The lessons of a roller coaster first season paved the way for Nashville’s success this year.
Nashville SC has just three losses this season, the fewest in Major League Soccer. The team is currently sitting in second in the Eastern Conference standings, below leader New England, with seven games to go in the regular season.
Nashville is also riding a 16-game undefeated streak at home, the longest current streak in MLS.
The resiliency that the team showed last year — by making the playoffs after the disappointment of having to sit out the MLS is Back tournament because of coronavirus cases — has continued this season.
“What we’ve seen this year is really just sort of carry on, if you like, from last year’s confidence. It’s a rollover from last year’s achievements,” coach Gary Smith said. “The development in the group, the relationships in the group have grown. And I think sometimes we all forget that we’re not much beyond an 18-month-old franchise.”
Nashville is coming off a 2-2 draw at home against Orlando City on Wednesday night. Orlando’s Tah Anunga spoiled Nashville’s homecoming after a four-game road trip with the tying goal in stoppage time.
“It wasn’t to be, and I think yet again it just shows you how tight this league is, how competitive and how many good sides there are,” Smith said.
Hany Mukhtar leads Nashville with 13 goals, and is part of a three-pronged attack with C.J. Sapong, with 10 goals, and Randall Leal, with six. Mukhtar has nine assists, while Leal has seven.
Mukhtar has been mentioned as a possible MVP candidate. New England’s Carles Gil, who has 16 assists this season, is considered the front runner. Before Gil missed time with injury, he was on pace for the league’s single-season assists record.
Defensively, Nashville has allowed just 26 goals this season, tied for fewest in the conference.
Nashville’s inaugural season in 2020 was halted after just two games because of the pandemic. Then the team wasn’t able to participate in the MLS is Back tournament in a bubble in Florida because of an outbreak of COVID-19 cases on the team.
But Nashville persevered, earning a spot in the play-in round after finishing seventh in the standings. From there they surprised Toronto before finally falling to eventual MLS Cup champion Columbus in the conference semifinals.
Smith, who took over at Nashville before the team made the jump from USL to MLS, credits the character of the team that was assembled well before the 2020 season started.
“You know, we were able to navigate those situations just purely based on the strength of character that we had in our group. Now of course there’s an awful lot more that goes into winning games and getting yourselves into the postseason,” Smith said. “But I think those type of characteristics are important on any team — individuals that can be relied upon, have got a good spirit, strong character and when there’s those tough times, they roll the sleeves up and work for each other rather than being a little bit selfish.”
The team visits NYCFC for a match Sunday, the first of seven games left in the season. Nashville is six points ahead of third-place D.C. United in the standings, and seven points in front of NYCFC as the teams jostle for home-field advantage. The first-place Revolution have already clinched a spot.
Regardless of what happens going forward this season, Year 3 will be big for Nashville with the opening of the team’s new stadium.
But for Smith, first things first.
“I would love to think when we get to the end of this campaign, and we’re in the postseason, whatever point that that comes, I can take a little bit of a moment to reflect on the season, some of the terrific results, some of the development of the group,” Smith said. “And when all said and done, of course, this year is vitally important to what we all want to try and achieve. But as long as we’re making positive steps, and we’re improving, and the foundations that we’re building on are strong, then we’re moving in the right direction.” ___
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