Nashville SC’s season opening 1-0 win over Seattle Sounders has the larger MLS media sphere asking a significant question: can the Boys In Gold win the Supporters Shield?
It’s absurdly early in the season to make judgements on which teams can or can’t win the Shield; one result does not a champion make. However, given Nashville’s strong showing and their favorable preseason predictions, it’s not surprising to see their name thrown around.
I’m not going to try to predict if the Coyotes can win Supporters Shield with just one of 34 matches in the books. That said, I think it’s helpful to bring some data to the discussion to show what kind of pace Nashville would need to set to be in the conversation.
Nashville’s MLS results
Nashville’s best finish in their two MLS seasons came last year. The Coyotes finished the 2021 season with 54 points, tied for second in the Eastern Conference and finishing tied for sixth overall.
Nashville didn’t lose a home match in 2021, just the seventh team in league history to accomplish that feat. They lost just four matches in total (only four others have done that), and to date have not lost a game by more than two goals, going back to head coach Gary Smith’s first year with the club in the 2018 USL Championship season.
In the context of the Supporters Shield discussion, though, simply not losing matches will only go so far. In 2021, Nashville won just 47% of their home matches and 24% of their road matches. That’s significantly behind the pace of past winners.
Prior Supporters Shield winners
So what are the historic benchmarks needed to win the Supporters Shield? Let’s look at the past five winners in a 34 match season (we’ll throw out Philadelphia in 2020 for this exercise, given the shortened and unbalanced schedule due to Covid).
No team has won Supporters Shield with less than 12 home wins. Only Dallas in 2016 has won with less than seven away wins, and their 60 point total was significantly lower than the rest of the pool.
As a whole, Supporters Shield winners have earned an average of 71 points in their winning seasons, and have been dominant at home. Not only have they averaged just two home losses per season, but they’ve typically only drawn twice.
Improvement in Shield-winning years
Here’s the first bit of good news for Nashville. Obviously Supporters Shield winners improve in their winning year, but the improvement has been fairly dramatic.
The past five Supporters Shield winners have improved their overall points tally by an average of 18.4 points. The primary way they’ve done this is by turning home draws into wins, and road losses into draws. Only Dallas is the outlier. Their Shield-winning campaign actually matched their total from the previous season, when they missed out on the Shield only by goal difference.
Margin for error
Here’s the question you should have been asking this whole time: who cares what Shield-winners have averaged? What have the runners-up averaged? After all, Nashville wouldn’t necessarily need to match prior records, just beat out the next closest team.
Past winners have clinched the shield by an average of nine points. Since 2016, runners up have averaged 62 points, with Atlanta’s 69 point campaign in 2018 the exception (this total would have actually set an MLS record if Red Bulls hadn’t topped it in the same year).
While the total points earned by the Supporters Shield winners have consistently climbed since 2016, they’ve had plenty of wiggle room. Going by this trend, it’s feasible for a side to win a tighter Shield race with a significantly lower total.
A complicating factor
There’s an additional wrinkle to Nashville’s 2022 campaign. The Coyotes start the season with an eight match road trip while they await the opening of their new stadium. This causes two problems.
First, winning a Shield would require more than just surviving the initial road trip; they’d have to thrive. Prior winners averaged 30 points on the road. If Nashville were to end their road trip hitting their internal goal of six points, they’d need to average 2.67 points per game in their final nine away games. That’s a tough ask. Their win against Seattle puts them well ahead of the curve in this aspect, but they’ll still need to grab a couple results before heading home.
Second, it historically hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for teams after a long road trip. Portland and Austin, the last two teams to start the year with an extended away stretch, won just 44% of their home matches. While history would suggest that Nashville is a different caliber of team than Portland in 2019 or Austin in 2021, the initial road trip could have ripple effects throughout the season.
What does this mean for Nashville?
The first part of this is the kicker for Nashville. The Coyotes drew nine times at home last season, and turning those draws into wins has been a stated priority for the club in the offseason. A Supporters Shield winning pace would likely require greater-than-average improvement from Nashville in this category, who averaged 11 more draws than the typical Shield-winning side.
Shield-winning sides have taken maximum points from 62% of their matches. Nashville took maximum points from just 35% of their matches in 2021. Regardless of the Supporters Shield conversation, this is where Nashville need to improve. They’ve become adept at not losing. Now they need to take the next step and become serial winners.
Sunday night’s victory in Seattle was the type of win they struggled to find last year. The task now is to make it a habit.
As I said at the top, it’s absurdly early to draw any conclusions. I also picked Nashville to finish second in the West, so by default I have them as Supporters Shield contenders. As the season progresses, the contenders will separate themselves from the rest of the pack, but it’s helpful to clearly define just what it would take to win the Shield.