Nashville SC Was Better Year 2, But That Means Little For MLS
Let’s take a look at some of the numbers from the second and final season in USL for Nashville SC. Was it a success? Does it provide clues for how the club will do in MLS? How the team does in the playoffs will surely write the final chapter in how this team will be remembered. Win USL Cup and the answer is absolutely a smashing success. Go out in the first or second round and the answer lies somewhere in between. I continue to say that successful or not it provides little insight on how the team will do next year in MLS.
Nashville SC Year in Review
First, Nashville SC was clearly better in year 2 than year 1. Last year the team was 12-13-9 scoring scoring 42 goals and conceding 31. This year the club was 20-7-7 scoring 59 goals while giving up 26. So the team scored 17 more goals while giving up 5 fewer. Drastic improvement was expected given they added the two top goal scorers in USL last season in Rios and Lancaster. Yes, Lancaster was hurt much of the season, but Rios 20 goals alone can explain much if not most of the increased offense. The improved defense is attributable to Nashville SC adding 4 players to the defense who were either currently or previously on MLS rosters. Jones, Tribbett, Ockford and Lasso all helped improve the defense. Jones actually played more as an 8 or 10 than a 6, but the point is clear. With the influx of talent, much better results should have been expected. That said, chemistry isn’t always easy to build and talent on paper doesn’t always translate. Overall Gary Smith did a good job.
Could Nashville SC Have Done Better?
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Gary Smith last year was Nashville SC was too defensive. For fans of attacking soccer this year was a lot more fun with the club scoring 17 more goals. Good, but could have been better? Compare Nashville to FC Cincinnati’s last season in USL and the stats don’t look as good. Cincinnati finished their final season in USL with 77 points, 10 more than Nashville. Even more glaring is they scored 72 goals, 13 more than Nashville. Some might argue that Cincinnati was better because they had a higher payroll and brought in an MLS DP in Adi. I’m not convinced their payroll was that much higher minus Adi who only scored a couple of goals for the USL team anyway. Cincinnati did surrender 8 more goals than Nashville giving them a better goal differential by 5. As for this year, Phoenix Rising FC finished the season with 78 points scoring 89 goals! Yes, being in the Western Conference they played a completely different schedule, but that’s almost a full goal more per match. This should be mentioned as while the offense was improved, it was by no means prolific.
Defense Still Comes First
A high flying attack was never the plan from day one for Nashville and probably shouldn’t have been. Defense wins championships. Sure, attacking soccer is more fun to watch and helps attendance, but nothing helps more than winning. Minnesota United allowed 70 goals in its first season in MLS breaking the 1999 Colorado Rapids record of letting in 69 goals (32-game season vs 34). FC Cincinnati set a new standard in leaky defense allowing 75 goals this year. Recent history has shown expansion teams need to focus on being solid at the back if they want any chance of success. With Gary Smith in charge, Nashville SC should do much better than both those teams year one.
So What Does This Year Imply For MLS?
Absolutely nothing. I asked this question at the beginning of the season. The few that replied said they needed to see the roster first. That’s the point. I’ve said since the day Gary was hired that we will learn very little because the roster next year will be so different. It is likely the starting 11 for the first match in MLS only has a single USL player and perhaps even none. Sure Rios and the other USL players that make the MLS roster are going to play some in Open Cup matches, but it is unlikely they’ll be in the preferred starting 11. Nothing shows this more than Forrest Lasso. He has been dominant in the back for Nashville SC since arriving. Yet, he couldn’t even see the field for to worst defensive team in MLS history. The jump in quality from USL to MLS is a big one. Perhaps FC Cincinnati coaches were stupid and if given the chance Lasso will prove to be MLS quality. It happens often as getting the opportunity is also hard to come by. Only time will tell.
Money Buys Success?
Even more important is the overall payroll. While a higher payroll doesn’t guarantee a better team, it certainly is big advantage. On paper, Nashville SC has one of the best rosters in USL. That won’t be the case in MLS. Mike Jacobs has said numerous times that Nashville SC won’t have as high a payroll as teams like Atlanta or LAFC. This is partially why the team will have a more defensive style of play. It is unlikely the team will have any individual talent like a Zlatan, Martinez or Vela. Those DP’s just cost too much. In the majority of matches next year Nashville SC won’t be able to win possession and therefore will need to hit on the counter. Players like Accam and Leal might excel at this. The point is no one really knows how it is going to next season. I’m optimistic, but after having a better final season in USL, Cincinnati has been a historically bad team in MLS. Don’t think what you’ve seen on the pitch this year suggest something you might see in 2020. It will be totally different.