The answer is clearly yes: they have three games against a quartet of high-caliber teams: big-spending FC Cincinnati, USL champion Louisville City, last year’s No. 5 team Charlotte Independence, and fellow expansion team (run by the most ambitious MLS organization) Atlanta United 2.
While I’ve gone on record saying I don’t believe Atlanta United 2 will win a ton of games (nor do I think that’s their goal – see the above link), they should still have plenty of talent. Cincinnati and Louisville are probably projected to go 1-2 in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte is the lone team that doesn’t project to one of the best talent-wise or in results over the 2018 season, but a team solidly in the playoff picture is hardly chopped liver.
So what’s the deal? For the most part, geography.
Those four teams just so happen to be high-caliber USL competition, but they’re also the four closest to Music City. Cincinnati’s other triple-plays are Indianapolis, Louisville, and Pittsburgh (again, the three closest to their hometown), Louisville’s include Indy and (oddly) New York Red Bulls II in addition to NSC and FCC, while Atlanta has Tampa and Charleston (and only 33 games instead of 34 scheduled). The area happens to be a hotbed for good USL teams, and the Boys in Gold will certainly be tested by the time the regular season comes to an end.
The question then becomes – at what point does this tougher schedule become a detriment on the chances of making the playoffs? Assuming that teams who play Toronto FC II twice (that would be NYRB2, Ottawa Fury, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and Penn FC) get a slight advantage by getting an extra game against the team that was a couple standard deviations worse than the next-worse team, NSC also gets a slight disadvantage. It’s worth noting that only one of those teams with the extra game against TFCII made the playoffs last year (seven-seed NYRBII).
Soccer games have three possible outcomes on the table: zero points (loss), one point (draw), or three points (win). The worst-case scenario of these opponents for an extra game, rather than, say the bottom four teams in the table is turning four wins into four losses: a sacrifice of 12 total points. Based on last year’s table, that’s the difference from 1st (Louisville City) to 5th (Charlotte Independence), or the spread from second (Charleston Battery) to completely out of the playoffs. It can be a fairly significant difference. Based the teams’ performances last year, where Louisville City averaged 1.94 points per game, Charlotte averaged 1.50, and Cincinnati 1.44 (again, I’m not expecting ATL UTD 2 to be successful in results, but talent is still talent and they’ll win some games), getting swept in the “extra game” by all three is unlikely – especially given that Cincy and Atlanta’s extra games are both in Nashville.
If the three non-expansion teams get the number of points against NSC that they would against the average team last year, Nashville would get a win off Louisville, about a win and a draw off Charlotte (or two draws and a loss), and a win and a draw off Cincinnati – that extra game is more likely to cost about an extra two points per game in comparison to one that played exclusively horrible squads for its triple plays, far less catastrophic.
Of course, none of this is super-important as long as NSC manages to make the playoffs. At that point, while they’d likely be sacrificing some home-field advantage due to the small hit in the table, they’d also be more battle-tested than those from outside this pod of Southeast teams. In the long run (and especially for a team that is looking at USL as a one- or two-year stopgap before an MLS leap), it could even be spun as an advantage.
You can certainly bet that NSC fans would only slightly lament a tougher time finishing at a high position in the table… given that it means more exciting games in First Tennessee Park, and better roadtrips during the Summer.