Just about everyone is impacted in far more serious ways by coronavirus than what happens on the soccer field. This is a soccer blog though, so we soldier on. Wash your hands, stay inside. On with the soccer.
UPDATE: MLS Commissioner Don Garber has indicated that some form of truncated season is likely. Feel free to make the according mental adjustments.
Every team in Major League Soccer is impacted in the same ways by the current moratorium on play and training: There are no games, there are no fans. Nobody can hit the field, nobody can train, nobody can even work out in their club’s facilities. That applies equally across each of the 26 franchises.
However, all the teams have their own unique circumstances to deal with. Whether that’s a squad starting the year hot and now at risk of losing that momentum (Minnesota United and Sporting Kansas City), still awaiting its first home game (Chicago Fire and Inter Miami CF), or simply looking for the first result in franchise history (Miami again, and of course Nashville). No two sides have exactly the same combination of factors to deal with.
So let’s take a look at Nashville’s situation.
Nashville has been stagnating on two games played and zero points show for it since March 8. Given that we don’t seem to be particularly close to returning to the pitch (May 10 is the earliest date possible – and even that is looking optimistic), that could remain the case for some time.
The longer the break in play lasts, the more likely it is that the season is shortened in some way. Assuming that the league still intends to have a regular-season table in the traditional sense – rather than some sort of SuperCup that replaces the season – any shortening of the season is bad for Nashville, when it comes to number of games played.
It’s a simple matter of math: the shorter the season, the greater a percentage of the final table is represented by the two games already completed. With Nashville the only Western Conference team without a point to date, that would mean less time to make up for the 0-2 start. Meanwhile SKC, Minnesota, and the Colorado Rapids would see a six-point mark to date represent a greater proportion of the full season. The more games that are played, the better for teams that are trying to make up ground, and the worse for those that have been perfect to date.
Even if the season is ultimately shortened, of course, there are some bright signs for Nashville SC. The team has played relatively well, dominating the expected goals battle in the first two contests (with gamestate effects as an important caveat), and there may just be one or two tweaks to take things to the next level.
The question, then, becomes how much of Nashville’s ineffectiveness can be worked out without hitting the training pitch. Given that Nashville is a totally new squad, the players do need game reps to build chemistry. In that regard, the break is worse for Nashville than the average team, because the players don’t have a baseline level of comfort with most of their teammates like the returning squads do, and they don’t have the opportunity to build that comfort thanks to the training moratorium.
However, there are ways in which Nashville gets some benefits above and beyond what the average team gets.
One of those areas is in the performance of Designated Player Hany Mukhtar. The German is coming from Denmark’s Superligaen, and it’d be fair to say that he’s performed reasonably well so far in the limited sample size this season. However, the way in which he’s struggled has been adjusting to a more physical league (with a slower whistle) than he was accustomed to in the land of the Danes. It will take on-field reps to get fully used to keeping his feet through contact, but adding more physical strength in lieu of being able to actually get out and play soccer should help him adapt his style to MLS. The ways in which Mukhtar is already excellent have shown on the field. But Mukhtar can improve his (relatively minor) deficiency through the break in play.
Other teams are dealing with DPs (or key players) new to the league as well, but plugging them into teams with some consistency in personnel brings about a different circumstance. Any individual improvement for a player like Mukhtar – or fellow international signing Randall Leal, though his failings to date have seemed more chemistry-related, and could need practice reps to get ironed out – probably has more overall team impact than it would for another team (perhaps with the exception of a high-ceiling guy like Los Angeles Galaxy’s Chicharito, who has performed well below expectations after entering the year with the team planning to lean on him).
One other area that could help Nashville SC more than the average team is overall squad health. The Boys in Gold entered the year without many serious injuries, but certainly more bumps and bruises than you might expect for a team that picked its roster from scratch this offseason. Winger David Accam, centerback Jalil Anibaba, right back Brayan Beckeles, midfielder Jimmy Medranda, striker Daniel Ríos, winger Alan Winn… that’s a long list of guys who could benefit from an extended rest at the beginning of the year, even if only Anibaba and Beckeles have either injured or ineffective enough to not see the field at all.
A pause to evaluate
Of course, the above is mostly based upon the assumption that the team remains intact, with no major personnel or strategic changes.
There’s a blessing and a curse to having played two games: there have only been two evaluation opportunities (there’s no hurry to throw the baby out with the bathwater without a broader base of evidence), but there’s also not too much ingrained chemistry that would be disrupted with any sort of change, either. The technical staff has the opportunity to be very thoughtful about whether to make changes now that there is a base of in-game data upon which to make those decisions, but doesn’t have to worry too much about disrupting what has been working.
Especially given the club only has one Designated Player spot spoken for to this point, there is even some potential roster flexibility to address any concerns that arise. Whether or not the club uses that flexibility, they have an opportunity that not all squads have.
For the combination of these reasons – and the fact that NSC’s data analytics and technical teams are talented groups – Nashville benefits more than the average team with the chance to evaluate. Of course, there’s no telling whether the transfer window (scheduled to close May 28) will be adjusted due to the pause in play, which could ultimately throw a different wrench into the works.
Long-term business considerations
Taking into account that every MLS team is owned by an extremely wealthy – like Nashville’s John Ingram – businessperson or group thereof, we won’t split hairs about whether their relative wealth will impact how they look at their teams. Indeed, New England’s Robert Kraft may not be the wealthiest of the bunch, but the perfunctory cash he’s thrown at the Revolution over the course of their existence certainly isn’t reflective of his relative wealth.
What I’m saying here is that nobody’s non-soccer businesses are going to be bankrupted because the owners’ cash disappears with their soccer investment, and that includes Ingram’s group.
However, Nashville SC is still on less stable footing than most of the league when it comes to its hold on the community. 59,069 fans at the season-opener notwithstanding, it’s safe to say that a team with only that home game in its MLS history isn’t a pillar of its community like the Portland Timbers, a consistent fan turn-out machine like FC Cincinnati, or even a roots-planted but missed-opportunity like Chicago Fire had been over the past 15 years.
The team could really have used the momentum from the opening contest to continue developing into a must-attend event – like the Nashville Predators have done just across the Cumberland River – and instead may have to build back up from scratch whenever player resumes. For that reason, Nashville is hurt more than the average MLS team, though probably not as badly as Chicago (whose anxiously-awaited move back to Soldier Field will be put off indefinitely) or Miami (a franchise in a more-established soccer hotbed than Nashville… but waiting to prove that playing half an hour away in Fort Lauderdale won’t doom the buzz).
The club has done a good job continuing to engage the fanbase with no on-field action to speak of, so the PR staff is making the best of a bad situation, but there’s only so much progress that can be made – or even maintained – without any activity.
The net effects on-field probably work out ever-so-slightly in Nashville’s favor, especially when taking into account that there will have to be some sort of mini-preseason (during which the team can rebuild chemistry – something they need more than the average team) before play resumes. It’ll be up to them to make that count on the table, and for the club to take advantage in the community.