Footage courtesy Nashville SC media relations
Nashville SC is less than three weeks away from finally having the chance to put that first MLS in win franchise history into the record books. The Boys in Gold, along with the rest of Major League Soccer’s teams, will head down to Orlando, Fla. for the MLS is Back tournament, running July 8-Aug. 11 at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex.
Having fought valiantly but come up short in both early-season games before the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, there’s plenty of motivation. Taking the field four months to the day after last suiting up in competition, the Boys in Gold are ready to get that first point in the table.
“I think we played well our first two games, but we don’t have a win yet,” said defender Dave Romney. ‘So as an expansion team, you want to get that first win on the board as quick as you can, and hopefully build on that and finish out this tournament strong, and hopefully we’ll have games in the Fall that we can keep proving ourselves.”
With the groups set two weeks ago, and the schedule finally revealed earlier this week, there’s a tangible goal for Nashville SC. The team will take the field on the opening day of the competition against the Chicago Fire, the second game of a night doubleheader that begins with neutral venue “co-hosts” Inter Miami CF and Orlando City SC kicking off the tournament.
The Group A matchups will begin a pool-play stage that last just over two weeks.
“It’s great for us to be part of that unique experience on the first day,” said head coach Gary Smith. “I think we’ve planned and prepared well up until now, and we’ve still got three weeks until we kick a ball in competition. My hope is we’ll be in a very good spot.”
“There’s a lot of rust to get off that we’re still getting off,” Romney added. “We’ve played 11v11 a good amount, which I think is good. It’s just getting you back into strictly competing, and stuff that you haven’t really done in 3-4 months.”
The Fire will be a familiar opponent in a few ways. NSC midfielder Dax McCarty played in the Windy City for three years, serving as captain throughout his time with the team. Now that he’s serving in the same capacity with Nashville, even an overhauled Fire team will have a number of familiar faces.
More recently, Nashville took on the Fire in Central Florida once already in 2020. The teams – who weren’t initially scheduled to play in the regular season – participated in a preseason friendly in Tampa, just an hour’s drive down the road from the Orlando area. While the Fire emerged with a relatively painless 3-1 victory, Smith believes that adversity in the preseason contest helped his team take major steps forward, and become the team it is today.
“It gave us an awful lot to reflect on and to work out,” Smith said of his team’s defeat in the exhibition game. “I think part of that process of being ready for the start of the season was that defeat against Chicago.”
With the schedule announcement came an even bigger piece of news for Nashville SC and its Group A brethren. The lone six-team group in the competition (the rest are composed of four teams apiece), the initial format allowed for only two automatic qualifiers and the possibility of a third team – based upon points gained in the group stage – to advance to the knockout rounds.
Instead, the top three teams in the group table will automatically advance, while the fourth-place finisher is now eligible to make the bracket if it is among the most successful teams in the group stage among teams that don’t qualify automatically.
A little more leeway in the early stage is certainly welcome, but given Nashville’s intentions with the tournament, shouldn’t come into play anyway.
“Our mentality doesn’t change: we’re going there to win the tournament,” defender Dan Lovitz said. “Obviously, I think everyone would agree that [the updated format] makes more sense. We’re happy to see that format change come into effect. Glad they figured that out; I think it was a little bit of a strange one when we saw it first rolled out. They amended it, thankfully, and give a little bit more incentive, obviously, for more teams to know that there’s an extra spot that’s going to be guaranteed.
“For us, doesn’t really change mentality-wise. We know we’re going to throw everything at it, and land in that top three, for sure.”
Group-stage games also counts toward the regular-season table, with MLS hoping to resume some form of play in home markets as the Fall approaches – and with the perhaps overly-hopeful idea that the coronavirus pandemic will be contained soon. That’s double the motivation for getting three wins in the early going.
The big prize, of course, is a tournament championship. The added incentive to go all the way? An automatic berth in the Concacaf Champions League for the 2021 season.
“Concacaf inclusion in ’21 and nine points to fight for in the league: there’s no more motivation needed,” Smith said.
Dan Lovitz photo from file by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country