On Sunday, the Columbus Crew found a way to defeat Nashville SC in the MLS Cup Playoffs with a 2-0 victory in extra time. After the final whistle blew and “Wise Men” was sung in front of an empty Nordecke, the players and coaches headed to the locker room with no interest in celebrations. Head coach Caleb Porter spoke to the media and immediately thrust praise upon Columbus’ defeated opposition.
“I’d like to start off by congratulating Nashville for a tremendous season,” Porter began. ‘They were a very difficult opponent today and honestly, they gave us all we could handle. I want to credit the coach Gary Smith, he’s done an excellent job. (General manager Mike Jacobs in building the roster and then the players.”
The 2020 season was one to remember for expansion side Nashville SC, a team that was supposed to enter the league in the Western Conference. After dropping out of the MLS is Back Tournament due to COVID-19 infections, Major League Soccer moved Nashville to the Eastern Conference where they did not disappoint. Nashville finished seventh in the conference with the third-best defensive record in the league, conceding just 22 goals in 23 regular season games.
As the No. 7 seed, Nashville had to start its first-ever MLS Cup playoff journey in the play-in round, taking care of Inter Miami with ease. The team followed that with an extra time upset over Eastern Conference powerhouse Toronto FC with a well-organized performance and incredible defending. The Tennessee club did the same against Columbus but the Crew controlled the tempo throughout and was finally able to find a crack in Nashville’s defensive armor after 99 minutes of play.
This season, Nashville showed how to build an expansion team in MLS. The club acquired a perfect mixture of MLS veterans and exciting, talented youth. In head coach Gary Smith, Nashville has a former MLS Cup champion with the Colorado Rapids, known for having incredibly organized teams. The organization kept on Mike Jacobs from the club’s USL team after he was the assistant technical director for Sporting Kansas City when the team won two U.S. Open Cup titles in order to bring winning experience to the front office.
On the pitch, Nashville did the same and it started with Walker Zimmerman. The American center back earned caps for the national team after his consistent defensive seasons for FC Dallas and Los Angeles Football Club. At LAFC, he made his first MLS Best XI after winning his second Supporters’ Shield. LAFC traded Zimmerman to Nashville for $1.25 million in allocation money and an international spot. That trade worked out well considering Zimmerman won MLS Defender of the Year and Nashville went further in the postseason than LAFC.
Jacobs acquired his veteran center back and surrounded him with more MLS experience. Center back partner David Romeny spent four years with the LA Galaxy before coming to Tennessee. Left back Daniel Lovitz has been in the league since 2014 and the right back spot was filled with MLS SuperDraft selection Alistair Johnston.
Crew striker Gyasi Zardes didn’t find much space in the 120 minutes he played against Nashville SC. He called the backline very “organized” after he was unable to receive much service in regulation. As the game went on, Zardes tried to find any kind of way to get touches in the middle. Zimmerman, Romeny and company made that extra challenging.
“On crosses, Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney are very good in the air,” Zardes explained. “They’ve been eating up all the balls when I’m trying to bait them into near than far-post runs and also the opposite, far than near-post runs and they were closing off space real well. By us getting the one goal, they changed their whole backline, which opened up a lot of things. Playing a team like Nashville, it’s important that you get the first goal.”
The midfield and attack also have this healthy mix led by Dax McCarty in the center of the park, who is an example to exciting new talent like Hany Mukhtar or Randall Leal.
Jacobs did a remarkable job building this squad and Smith’s tactics made this team look like it has been in the league together for years.
Throughout the season, Nashville was in-fact scoring first and losing leads but as the season developed, the team developed a stronger mentality of holding leads and getting a couple of comebacks. The thing is, the team’s strong defense allowed the group to hold every level of MLS opposition to few goals. In 26 games played this season, Nashville conceded two or more goals just eight times.
Nashville SC will look to build on a successful inaugural year when the 2021 MLS season gets underway next spring. The Crew will take on the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET for a spot in the MLS Cup Final.