Earlier today, Major League Soccer (finally) made it official: Nashville SC will play at least its first year in the league as a member of the Western Conference. That’s been basically understood for months now, but the official confirmation – and confirmation of no changes to that plan – is refreshing, and gives us a better idea of what the 2020* schedule will look like.
Nashville SC will play the other 12 West teams home-and-away (24 games), and play 10 teams from the East, meaning it will take at least until Year Two to see every MLS side at least once in league play.
Comparative conference strength
The West was the stronger conference in 2019, according to my power rating system (brief explainer: compares xG and xGA in individual games to the opponents’ averages, normalizes, and averages gamescores over the course of the season. If you want a more in-depth explanation, feel free to hit me with a DM on Twitter). Here’s the table itself…
West teams averaged a Pure Power rating of 0.06, while East teams were -0.07 (i.e. West teams were barely above average, East about the same amount below it). However, there’s a very different distribution of teams in each conference:
- The West was extremely top- and bottom-heavy thanks to LAFC and Vancouver, respectively. The rest of the conference was bunched pretty close to the middle of the pack.
- The East didn’t have any major outliers breaking the table on either end (unless you consider Cincy still doing so, even though it’s to a lesser extent than Vancouver did). However, it was a bit of a bimodal distribution with clumps high and low, and the middle pretty barren.
- If you look at just goals finished or conceded, rather than xG, the individual teams’ numbers change pretty significantly, but the aggregate is about the same for each conference.
All told, the West was stronger just about any way you slice it, but had a greater standard deviation. Being in the West is tougher overall, but aside from LAFC and Vancouver, more consistent, as well. The middle of the pack has folks beating each other up.
Who will NSC play in the East?
We already know one of 10 answers here: the Boys in Gold open the 2012 season against Atlanta United in Nissan Stadium. That leaves nine other opponents to slot in, five of them away and four of them at home.
Scheduling – like too many things in MLS – is likely to fall on the arbitrary side. However, assuming Nashville will be back in the East in the not-too-distant future, I’d bet on potential long-term rivals being on the schedule. Given that one of those is FC Cincinnati [mumbles something about attendance for 15 minutes], I’d wager on a game in Nippert Stadium.
I don’t know why, but I just feel like the original franchises remaining in the league (in the East, that’s Columbus Crew, DC United, New England Revolution, and New York Red Bulls) will be on the schedule for an expansion team. It just makes sense for the original squads to have a chance to welcome a newcomer. (I am definitely questioning that now that I see it on a screen instead of inside my brain, though). Two home and two away? Sure. I bet the two expansion teams play each other, and I bet they do it in Miami.
From there… you have a number of different – and equally arbitrary to what I just wrote above – to figure out which three remaining teams Nashville plays and which three they have to wait to face for the first time. Could we see an NFL-style schedule-equalizer with the weakest teams remaining in the East to make life not too rough on a newcomer?
Based on last year’s table, that’d be Montreal, Orlando (also helping set the stage for Southern teams to have a little somethin’ somethin’ when they’re all in the same conference?), leaving Philadelphia Union, NYCFC, and Chicago off the schedule. Or the reverse is true. Or a game in Chicago could be a priority as MLS tries to give the Fire an expansion team in Soldier Field.
All this is just guessin’, folks.
Nothing has really changed with the knowledge of which conference Nashville SC will be in, but it certainly feels a heck of a lot more real.
Cincinnati-level historic incompetence is probably not on the table, but is there a chance the team will actually be good? If the playoff format doesn’t change – and it certainly could – seven teams will make the postseason and six will miss. A finish between 6-9 is a lofty goal, but probably the most realistic (if not optimistic) one to aim for.
So far… well, we shall see. The roster build is going well enough so far, but certainly a few more key pieces will be necessary if we’re to believe NSC is on the periphery of the playoff discussion, much less in the thick of it.
*We’re going to continue operating on the assumption that Nashville will spend just one year (or maybe two) in the West, with Austin’s 2021 entry unbalancing the conferences either way, and then two more West teams joining in 2022 in the form of Sacramento and St. Louis. If Charlotte is indeed Team No. 30, that’s (along with Miami), three expansion teams West and three East.