Can Nashville SC Win the 2020 MLS Cup?
The 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs have already dished up plenty of surprises. But the biggest shock of all may still be to come.
Orlando and New York City produced one of the craziest penalty shootouts of all time, while New England stunned Supporters’ Shield champions Philadelphia. But if Nashville lifts the trophy on December 13, they will arguably eclipse every other upset in MLS history.
Remarkably, the Boys in Gold are now just three wins away from MLS Cup glory. Oh, and just in case you forgot, the Tennessee team is competing in their maiden top-flight campaign.
So, can Nashville SC really go all the way?
In this post, I discuss why Nashville can win the 2020 MLS Cup, as well as giving reasons why they won’t. I also take a look at the other teams left in the competition.
Why Nashville Can Go All the Way
Let’s start by exploring three reasons why I believe Nashville can upset the odds and win the 2020 MLS Cup.
Nashville’s Defensive Record is Outstanding
It is no secret that Nashville has built their success on a sturdy backline. In fact, Gary Smith’s men recently set the record for the lowest goals-against average for a first-year MLS team, conceding just 0.96 goals per game during the regular season.
Of course, goalkeeper Joe Willis must be given huge credit for his efforts this term. The shot-stopper has kept an unrivaled 11 shutouts in 2020, so it is hardly surprising that he finds himself miles clear at the top of the clean sheet charts.
Thankfully for Nashville, Willis had carried his regular-season form into the playoffs, adding to his impressive tally with back-to-back clean sheets in the postseason. Inter Miami and Toronto FC both failed to find a way past the red-hot gloveman.
Walker Zimmerman has also been recognized for his industry. Not only was the center-back named in the 2020 MLS Best XI, but he was also voted MLS Defender of the Year.
With defenders Dave Romney, Daniel Lovitz, and Alistair Johnston remaining consistent throughout the campaign, teams have struggled to penetrate Smith’s backline all season.
The Coach Knows What It Takes
While many of Nashville’s players are relatively inexperienced, their head coach has already tasted MLS Cup glory. Gary Smith enjoyed three successful years in charge of the Colorado Rapids, guiding them to the 2010 title.
Sure, Smith’s last triumph came a decade ago. But the Englishman’s know-how could prove to be vital in the coming weeks.
Having already led a team to the MLS Cup, Smith knows what it takes to navigate his way through the tricky postseason schedule. He may not physically affect things on the pitch, but his experience will rub off on his players.
With important games coming thick and fast, coaches must rotate their team and manage the testing playoff timetable. Smith has been there and done it before, so he will be confident of doing it again.
The Boys in Gold Have Nothing to Lose
At the end of the day, nobody expected Nashville to qualify for the playoffs. Before this year, only six expansion teams had ever made it to the postseason, so the Tennessee club has already exceeded all expectations.
There is pressure on teams like Sporting Kansas City, Minnesota United, and Columbus Crew to fulfill their potential, while the Sounders will be expected to defend their crown. New England will also be desperate to return to the glory days.
But with zero expectations and nothing to lose, there is very little pressure on Nashville to succeed.
Ultimately, this allows Smith’s men to play with a sense of freedom. While many of the other semi-finalists carry a weight of expectation, the Boys in Gold don’t really need to worry about letting anyone down.
Why Nashville May Fall Short
It’s now time to discuss three reasons why Nashville could find it difficult to compete with the playoffs’ top teams.
A Lack of Cutting Edge in Attack
Nashville may have finished the regular season with one of the best defensive records in the league, but there is no denying that the team has struggled at the other end of the pitch.
Indeed, only two sides in the Eastern Conference scored fewer goals than Smith’s men – last-place Cincinnati and third-bottom Atlanta United.
The Boys in Gold have proved that they don’t need to score many goals to win matches. I mean, they have made it this far without blowing teams away. But if they find themselves two or three goals down in the semi-finals, it will be difficult for them to mount a comeback.
With five goals each, Daniel Rios and Hany Mukhtar are the club’s joint-top scorers this year. Winger Randall Leal has four goals to his name, while Zimmerman – a center-back – has netted three times in 2020.
Smith’s men can take confidence from the fact that they scored three goals against Orlando on Decision Day before putting three past Miami in their play-in match. But they aren’t going to produce high-scoring wins regularly.
The Competition is Strong
Of course, the Boys in Gold will do everything they can to win the MLS Cup. But the harsh reality is that their opponents may be too good. It’s as simple as that.
Nashville has thrilled everyone with their fearless approach this term, earning plenty of admirers along the way. However, it goes without saying that almost every other team left in the tournament boasts a stronger – and possibly more talented – squad.
