By Ben Wright (@benwright), editor.
In just eight short days, Nashville Soccer Club will take the field for the first time in Major League Soccer, the highest level of the sport in North America. Recent expansion sides in MLS have had wildly varying levels of success in their first year, ranging from Atlanta United (55 points, +30 GD) and LAFC (57 points, +16 GD) to Minnesota United (36 points, -23 GD) and FC Cincinnati (24 points, -44 GD).
Nashville’s roster build falls somewhere between the two groups, without massive investment in the top-end of the roster like LAFC or Atlanta (or even Inter Miami, also joining the league in 2020), but with a stronger and more experienced core than Cincinnati or Minnesota. Nashville have placed a big emphasis on experience in MLS, bringing in league veterans like Dax McCarty, Aníbal Godoy and Jalil Anibaba.
On the field, I think Nashville are built to fall somewhere in between the two groups. They don’t have the high end attackers that took the league by storm in LA and Atlanta, but they look like being a solid defensive side, and won’t be a defensive sieve like Minnesota or Cincinnati.
Nashville’s definition of a successful season depends on who you ask.
“Our goal is to be as competitive as possible straightaway,” said General Manager Mike Jacobs. “Teams that stand out tend to stand out for either being really good or really poor. I think for us, a realistic goal is to not stand out, but to blend in. The goal is when you watch us play against team x next year, that you see two teams that are comparable to each other."
Contrast that with head coach Gary Smith. "Every team that goes into the season has got to be thinking they’re going to win a championship,” he said in January. “If you don’t, then I don’t see a point in taking part in the year. I would expect it’s going to be a challenge, while most people will certainly write us off for any sort of silverware, we have to place some sort of expectations on ourselves to be challenging for that.”
So what does success look like in 2020?
1 - BE COMPETITIVE IN EVERY MATCH
This goes along with Mike Jacobs has preached from day one. Competing in the Western Conference, Nashville will be up against some of the best attacks in the league, with a brutal travel schedule tacked on. At the most basic level, looking like a match for whoever they’re playing should be a priority. In their expansion season, Atlanta United never lost a match by more than two goals. In my mind, that’s a very reasonable goal for Nashville.
2 - BE MISERABLE TO BREAK DOWN
Nashville’s defense should be solid. On paper, their backline is possibly the best defense an expansion side has had from day one, and with McCarty, Godoy and Derrick Jones ahead of the defense, their core is strong. I don’t expect this side to start out in a low block, but they’ll keep their lines compact and make their opponents fight for every forward pass. I don’t think the midfield has the legs to be a constant pressing team like New York Red Bulls or Sporting Kansas City, but I also don’t expect them to sit back passively and hope for some joy on the counter. A goal for this side should be to finish the season as a Top 10 defense. That will inevitably make this team competitive.
3 - STAY RELEVANT
FC Cincinnati was eliminated from playoff contention with six games left to go. I think Nashville should have higher ambitions than just “not being Cincinnati”, but a minimum expectation should be to stay relevant in the playoff race until late in the season.
I’d love for Nashville to make the playoffs in their first season. I think they have the potential to do so. I also predicted them to finish in 10th place in the West. If Nashville go into decision day with a chance to make the postseason, that’s a win in my book.
4 - DEVELOP A CONSISTENT ATTACK
The biggest question going into the season for Nashville comes down to goal scoring. Where are the goals going to come from in this team? The club spent big on Hany Mukhtar, a player I really like and think will be a great fit for the league. But Mukhtar is a playmaker, and while he can score his share of goals, he needs someone to finish the chances he creates. Randall Leal is another big signing, and he’s been on a roll in preseason, but it’s a big ask for a winger who’s new to the league to carry the goal scoring weight of this team. Dom Badji and Abu Danladi have experienced, but neither has a proven track record of scoring double-digit goals and consistently finishing chances. Daniel Ríos is a wild card, with the potential to be a consistent goal scorer at the MLS level, but he too is unproven.
Without a consistent goal scorer in the number 9 role, Nashville’s attacking output will be limited, and thus their ceiling lowered. If Nashville can acquire a consistent finisher, or if one of their current strikers takes a big step forward, their ceiling would raise significantly. As it stands, I have trouble seeing them score more than 50 goals, and that will significantly hamper their potential.
5 - BUILD MOMENTUM
Two weeks ago, the club swamped with a stadium fiasco and questions about the future of the franchise in Nashville. Now, with eight days until they take the field, there’s a buzz around this team in Nashville. In hindsight, the stadium controversy may have been a blessing in disguise for the club, raising awareness and interest for the team locally.
With over 40,000 tickets sold for their home opener, and a 30,000 seat stadium in the works, Nashville SC need to ride this wave of publicity and retain the attention they’re getting. Nashville probably won’t be Atlanta. They probably won’t sell 60,000+ tickets a game. But they can carve out space in a competitive sports market and keep their fans coming back with a strong showing against Atlanta and some good results over the course of the season.
Fans won’t demand a championship right off the bat, but they will demand to be entertained. If Nashville can provide that, this season will be a success.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The views expressed above are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of Speedway Soccer as a whole.