Rumors swirled late in 2019 that Nashville SC would spend at least its first year as a Major League Soccer franchise participating in the Western Conference. Club CEO Ian Ayre was among those willing to speak in more-definite terms that it would be the case – though perhaps not a permanent state of affairs for the Boys in Gold.
The main question from Nashville’s fanbase – and indeed from fanbases of natural rivals in Cincinnati and Atlanta, for example – was why a team with the word “East” right there in its US Census regional designation would be combined with conference rivals hailing exclusively from the opposite side of the Mississippi. Logistically, it was little more than a necessary evil: with teams entering in Austin, Sacramento and Saint Louis in the next few years, an even distribution of teams across the Eastern and Western Conferences required either Chicago Fire or Nashville SC – the farthest West teams that seem natural for the Eastern Conference – would spend some time as an outlier, and the Fire’s natural rivalries are more built-up with over a decade spent in the Eastern Conference.
When the novel coronavirus pandemic led to a halting of all team sports in the country, it looked like NSC’s time in the West was on-track to end up even shorter than expected. The league went a step further in organizing its MLS is Back tournament as we slowly approach a sense of normalcy* – Nashville will finish the 2020 season as a member of what feels the more natural conference.
“When you look at where we are right now in what’s becoming this abbreviated or truncated season, I think getting a chance to have more regional proximity, playing teams closer to us, helps with things like recovery time between matches, minimizing team travel,” said Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs. “A lot of benefits to that in general. What happens in the future remains to be seen. Obviously, it makes sense for us to be in the Eastern Conference, for a variety of reasons. Other than the teams in Florida or Atlanta, we’re the farthest Southeast in MLS. It just makes a lot of sense to do that, and the hope is – whether it’s rivalries that develop naturally because of proximity – I think it’s a good thing for us in general, and time will tell where the league determines where we play in the future.”
The conferences are imbalanced once more, with 14 teams in the East (and Nashville participating in a six-team group for the MLS is Back tournament as a result) and just 12 in the West. However, in a year that is never going to be looked at as anything other than an outlier – regardless of whether the remainder of the season goes off without a hitch – it’s worth noting that Nashville’s in-season switch may yet be a temporary measure.
League Commissioner Don Garber made it very clear that the shift makes sense in closing out the 2020 schedule. With a limited timeframe and a portion of the regular-season schedule accounted for with a single-site tournament in Orlando, beginning July 8, the easy option may be messy, but better than alternatives. That isn’t necessarily the case when evaluating conference alignment in 2021 and beyond.
“It’s too premature to talk about the permanency of it,” Garber said of Nashville’s move. “It certainly made sense for the tournament. We needed to balance it out and the logical move was with Nashville.
“As you know – we’ve spoken about this – we are an expanding league and we are having teams come into different regions of the country, and there will be realignment at some point in our league as we continue to look at expansion through 30 teams. But the decision for now is simply about how we are going to manage it in the tournament.”
Nashville will take on Chicago Fire (in a bit of a coincidence), Orlando City SC, and the Philadelphia Union, while New York City FC and NSC’s fellow expansion team Inter Miami CF round out the six-team group. The top two teams in each of the tournament’s six groups will advance to a 16-team knockout stage, along with the four best point totals among third-place finishers (with Group A almost certain to provide one of those top point totals).
After the tournament, Nashville will compete as a member of the Eastern Conference for the rest of the season. While he doesn’t have a say in the longer-term alignment for his team, Jacobs believes staying East makes the most sense in the future, as well.
“I’m not in the product strategy committee; I’m not going to ultimately gonna dictate where we land,” he said. “But the reality is, it just makes a lot of sense for us to be playing against teams in closer proximity to us. You think about our game in general, it is very tribal. People want to not only support Nashville SC or soccer fans, they want to support Nashville. Along with that, they like the idea of competing against Atlanta, and Miami, DC, Orlando: those cities are closest to us. I think it makes a lot of sense for our fans, so I would love that.
“From a scheduling standpoint and the ability to maximize our own travel, it’s easier for us to have shorter trips. You think about before the pandemic hit, we were on track to have as much travel as far as miles as any team in MLS history, to have a team in the Southeast playing in the Western Conference.”
The remainder of the 2020 season – what happens after teams return from Orlando – is totally up in the air, of course.
“I’m very optimistic,” Garber said. “I do believe we’ll get back to our markets. I think all of our fans should expect that to happen. When that will happen is still uncertain, and whether or not we’ll have any markets with fans is also uncertain.”
From Nashville’s perspective, how the 2020 season will play out may be the least of the uncertainty.
* There’s still a pandemic going on. Wear your mask, wash your hands, and generally don’t do dumb things. Thanks.