two of the better attacking sides in the league, Nashville limited their opponents to a league-best 0.5 expected goals against. All three goals they conceded resulted from simple mistakes that should be easy to correct, and all three goals were the beneficiary of impressive finishing.
Add to this the depth the Boys In Gold have in defense, and the break-up-play ability of their central midfield, and Nashville could be one of the least-enjoyable sides to play against.
Again, this comes with the small sample size caveat, but Nashville have a special weapon on set pieces: Walker Zimmerman. Since the defender joined the league in 2013, he’s scored 12 goals from set pieces. Only Ike Opara has scored more.
In 2020, Zimmerman leads Nashville in both goals (1) and xG (0.3). That’s an indictment on Nashville’s forwards, but it also shows that Zimmerman is a legitimate goal threat from set pieces and balls in the box late in the game. According to MLSSoccer.com’s Matt Doyle, “Zimmerman might actually be the best forward on the team,” and Nashville will look to threaten from every dead ball situation.
We’ve seen in World Cups before how crucial a goal or two from a set piece can be in determining a champion, and in Zimmerman, Nashville have a real difference maker.
However, as discussed earlier, Nashville are statistical long shots to advance from the group, let alone win the tournament. Why?
The struggles of Nashville’s forward group have been well documented, with starter Dom Badji among the least involved players at the position over two weeks.
I’ve talked before about why Daniel Ríos could solve a lot of those problems, but it’s still a big ask for a player with 22 MLS minutes in his career to start producing at a level to carry Nashville out of the group. He might do it, and if Nashville can play to their potential defensively, a single goal will likely be enough to earn a win, but it would require a significant improvement and a good bit of luck.
Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy are the engine of the team, and were one of the best midfield pairings in the league through their first few matches. Unfortunately, McCarty is 33, Godoy is 30, and their combined 40,342 MLS minutes add up to a lot of tread on their tires. Their experience and leadership is a vital part of Nashville’s plans, but if one gets injured or isn’t able to play 90 minutes throughout the tournament, the options to replace them are unproven.
Derrick Jones would be the natural option to fill a central midfield spot, and despite loads of talent and potential, he’s never consistently performed at the MLS level, and has a history of unfortunate injuries. Matt LaGrassa and Derrick Jones were stalwart players in USL, and could very well succeed at the MLS level, but have played a collective zero minutes in the league. And Tanner Dieterich was taken in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft and hasn’t played an MLS minute.
This isn’t to say that none of these players can make a difference for Nashville or succeed in MLS, but none of them are proven commodities.
After months without full team training and competitive games, this final point could apply to every team in the league, but is exacerbated by Nashville’s status as an expansion side. It takes time for players to develop familiarity and attacking chemistry on the field, and Nashville’s players have had even less time than the rest of the league. It’s one thing to develop that chemistry over a 34 game regular season, but it’s entirely different to be asked to get on the same page for a three game group stage where a single breakdown could result in elimination.
A lot of this falls onto the coaching staff. It will be up to Gary Smith and his assistants to clearly define roles for each position on the field, so that each player knows exactly what is required of them at all times. It’s not an insurmountable problem by any means, but it’s another area where Nashville is at a disadvantage.
At the end of the day, the beauty of a World Cup-style tournament is that any given team can get hot and put together a strong seven match run to win the trophy. If Nashville can string together some strong performances, they could improbably secure a spot in the Concacaf Champions League in their first season in existence. Sure, the circumstances are unusual, but it’s an unheard of opportunity, and one that would change the face of their second season as a team.
So what do you think? Does Nashville SC have what it takes to advance?