It is not too often that MLS expansion teams quality for the playoffs, but this unpredictable year has seen two of them make the cut.
Here’s another twist: They will face off against one another in the first round.
Nashville SC is set to welcome Inter Miami to town on Friday night in the their first-ever postseason match, an all-or-nothing affair that will pit two sides with vastly different styles and brands against one another.
The battle of 2020 expansion teams will see a Nashville SC squad that has adopted a defensive-minded approach and does not boast much star power with a glitzy but inconsistent Inter Miami outfit that has stars like Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi, and Rodolfo Pizarro.
The distinct styles should make for quite a chess match between Gary Smith and Diego Alonso’s men, one that will ensure that an expansion team moves on in this postseason while eliminating the other.
Nashville SC got the better of the teams’ regular-season series, winning 1-0 at home in late August before playing to a goal-less draw in South Florida a week later.
Players to Watch
Benefitting from MLS’s recent protocol change, Leal will be available for this one after it was initially believed that he would miss out. That is a significant development for Nashville SC, which will need the Costa Rican international — who just won the club’s top attacking player award for this season — to provide the dangerous play in the final third in addition to helping on the defensive side of the game with a smart tactical outing.
Star players tend to make an impact on most successful playoff teams, and that is exactly what Inter Miami will be hoping for. Higuain has been good in different facets from the run of play, including with his range of passing, but has not really gotten going in terms of scoring goals. You figure some of his caliber might be due for some, and it could start here in his first meeting against the defensive-minded home team.
Matchup to Watch
WALKER ZIMMERMAN vs. GONZALO HIGUAIN
Higuain has all the veteran savvy and talent to be able to find just enough space to punish opposing defenses in high-stake games, but one of the men that will be tasked with keeping the Argentine under wraps is none other than the MLS Defender of the Year. Zimmerman and Higuain will see plenty of one another on Friday night, and who wins this inaugural duel between them, especially when they meet in Nashville SC’s 18-yard box, will go a long way in determining which team advances.
If there is one player that is truly different from the rest on Nashville SC, it is probably Mukhtar. The German playmaker finished the season by returning from an injury with a goal and an assist off the bench, this after bagging a brace in his prior appearance to that. He has the ability to make things happen in the attack when he has the ball at his feet, and might do so here if given the opportunity to play from the opening whistle.
The battle in the midfield will be key here, and how Matuidi does in trying to put the game on Inter Miami’s terms could prove decisive. The Frenchman found better form during the final weeks of the regular season, and that level of play combined with his overall big-game experience may allow the World Cup winner to really make his presence felt by doing plenty of the heavy lifting on both sides of the ball.
Inter Miami only just snuck into the playoffs on the final match day of the regular season and is a very inconsistent team that has been plagued by its own individual errors far too often. That said, the squad is pound-for-pound more talented than Nashville SC and has more difference-makers, and that could shine through here if the stars live up to their billing.
Of course, Nashville SC has worked better as a collective in 2020 and its defensive solidity should make things plenty difficult for an Inter Miami squad that has had attacking issues all season. If the Tennessee side can frustrate its expansion brethren for much of the 90 minutes, there will be a good chance at advancing so long as someone pulls off a moment of magic or opportunism at the other end.
This match could easily be a very tight and cagey affair, but it also has the potential to become wide open given that it is an elimination match. Regardless of the circumstances, individual talent tends to shine through in these types of games and that might just tip the balance in Inter Miami’s favor.