The democratic nature of Major League Soccer has seen 13 different names inscribed on the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy – the silverware handed out to the MLS Cup winner – in the past 24 years.
That’s unheard of when compared to the top leagues in Europe, where a small handful of teams tend to dominate the standings year after year.
It’s the success of the egalitarian transfer system in North America that the competition remains so open each year, and explains why the expansion franchises – i.e. those that are newly added to the league – have a chance to hit the ground running.
That was the case for Atlanta United, who were crowned champions in just their second MLS season, and it may just be that Nashville SC follow suit.
They reached the semi-finals of the Eastern Conference playoffs in their inaugural season – the chaotic 2020 campaign in which the action was halted, and that has laid the foundation for a solid sophomore year… and Nashville have, thus far, taken full advantage.
A Numbers Game
Aside from the exploits of the Memphis Grizzlies, Tennessee is not a state you would neccessarily see as a hotbed of sporting prowess.
But, as of May 31, the MLS league standings show what Gary Smith and his Nashville SC soccer team have achieved so far.
They sit fifth in the Eastern Conference table and a lowly ninth in the Supporters Shield rankings, however they are yet to lose a game with two wins and five draws.
Most pleasing for Smith is the fact that his side could, and possible should, have turned at least a couple of those stalemates into victories based on the underlying stats.
The Tennessee natives have won the Expected Goals (xG) count in five of their last six outings. What is xG? Well, that’s an advanced statistic that measures the quality of chances created and those yielded. While the Expected Goals count doesn’t always reflect the actual match result, it does offer a real insight into how well a team is performing.
From this xG data, we can create a hypothetical Expected Points table which shows how a franchise is expected to perform in the long term based upon their current efforts. And in that measure, Nashville are currently riding high and actually top the Eastern Conference standings.
Of course, not everybody sees the value in such data – for them, the only numbers that count are points won – however as an indicator of how well they are playing right now the signs are very encouraging indeed for Nashville.
It’s not unheard of for an expansion franchise to enjoy success early in their history, as Atlanta showed in 2018, and so it’s a surprise that more people aren’t talking up Nashville as a potential champion this season. In fact, they are considered nothing more than long shots in the MLS outright winner odds from Betway, with a price of +4000 (on June 2) suggesting they are unlikely to gatecrash the post-season party.
But will the outfit from Music City continue to hit all the right notes in 2021?
Been There, Done It, Got the T-Shirt
It’s always interesting to see how new MLS teams go about their player recruitment – you can see how their philosophy will be shaped by the type of player they bring in.
Some expansion outfits struggle in this department, and Austin’s start to the 2021 campaign suggests they haven’t quite got it right on that front.
It was clear from the offset that Smith and the Nashville back office team wanted to bring in experienced players who had plenty of MLS action under their belts – that is one reason that they have been so successful this early in their existence.
Joe Willis, the former USMNT star Walker Zimmerman, Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy form the defensive spine, and while they are all aged 28 and over they bring with them plenty of nous and knowhow.
Dominique Badji and C.J. Sapong have been tasked with leading the forward line, and they have stacks of MLS seasons to their name already – with some silverware clinched along the way.
Sprinkle on some magic dust in the form of creative outlets Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal and you have a recipe for success – as Nashville’s early season form attests.
It’s true that the franchise has benefitted from a handy run of fixtures that has seen them play the majority of their games at the Nissan Stadium, but Nashville SC have shown enough so far in 2021 to suggest that they can be a real force in the MLS.
But just how far can they go?