Nashville SC’s move to Eastern Conference — sizing up competition in MLS is Back tournament

Nashville Soccer Club will have its Eastern Conference debut match at the MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando this July.

Major League Soccer is coming back and Nashville SC is making moves, literally.

Nashville Soccer Club and Major League Soccer announced on June 10 that the Music City club will shift over to the Eastern Conference for the remainder of the 2020 season, starting with the MLS Is Back tournament held in Orlando, Florida.

The move from the Western to Eastern Conference is a welcomed one by the club’s management and players. Before the league’s hiatus, Nashville SC was prepared to make numerous long-distance trips to its opponents, which shortened the team’s turnaround time between matches and minimized efficiency. With the change, the Boys in Gold will find league rivals much closer to home for the compressed remainder of the 2020 season.

“It just makes a lot of sense for us to be playing against teams in closer proximity to us,” said Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs. “People want to not only support Nashville SC or soccer fans, they want to support Nashville. They like the idea of competing against Atlanta, and Miami, D.C., Orlando. Those cities are closest to us. I think it makes a lot of sense for our fans, so I would love that.”

Nashville SC was drawn as Team 6 in Group A of the MLS Is Back Tournament where it will face the host team, Orlando City SC, as well as Philadelphia Union and Chicago Fire FC in the group stage. The top two clubs in their group will advance to the knockout stage, as well as the top four third-place clubs across all groups.

While Nashville SC has not faced any of their group stage opponents in the regular season, it has played one in the preseason. The Boys in Gold matched up with newly revamped Chicago Fire FC in February for their second scrimmage as a MLS club. Even though Nashville SC came away with a loss, the Windy City team it faced in February will not be the same one it’ll meet again in Florida.

Since the preseason, Chicago has signed five players to their squad, on top of what was already a fresh group of faces. Fourteen players left the club after its 2019 campaign, one being Nashville SC captain Dax McCarty, and now 17 new athletes are taking their place on top of an entirely new coaching staff and ownership for the club’s 2020 season. Despite being a historic club, the face of the team has taken almost a complete 180 turn for its 2020 season, making it almost as new as Nashville SC. Chicago Fire FC went 0-1-1 before the league’s suspension.

“You can’t really take too much from a preseason game. Both teams are working on little things here and there,” said McCarty. “The fact that we get to play my old team, a team I know well in a fairly competitive environment is exciting.”

Host club Orlando City SC is also working through changes in 2020 with a newly appointed head coach in Oscar Pareja. With only two matches coached under his belt, all eyes will be on Pareja and the tournament’s home team come July 8. Two of the three matches Orlando will play in Group A are the league’s 2020 expansion teams; before matching up with Nashville SC the host team will face in-state rivals Inter Miami to kick off the tournament. Orlando drew Real Salt Lake 0-0 on opening day before losing to the Colorado Rapids 2-1 the next week. Despite not capitalizing on scoring chances in the opener, the draw proved that Orlando City SC can hold their own defensively, a challenge the Music City club will have to meet head-on in Florida.

Philadelphia Union will be the most seasoned team Nashville SC faces in Orlando. Of the six teams in Group A, the Union is the only team that hasn’t undergone a head coach change in the past year. Philadelphia went 0-1-1 prior to MLS’ suspension, allowing five goals in two matches with a season-opening 2-0 loss to FC Dallas and three goals in their thrilling 3-3 tie with LAFC.

Before Nashville can take the pitch in July, the team is looking to build even more on what it has during group training. The announcement of their move to the Eastern Conference and group draw for the MLS is Back Tournament gives the Music City club much to look forward to in the coming weeks.

“Now we have tangible games on the schedule we can look at and start preparing [for], mentally, physically, emotionally,” said McCarty. “We have a group that’s hungry and ready to go compete and get on the field.”