Yes, Nashville SC could win MLS Cup in its second year. Here are four reasons why | Estes
You could say they were as much the old Houston Oilers as they were the new Tennessee Titans, but they sure did spoil fans in their new city.
The Titans reached the Super Bowl in only their second full season in Nashville, and even in losing to the Rams, it seemed a beginning more than an end. In a five-year period through 2003, they steamrolled to at least 11 wins four times. Since then, however, they have won 11 games only twice in a regular season.
It seemed so easy. Then it wasn’t anymore.
Enjoy it while you can. That’s the lesson to take into this season's Major League Soccer playoffs and Tuesday night's first-round elimination game for Nashville SC against Orlando City SC at Nissan Stadium.
Only two seasons into its MLS existence, Nashville SC has been good. Really good. Far better than could have been anticipated.
And now ... “We have all of the ingredients that a successful team in the playoffs needs to have,” said goalkeeper Joe Willis.
If you’ve been waiting to hop on Nashville SC's bandwagon, it's time. As the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference bracket, the club has an honest-to-goodness chance to make a four-game run to win MLS Cup and provide this city what it has yet to enjoy – the major-league professional sports championship that has so far eluded the Titans and the NHL’s Predators.
Could these newbies at Nashville SC be the ones to do it?
I think so, actually, and here’s why:
They’re difficult to beat
By drawing in a whopping 18 of 34 games, Nashville SC equaled an MLS record for the most ties in a season. I know, I know. That fits so easily into the “why I don’t like soccer” narrative. And while not all ties are bad, too many of these were games that Nashville could have or should have won, which ended up allowing it to get squeezed out for the No. 2 seed in the East.
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At the same time, though, Nashville only had four losses. This is a scrappy team. It has come back often in games and knows that it can. The four defeats are a least three fewer than any other team in MLS, and it’ll mean something in a single-elimination tournament, where it’ll go to penalty kicks if one team can’t get it done in 120 minutes.
They made a run last year … and are much better
Nashville won two MLS playoff games last season before losing at eventual champion Columbus in extra time. That experience will help this time.
But that was also a much different team, one that made its way defensively, keeping scores low because it lacked a consistent ability to score. This season, Nashville maintained a strong defense while drastically improving its offense.
“Tactically, I think we have a little bit more in our bag, if you will,” captain Dax McCarty said. “We can soak up pressure, but we can also go and put teams under pressure. We can high-press. We can dictate, I think, a little bit more of the terms of the game, especially at home, with our pressure. I think that’s something we didn’t have last year.”
They might have the best player
It was a joke when Nashville’s playmaking midfielder Hany Mukhtar was snubbed as an MLS All-Star this season, though credit the league for realizing the mistake. Mukhtar is one of five finalists for league MVP, and while he probably won’t win, he’s playing as well as anyone in these playoffs.
Mukhtar leads Nashville in goals (16) and assists (10) and has been a delight to watch, so much that you have to wonder how much longer Nashville can keep the German-born 26-year-old out of the Bundesliga or some other top European league.
“He’s elevated himself to another level this year,” said McCarty of Mukhtar. “I think that he’s been the catalyst for literally almost everything good that we do going forward. … Hany has played at such a high level, he’s risen the overall floor of the team and what we can be.”
No time like the present
If Nashville SC is going to win an MLS title, this might be the best chance. This may be a young club, but it was built on a foundation of veteran players. Looking back, it was a smart strategy. Maturity is a big reason this team has been so good so quickly, but the roster isn’t getting any younger.
McCarty is 34. Goalkeeper Willis is 33. Forward C.J. Sapong (second on team with 12 goals) is 32. Midfielder Anibal Godoy is 31. Defender Daniel Lovitz is 30. These are all key players for Nashville, which could also soon be at risk of losing talented young stars like Mukhtar and Randall Leal to bigger clubs in Europe.
Nashville's time, actually, is now.
“I’ve been on a lot of good teams,” said McCarty, “a lot of winning teams. I take a lot of pride in that. It’s just been a difficult last hurdle to get over in terms of winning that MLS Cup. It has been elusive. I would love to win one, not necessarily just for myself but for this great club and this city.”
Nashville’s older players have been around MLS. They understand how rare opportunities like this one can be, and they also know what a winner looks like because they’ve seen losers.
“There’s been seasons in the past where I’ve gone into games thinking, ‘There’s no way in hell we’re going to win this game,’ depending on who we were playing,” said Willis. “There’s not a single team this year or last year that I look at in the league and I go into the game saying, ‘There’s no way we can win this.’ I think a lot of guys on the team have that same mentality.
“When we’re playing well and we’re at our best, we can beat anyone in the league.”
Reach Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.