Seattle’s squad is packed with stars. Indeed, Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, and Raul Ruidiaz were all named in this year’s Best XI. Orlando has Nani, Sporting KC can rely on Johnny Russell, while Minnesota boasts Kevin Molino and Robin Lod.
There is a sense that Nashville isn’t on the same level as their competitors, as Smith’s side doesn’t possess a standout star with match-winning capabilities. That could hinder the team in the coming weeks.
A Shortage of Playoff Know-How
I’ve already discussed how Nashville’s inexperience at this level could benefit the team. But a lack of postseason knowledge could also work against the playoff newcomers.
Players like Willis and Zimmerman have some experience under their belts. Willis has won the US Open Cup with two different clubs – DC United and Houston. Meanwhile, Zimmerman helped both Dallas and LAFC to clinch the Supporters’ Shield.
But on the whole, Nashville’s squad isn’t exactly brimming with players that have won a lot of silverware.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Smith’s side can’t go all the way. After all, there is a first time for everything, right? But with a lack of experience in their ranks, it could be difficult for Nashville to go deeper into the competition.
Who Are the Other Conference Semi-Finalists?
Let’s finish by taking a quick look at Nashville’s 2020 MLS Cup rivals.
Like Nashville, Orlando is also making their first playoff appearance. But with six years of regular-season experience behind them, it feels like the Lions are well equipped to challenge the best teams in the country.
The Florida club finished fourth in the Eastern Conference – nine points ahead of Nashville. Oscar Pareja’s men won a bizarre penalty shootout to overcome New York City in previous round. They now face the Revs in the semi-finals.
New England Revolution
New England finished the regular season level with Nashville on 32 points. Bruce Arena’s side got the better of the Montreal Impact in their play-in match before securing a shock 2-0 victory over Philly last time out.
The Unions was the bookies’ favorite to win the MLS Cup, so the Revs will be confident of causing more upsets as the playoffs unfold. If they beat Orlando and Nashville gets past Columbus, it will be New England vs. Nashville in the next round.
Columbus stands between Nashville and a place in the Conference Finals, but the Crew is not an easy opponent. The Ohio outfit was in Supporters’ Shield contention for much of the campaign and only finished a handful of points behind eventual champion Philadelphia.
Defender Jonathan Mensah made it into the 2020 MLS Best XI, with Gyasi Zardes finishing just two goals shy of Diego Rossi in the Golden Boot race. Needless to say, Caleb Porter’s men won’t go down without a serious fight.
The reigning MLS Cup champions ended the regular season in iffy form, yet their 3-1 victory over LAFC in the previous round proved that they are more than ready to defend their crown this year.
Not only are the Sounders among the league’s top scorers in 2020, but they also boast one of the best defensive records in the league. With Philly eliminated, Seattle is now the bookmakers’ favorite to lift the trophy on December 13.
Following their MLS is Back Tournament triumph, many believed Portland would go deep into the playoffs. But Dallas clearly had other ideas. The Toros knocked out the Timbers on penalties, setting up a semi-final clash with Seattle.
The Texans could not have been dealt a tougher draw, but if they carry their regular-season defensive solidity into the semi-finals, they could keep the Sounders at bay. Having said that, scoring goals has been Dallas’ biggest problem this term.
Sporting Kansas City
After finishing atop the Western Conference, Sporting KC was handed a playoff meeting with San Jose. The Quakes pushed Peter Vermes’ men all the way last weekend, yet SKC eventually triumphed thanks to a series of impressive penalty saves from Tim Melia.
Melia was the hero last time out, but forwards Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell are arguably the Wizards’ greatest threats. With Gadi Kinda and Erik Hurtado also in fine goalscoring form, SKC will be difficult to stop.
Minnesota is the team tasked with stopping Sporting KC. But having comfortably beaten Colorado in the previous round, the Loons will believe they can overcome Vermes’ side. A Kevin Molino double and a goal from Robin Lod saw Minnesota cruise past the Rapids.
Molino and Lod have been a potent force in attack throughout the year, while defenders Michael Boxall and Chase Gasper have kept things tight at the back. It could be argued that Minnesota has one of the most well-balanced teams in MLS.
Nashville faces Columbus on Sunday, November 29, with a place in the Conference Finals at stake. If the Boys in Gold can win their next two matches, they will find themselves in the MLS Cup final.
Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, 2020 will be viewed as a major success for the Tennessee club. The expansion team has come a long way in a short space of time, with Smith laying the foundations for continued success in the coming years.
From a neutral perspective, I really hope Nashville can go all the way. I’ve really enjoyed watching the team grow this year, and securing the trophy would be a fitting end to a remarkable breakthrough campaign.
We all love a good underdog story, don’t we?
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