Nashville SC

Nashville SC magic number and playoff scenarios update

Beating FC Cincinnati is an important first step to making any of this matter! Courtesy Nashville SC

Saturday evening, Nashville SC could have clinched its entry into the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs with just two results going the right way: a win against Philadelphia Union, and any one of three options on the out-of-town scoreboard.

Not only did the Boys in Gold not take down Philly, but all three of the other games went the wrong way (Montreal drew Toronto FC while NSC needed CFMTL to lose, New York Red Bulls beat Columbus Crew, and NYCFC obliterated DC United). That means NSC enters Wednesday night’s Week 32 matchdate in the same place it was entering Saturday’s: in need of a win and some help in order to officially clinch a berth into the postseason.

Fortunately, the opposition – FC Cincinnati – will be far less intimidating this time around. And the out-of-town scoreboard looks to be a bit more charitable.

Clinching the playoffs

A Nashville SC win over FC Cincinnati would put NSC on 52 points… which as things stand right now, seals eighth place. As things stand, the worst-possible finish is ninth, and getting to 52 seals a finish ahead of DC United. The team can seal seventh with a number of different out-of-town results.

  • If NYCFC only draws Chicago Fire (or loses that game), the Pigeons can only max out at 51 points (50 if it’s a loss), sealing Nashville in at least seventh, clinching a playoff spot.
  • Thanks to the Canadian Championship, CF Montreal doesn’t play until Saturday, but is the other team that can officially drop behind Nashville by failing to win its next league game, against Red Bulls Saturday.
  • If New York Red Bulls fail to take full points against DC United, only one of RBNY and CF Montreal can pass Nashville (since they play the above-mentioned game, and both would have to finish perfectly to close the year).
  • If Orlando City loses to Columbus Crew, only one of Orlando City and CF Montreal can pass Nashville (for the same reasons as the above).

If Nashville SC beats Cincinnati, the only way to miss the playoffs is by losing the final two games while NYCFC and New York Red Bulls both win out. It’s theoretically possible, but unlikely.

What if Nashville SC doesn’t beat Cincinnati? The playoffs are still looking pretty solid.

Let us assume – to set up a worst-case scenario – that FC Cincinnati, Toronto FC, Chicago Fire, Inter Miami CF, and Columbus Crew lose out against teams still in contention to catch Nashville in the table (that is, after NSC’s game against Cincy, go 0-11-0 to end the year until an irrelevant Decision-Day matchup between Columbus and Chicago). To put it differently: teams still in the running to catch Nashville get maximum points in games against teams that are not still in the running to catch Nashville. That leaves three Nashville games (@ Cincinnati, @ Orlando, NYRB), plus five games between teams that are still competitive to pass Nashville.

Assuming a draw against FC Cincinnati, there are 2187 permutations of how the other seven relevant games may play out. Nashville misses the playoffs in only 83 of them, and is a lock to make the playoffs with any sort of result against Red Bulls. (In fact, losing to both RBNY and Orlando is a near-requirement to miss the playoffs with a draw against FCC: there are only two of 2187 permutations that involve even a Nashville draw against Orlando while still missing the playoffs. Nashville is a near-lock for the playoffs with just two more points this year, no matter which games they come in, and a true lock if either of them is against NYRB. Certainly the Boys in Gold would love to have a berth locked up by then.

How high?

So, after Saturday’s loss to Philadelphia, can NSC still finish second in the East? The short answer is yes: since the teams are tied on points right now (and Nashville loses the tiebreakers), any set of Nashville results better than Philly’s set of results sees NSC pass the Union. Philadelphia closes with Toronto, Cincinnati, and NYCFC, so… Nashville essentially has to go 3-0-0 and hope for a Philly draw or loss to NYC, or go 2-0-1 and hope Philly loses to the Pigeons on Decision Day.

Nashville largely controls its own destiny against Orlando. A win against Cincinnati tomorrow means the opportunity to seal a finish ahead of OCSC in the head-to-head match Saturday (and if the Lions drop points at Columbus tomorrow, just a draw would be enough to seal it with a match to play).

Atlanta and both New York teams are varying degrees of realistic to pass Nashville as well, though NSC controls its own destiny against both sets of Jersey Boys with as simple as five points the rest of the year. That’s not quite enough to guarantee remaining ahead of Atlanta – but it’s close, and the Five Stripes take on Red Bulls next midweek (though the rest of the schedule to close the year – hosting Miami and Toronto, traveling to Cincinnati – is about as Charmin-soft as it gets).

Seven points guarantees a finish ahead of everyone but Philly, and even that amount could see a second-place finish if the Union falls to NYC. Most likely, it would mean ending up third in the table.

The Rooting Guide

So, Nashville’s playoff hopes – both in terms of making the field and finishing as high as possible – rest upon fairly simple choices when toe meets composite material tomorrow evening:

  • Nashville SC > FC Cincinnati. Duh.
  • Inter Miami >= Atlanta United. Atlanta losing points is good. Inter Miami is out of play for catching Nashville (and for the playoffs).
  • Columbus > Orlando. A draw here is also helpful, but not quite good enough to meet the threshold of making life more comfortable.
  • Chicago Fire >= New York City FC. Any result for the Fire puts Nashville a single win (preferably against FCC) away from a permanent finish ahead of the Pigeons.
  • Toronto FC > Philadelphia Union. As with the Orlando game, a draw is also helpful, but it really takes a win here to provide the help that Nashville needs.
  • DC United > New York Red Bulls. This is the only game between two teams still currently in range of reaching Nashville – though DC no longer has that status (regardless of result) as long as Nashville beats Cincinnati. The above section indicates that Red Bulls losses are good for Nashville SC business.

Enjoy the soccering!

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