Despite progress, Nashville SC's 2021 efforts were undone by too many ties | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

For as long as I’ve liked soccer, I’ve hated how the sport eliminates teams.

Breaking ties with penalty kicks seems about as arbitrary as a coin flip. It’s like shooting free throws to decide the Final Four or, I guess, seeing which college football team happens to run the best collection of 2-point conversion plays. The Iron Bowl shouldn’t hinge on that. Nope, don’t like it.

Here's what I do like: NHL playoff games that last until someone scores a goal.

I know. Soccer is different. Substitutions are different, and players can’t run that far that fast for more than two hours. I get it. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.

It's no way to end a long season. Nashville SC might agree at the moment.

Thing is, though, when it comes to Nashville and this year’s Major League Soccer playoffs, I fully expected to see at least one penalty-kick shootout. I was more than prepared to endure the indignity. Which makes me wonder a day after a lost shootout ended Nashville’s season — why weren’t the players prepared for it?

Nashville played 34 MLS games this regular season, and it tied 18 of them. That equaled the league’s record for the most draws in a season. We’re given few certainties in this world, but a team so fond of draws and so adept at not losing was all but sure to be staring down a penalty shootout at some point in these playoffs.

But when it happened in Philly, Nashville didn’t just shrink from the challenge. It collectively fell apart.

I’ve never seen a series of penalty kicks so terrible. Wasn’t just one Nashville player. It was four of them missing consecutively. Two shots were saved. The next two weren’t even on goal. I’m not exaggerating when I say this: A high school team might win a shootout against an MLS opponent that misses the goal twice.

Nov 28, 2021; Chester, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake (18) makes a save during the first half against the Nashville SC in the conference semifinals of the 2021 MLS playoffs at Subaru Park. Mandatory Credit: Mitchell Leff-USA TODAY Sports

After months of excitement and last week’s thrilling first-round home victory over a good Orlando City team, it was brutally unsatisfying to watch Nashville's encouraging second MLS season end in such fashion.

“A crushing blow to lose in that manner,” said coach Gary Smith.

The postmortem for 2021 – much like 2020 before it – will be largely positive for Nashville. This young club will move into its sparkling new Fairgrounds stadium next year having reached the playoffs twice in two seasons. The first was a surprising step. The second felt like another big step forward, though the run ended in the same place: Extra time of a conference semifinal on the road.

I’m not sure the expansion team of 2020 was capable of more, but I do believe its sequel was. Ultimately, the 2021 team was undone by what ended up being more a curse than a blessing over many months: It was much better at drawing games than finding ways to win them.

And if you’re gonna do that, you must be a lot better at penalties than Nashville was Sunday night.

“I was very confident in the guys that were going to take kicks. We’d worked an awful lot,” Smith said. “… The one thing that you just cannot replicate is being away from home, noisy crowd, pressure.”

Nashville has earned the right to be thoroughly disappointed by what happened in Philadelphia, in part because the game should have never been in Philadelphia in the first place.

Philly had the same number of points in the MLS standings (54) as Nashville, but the Union eked out the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference ahead of third-seeded Nashville because it won 14 games to Nashville’s 12. As Smith pointed out, most leagues in the world use goal differential. Nashville would have had that tiebreaker (+22 to +13), but since MLS prioritizes wins, hosting rights Sunday went to Philadelphia.

Some of Nashville’s 18 draws this season would be considered good results, but the majority were not. For two seasons now, Nashville — especially on the road — has been content to not risk much late in tie games and settle for a point in the standings.

That approach was compounded when Nashville became more potent offensively this season and had a bunch of games early in which it was on the front foot to finish but still couldn’t muster a game-winning goal.

As tough as this was to beat, it had far too many draws. It left too many points on the field, and it knew that as it was happening.

On Sunday night, too, Nashville didn’t seem overly interested in taking the risk of pressing forward during 30 minutes of extra time. It unwisely preferred to take its chances in a shootout for which it proved shockingly inadequate.

“A cruel way to go out, for sure,” said defenseman Walker Zimmerman. “… We know that we had a really good opportunity to move on. That was the expectation, to move on and go another round further and keep pushing towards our first piece of silverware.”

Perspective is important here. Nashville’s big picture remains very bright. This is a club with a lot going for it as 2022 arrives. It is far ahead of where most MLS expansion teams would be after two seasons.

But that doesn’t change the fact that this season, in spite of Nashville's progress, goes down as a missed opportunity.

Reach Gentry Estes at and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.