While Nashville SC looks to build on a stellar MLS debut in 2020, FC Cincinnati hopes this might finally be the year for a breakout.
The former USL rivals will kick off their 2021 seasons with a first-ever MLS meeting on Saturday night at Nashville.
It was quite the first MLS season for Nashville SC, who went 10-8-8, including the postseason, and became the first expansion club to win two playoff games while reaching the conference semifinals since Chicago in 1998.
Nashville SC was one of the top defensive teams in MLS, conceding just 22 goals during the regular season and none in defeating Inter Miami CF and Toronto FC over its first two playoff contests before bowing out to Columbus 2-0.
All that helped coach Gary Smith earn a recent contract extension, but it also raises expectations for 2021. There is plenty to feel good about with reigning MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman back. Hany Mukhtar had five goals to tie for the team lead, while Randall Leal (four goals) still is in the mix. The club also picked up veteran forward CJ Sapong.
Nashville SC could benefit from playing their first four games at home.
"Who would have thought last year we would make the semifinals? Nobody would have thought," midfielder Handwalla Bwana told Nashville SC's official website. "Now the guys know that we're one of the best teams in MLS. So, now we have so much confidence."
A new season also brings a sense of some early confidence and optimism at FC Cincinnati, who won just 10 games during their first two MLS seasons and managed a league-low 12 goals in 2020.
FC Cincinnati signed former D.C. United midfielder Luciano Acosta, who recorded a career-high 10 MLS goals in 2018, and talented young Brazilian forward Brenner (11 goals for Sao Paulo in 2020). Frankie Amaya, the top overall pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, also returns after a solid 2020 campaign.
"This is a new team, a team with big expectations," Acosta said last month. "As the saying goes, the third try (to reach the postseason) is the charm."
FC Cincinnati have won just four road games during their young MLS history and managed to score just one goal while losing their final five road games in 2020.
Because of the unique scheduling due to the coronavirus pandemic, FC Cincinnati and Nashville SC did not match up against each other last season.
--Field Level Media