Nashville SC season 2 ender

From left: C.J. Sapong, Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar

As enjoyable as Nashville SC has been to watch this season, this team just doesn’t do things the easy way.

Thirty-eight seconds into Sunday’s game against the New York Red Bulls — a Decision Day contest that would determine Nashville’s playoff seeding — calamity struck in the form of a bleach-blond Brazilian named Fábio.

After NSC turned the ball over in midfield, defender Eric Miller, an unexpected participant who has watched most of the season from the bench, was caught out of position as New York’s forward banged home an early goal. 

The season’s biggest crowd at Nissan Stadium had barely settled in, and the home side was already losing 1-0 — to, frankly, an inferior team. It’s been a pattern for the last part of the season: an early goal to Orlando last weekend; three to Cincinnati the game before; a first-half penalty against Philly.

Coach Gary Smith has been asked about it enough by reporters that he starts his postgame remarks now with comments on the way the team plays from behind.

“The opening minute of course will be key to how we move forward,” Smith said. “Conceding an early goal to what we can effectively class as one of our postseason challengers now, it leaves you in an extremely difficult place to try to recover.”

Smith actually began the game with a concession to Nashville’s early problems, starting three center backs in defense to try to batten things down. Unfortunately, one of those starters was not Dave Romney, the team’s iron man who until Sunday played every minute of NSC’s first two seasons. After limping around on a sore Achilles in practice last week, Romney was given the day off in favor of Miller.

But as worrying as Nashville SC’s starts have been, there’s a certain resilience to the team that belies the fact that they’re only finishing season No. 2 in Major League Soccer. Goals that were so hard to come by last year have come in bunches.

Journeyman forward C.J. Sapong has played so well this season — bagging 12 goals and four assists — that two different designated players (Aké Loba and Jhonder Cádiz) can’t push him out of the starting lineup. 

And Hany Mukhtar has transformed from a slight midfielder who was pushed off the ball consistently last season into a legitimate MVP candidate and a free-flowing attacker.

His 16 goals and 10 assists lead the team, so it was little surprise that when he lined up just outside the penalty box for a free kick in the 37th minute of Sunday’s game, the entire crowd rose in anticipation. Somehow the German international split two defenders in a wall to beat the goalkeeper from an impossible angle and tie the game at 1-1. 

“[Daniel] Lovitz asked me, ‘What do you want?’ and for me it was clear to hit the target and try to score,” Mukhtar said. “I know it was a tight angle, but I’ve practiced a lot in training, and yeah, when you get the chance — unfortunately this year we haven’t gotten too many free kicks — but when I have a good possibility to score on a free kick, I’ll take the chance.”

This seems to be the pattern with Nashville SC: Take a punch, then start throwing them back. Sometimes it’s midfielder Randall Leal slaloming past defenders, and other times it’s defender (and sometime U.S. national team captain) Walker Zimmerman storming through the midfield like Thor on the hunt for Thanos.

If the league’s naysayers accused Nashville of being too defensive or boring last season, this year they’ve had to turn elsewhere to level cheap criticism. Fifteen different players have scored for Smith’s side, and any look at advanced metrics shows Nashville is among the more attractive teams in the league.

A win on Sunday would have vaulted the boys in gold into second place in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but third place still garners them a home game in two weeks against Orlando. If they win, the path to an MLS Cup would likely go through Philly and then New England — the New England Revolution is the league’s best team, but one that failed to score against Nashville in two tries this year. 

And that’s the funny hope that Nashville has right now: New England might be more feared; Atlanta might have a better recent history; NYCFC might have the best player in the league (Valentín Castellanos); Colorado might be hotter. But does anyone really want to play Nashville? In 17 games at Nissan this season, Nashville SC never lost. It’s a resilience that will serve them well in the next phase.

Over the course of a single-elimination playoff bracket, the “best” team doesn’t always win. (Just ask Seattle about last season’s final.) Sometimes it’s the teams that will scrap and hang around — you know, like the team Smith and GM Mike Jacobs have built over the past two years. 

Nashville has a puncher’s chance. Now we get to see if they can take it.