The context of Nashville’s undefeated record

The feelings that surround an undefeated record in soccer—especially after as many as seven games—remain, without fuller context, ambivalent ones for me.

After all, a Premier League team could theoretically go undefeated for the entire season, draw every game, and end up in the relegation zone with just 38 points. While that is of course ridiculously unlikely, the fact that it is even theoretically possible should be a big fat question mark about the meaning of shouting “Undefeated!”. Indeed, the only undefeated team in the history of the Premier League—Arsenal’s famous “Invincibles”—now barely crack the top ten in point totals for a season. By one metric, their accomplishment is freaking top notch. By another, there are more than a handful of teams that have done better.

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While there is no doubt that I would rather be on top of the standings with two losses rather than in seventh with no losses, there remains a certain value (bragging rights, for one thing) in being undefeated. That said, I think, with more context, perhaps there is something more going on here than bragging rights alone. 

When I look at Nashville’s “undefeated” season thus far and I glance at their place in the standings (above the red line but barely), I admit that at first I don’t necessarily get excited about shouting “undefeated” to fans of other teams. It feels a bit empty. But, at second glance, perhaps not. 

As I’ve said, context is absolutely central to the meaning of being undefeated. In our case, the flat statement of two wins, five draws, and zero losses is not a cause for massive celebration. However, let’s recall that not only are three of those draws of the 2-2 variety, but significantly they were 2-2 draws in which Nashville went down by two (often early in the game) and somehow found a way to right the ship and equalize.

So, sure, on the one hand, a draw is a draw is a draw. Regardless of how you equal the other teams goal total, you still only take away a single point from the match. But there’s something else going on here. 

I’m not sure that this Nashville team could have come back from two goals down three times last season. Even with McCarty’s obvious leadership skills, it’s difficult to score two goals in any game and even more difficult to score two goals while holding your opponent to zero. Obviously, once your opponent has scored, you have to press more, opening up more opportunities for you, but also more opportunities for your opponent to counter. Falling behind at all in soccer puts in you a precarious situation. Falling behind by two starts penciling in the death warrant.

The fact that Nashville have given up a two goal lead on three different occasions, and then found a way to stand on the shoulders of a hero or two and come roaring back to draw says something about this team. When they’ve gotten the lead in a match, they’ve won. When they’ve fallen behind in a match, they’ve found a way to cut their losses and claw some sort of result from the match. And that is contextual information that makes me feel positive about their thus far undefeated season.

We’re still early in the season, in the portion where we are not only learning a little about the makeup and psychology of the team but when we (and the team itself) are beginning to create narratives about what this team is, how this team plays. And, again, while I would be happier if one of those draws was a win and one a loss, right now, we get to tell a narrative—to the team and to ourselves—that no one can keep us down. Thus far, no one has.

Score on Nashville; celebrate like you’ve won, but do so at your own peril. Because three other teams have discovered that a 2-0 lead over Nashville is not enough, that they will come back. The more that narrative seems believable, the more it gets into the heads of other teams and other fans.

Again, I’m ambivalent about the meaning and value of being undefeated for its own sake.  And, obviously, Nashville needs to work on not falling behind to begin with. That said, thus far, we’re putting together one hell of a story about the meaning of their undefeated record. What it means to us and, importantly, what it means to them.

UPDATE: After publication I received an additional piece of information that adds further context to Nashville’s 2-2 draw in Atlanta.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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