By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 5, 2020) US Soccer Players - While the rest of Major League Soccer played its way through an impromptu and unprecedented tournament in Orlando, two clubs watched from home. Now that MLS Is Back is down to the final four teams and will wrap up with a championship game next week, those two clubs, FC Dallas and Nashville SC, can move on from "what if" to what comes next.
The "what if" won't be easy to forget, though. Neither of them got a shot at the MLS is Back trophy. There were no surprise performances from Nashville, no confirmation of what we think we know about Dallas. Add to that missing out on the three group stage games that also count as league games. All of that will make for an awkward return to play.
Of the pair, FC Dallas looked more likely to make noise in Orlando. The club boasts several highly-regarded young players, with some already in the USMNT player pool. As the world watches the likes of Brenden Aaronson claim the spotlight during the Philadelphia Union's excellent tournament, it's easy to wonder what Paxton Pomykal, Tanner Tessman, Jesus Ferreira, and Ricardo Pepi might have achieved on the fields at the Wide World of Sports complex.
FC Dallas winger Fafa Picault wasn't shy about his belief that FC Dallas would have made trouble at MLS Is Back.
"I think we definitely could have made a very deep run, if not win it," Picault said last week in a video call with reporters. "Knowing our group, and having been in the league for a few years, I definitely think we would have done very well."
It's easy for Picualt to talk up his team from the sidelines, but he has a point. A tournament may be the perfect scenario for Dallas's mix of academy-bred young talent and savvy veterans. MLS is back might as well have been designed for the team's youth and ambition.
FC Dallas would certainly fit among the teams doing well in Orlando. The final four is decidedly "non-elite," at least as that label applies to overall spending. Of the semifinalists, only the Portland Timbers have an MLS Cup to their name. None of the teams remaining rank among the league's top handful of spend-happy outfits. At the same time, none of the clubs remaining are "cheap" exactly. They're also not at the leading edge of player signings in the modern, more profligate, MLS.
An upstart FC Dallas would not be out of place. Head coach Luchi Gonzalez is committed to giving opportunities to the young cadre developed by the academy. That doesn't mean he will sacrifice a chance to win in the process. The balancing act that FC Dallas is attempting looks a lot like what the Union is doing in Philadelphia.
The approach may differ slightly. Let's be fair. FC Dallas established itself as a leader in player development years before the Union's academy kicked into high gear. Still, the similarities are hard to miss.
Nashville SC's prospects for a deep MLS Is Back were less certain. The club is new to MLS, a status that brings the typical difficulties associated with expansion. Nashville has a veteran MLS head coach in Gary Smith, a man with an MLS Cup title to his name. It also has an unproven roster that was still coalescing at the time of the league's shutdown. Smith believed in his team's chances in Orlando, despite difficulties that come with being a first-year operation.
"When we were told we were being withdrawn from the tournament… they were adamant they wanted to continue," Smith said about his players. "They felt as though they had enough bodies, they were in a good enough place physically to deal with the rigors of the games that were going to be thrown at us. It was a very deflating time."
Nashville entered the pandemic shutdown with a pair of losses in its first two games. Because those matches came against Atlanta United and on the road at LAFC, it's difficult to know what the new club's prospects are moving forward.
Inter Miami's struggles at MLS Is Back suggest it might have been difficult for Nashville to upend conventional wisdom about the club's chances, regardless of the competition. Nashville's approach to team building was decidedly more budget-minded than Miami's.
Then again, the last four at the tournament boast few big-name stars and are replete with under-the-radar role players who are shining in the Florida heat. Smith's penchant for playing organized defense might have played very well in the tournament environment.
It's hard to say just how far behind Nashville and FC Dallas will be if and when MLS returns to the field after the tournament concludes in Florida. Without the minimum of three group stage games, both will need to make up matches. Per reports, the pair will play each other twice in a few weeks' time as part of that process. Since neither is going to be sharp, it's only fair they'll have a chance to work on that against a team in the same circumstance.
"The guys went from being – I'd like to have thought – one of the fittest groups in Orlando to one of the most inactive groups in three weeks. There's a lot of sharpness, match fitness and general mentality that's lost," Smith said on Thursday.
Both clubs are doing what they can to prepare for whatever comes next. Sitting out MLS Is Back can cut both ways. Nashville and FC Dallas might be fresher through the balance of the adjusted season than teams that sweated it out in Orlando. Less time together on the field can hardly be a positive, however. Particularly for a Nashville team that has just two competitive matches on its record.
Major League Soccer's forgotten clubs of the summer missed out on a chance to play games that count in Orlando. That disappointment will only last as long as the rest of the regular season is on hold. With MLS working frantically to put together a revised competitive structure replete with regionalized schedules and extra charter flights, it won't linger much longer.
So many unknowns will play into what comes next for each team. FC Dallas has bigger ambitions, based on recent success and a generation of talented youngsters. Nashville is playing a longer game but would prefer avoiding an embarrassing first season. The schedule, their lack of games relative to their rivals, it will all have a say in where their seasons go.
If things go bad, no one will blame them. That doesn't mean they won't be wondering "what if" for the second time in 2020.
More From Jason Davis:
- The favorite and playing the underdog at MLS is Back
- Seattle, Toronto, and contending in this version of MLS
- The Red Bulls, Atlanta, and MLS clubs in crisis
- MLS creates a unique shop window
Photo courtesy of MLS Communications