With yesterday’s release of the 2019 USL Championship schedule, we now know the dates and locations for Nashville SC’s games. Let’s take a closer look at the slate for some takeaways.
First off, here’s a chart showing the percentage of Nashville’s games played at home (blue line) over the course of the season, with a running five-game average (red line), as well. Of course, the average team will play 50% of its games at home consistently, since each game has a home team and road team.
Nashville’s season is one of some pretty big swings: three of the first five games at home, but then only five of the next 15 (including a three-game homestand in late May), and then the rolling five-game average doesn’t get back above 50% home games until mid-August. This is a schedule that is heavy on home games to start the year, but sees the team become road warriors in the mid-season. Then, eight of the last twelve (and five of the final six) are at home to bring the year to a close on a strong streak.
How much rest will Nashville SC get between games? There are some interesting takeaways there, too. There are seven mid-week games (and one Sunday game), but fortunately most of those come in the friendly confines of First Tennessee Park. From Eliot McKinley of American Soccer Analysis:
As you can see in Eliot’s first tweet, Nashville is right on the median line for mid-week games, and while they have the second-most games on three- or four-day rest in the league (only Seattle Sounders 2 has it tougher, thanks to 10(!) games on three days’ recovery), they also have the second-highest number of long gaps (10-plus days) between games, behind only Indy Eleven. Of course, some of those long gaps will be filled by US Open Cup games: Nashville’s four USOC dates last year were May 16, May 23, June 6, and June 20, while this year’s long gaps include May 25-June 8 (a likely USOC gap) and July 6-July 17 (a possibility if NSC is still in the competition).
Eliot’s second tweet shows that Nashville’s weekday games are primarily concentrated at home, which is a better situation than having to travel in the mid-week. The downside of that is that the two away games in the midweek are both drivable for NSC supporters, with the games in Memphis and Birmingham. However, expecting folks to be able to go on roadtrips on a weekday is sort of a tough ask. It looks like USL intentionally put drivable games on the midweek (NSC also hosts Birmingham and Louisville for weekday games), but without regard for a concept of fostering an away supporter culture.
(The backlash on these two games specifically has been a little over the top, but it’s still poor planning by a league that direly needs to court the types of folks who would drive three hours on a Saturday for second-division soccer but can’t do so on a Wednesday).
Let’s also take a look at quality of opposition over the course of the year. Using the 2018 season’s final USL Power ratings, here’s the caliber of opponent for each game (blue) and a five-game rolling average (again in red) as the calendar plays out:
A reminder on what the numbers represent here: “0” is completely average given the location of the game. Higher numbers mean the team is better than average, lower mean worse than average. I gave all expansion teams a value of zero for the time being, though I’ll have further analysis on the year-to-year quality of new franchises at some point soon and assuming they’ll be average is probably charitable.
As you can see, during that middle road stretch, Nashville SC has some of its easier games. The home stretches at the beginning (@ New York Red Bulls II, @ Pittsburgh Riverhounds – obviously not part of the home slate) and end (v. Pittsburgh and Louisville, both at home – against two of the top three road teams in the East last year) are where the tough games really lie. Less fixture density and travel fatigue should set up nicely to have NSC at its peak performance for those ones.
Assuming all teams are about the same quality that they were last year (another unfair assumption!), you chop Cincinnati off the top end of the Eastern Conference, both Toronto FC II and Richmond off the bottom and Penn FC fourth-bottom, and slide Nos. 14 St. Louis and 19 Swope Park Rangers (of 35 USL teams in 2018) into the East, then add expansion teams in Birmingham, Hartford, Loudoun, and Memphis. Unless the expansion teams are better than expected, simple year-to-year improvement for Nashville (having a returning core of 14 players and the improved chemistry resulting from that continuity) would probably be safely assumed as a top-4-ish team in the East. Indeed, they were around that range for much of the year before a late swoon in 2018.
Less-heralded than the schedule release itself but also important, USL also released a change to the Championship’s playoff format, largely facilitated by an increase in the number of teams. Last season, 8/16 in the East and 8/17 in the West (45.7% of the league) made the playoffs. With three-team net growth – the four departing East teams mentioned above, and seven total expansion teams – the playoff in each conference has expanded to 10 teams. That’s 55.6% of the league now making the playoffs.
Seeds 7-10 will participate in a de facto play-in round, with the 7/10 winners taking on the two-seed in each conference and the 8/9 winners facing off against the top seed. Hopefully from a Nashville perspective, this will only be relevant to us because the first-round opponent will have already participated in a playoff game (meaning NSC is a one- or two-seed), not because the Boys in Gold are scrapping to stay above the seven line and avoid a play-in game.