Nashville SC, in a playoff rout of Miami, finally showed just how good it can be | Estes

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Inter Miami CF might as well have added sunglasses to those first flashy, pink uniforms. The cool, new kid in class was so much unlike its expansion brother in Tennessee.

Boring is too harsh a word for the steady, meat-and-potatoes approach taken to building Nashville SC’s roster. Truth is, any Major League Soccer team would appear dull next to one co-owned by David Beckham, one linked with other larger-than-life players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

They didn’t come, but Miami ultimately did sign a superstar striker in Gonzalo Higuain, who’d recently been at English power Chelsea and Italian power Juventus.

Meanwhile, Messi wasn’t rumored to be headed to Nissan Stadium. Nashville CEO Ian Ayre, GM Mike Jacobs and coach Gary Smith pulled from other MLS clubs. They didn’t buy glitzy superstars. They courted talented youngsters who weren’t there yet. A trade for defender Walker Zimmerman, an American MLS veteran, was Nashville’s splashiest offseason move.

Nashville SC midfielder Randall Leal (8) scores a goal during the first half past Inter Miami defenders in the MLS Cup Playoff play-in match at Nissan Stadium Friday, Nov. 20, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

Nashville built around its defense and squeezed points out of a lot of tight, low-scoring games.

“Different markets take different approaches for different reasons,” Nashville SC majority owner John Ingram said this week. “A market like Miami or maybe New York markets, L.A., you need some sizzle in order to attract fans. I would say that Ian and Mike and Gary, our approach has been, ‘Let’s go out and get steak. We’re going to get steak, not sizzle.’”

More:Nashville SC blazes past Inter Miami CF in MLS Cup Playoffs Play-In; Toronto FC next

As luck had it, divergent paths collided in the first playoff game for each:

Steak 3, Sizzle 0.

Nashville’s emphatic victory at Nissan Stadium wasn’t vindication that its initial approach had been the better one. That wasn’t needed, really. The season has already done that. Nashville finished eight points ahead of Miami in the Eastern Conference.

But for Nashville, Friday night was chef’s-kiss perfect. Not just to whip its expansion rival — which, to be fair, was shorthanded — in a playoff game, but to leave no doubt, to do it with a flourish, showcasing its own considerable talent and firepower in a way it seldom had yet.

“(We) showed, I think, a different side to us,” Smith said. “I’m not sure the guys are given enough credit for some of the quality that there is in the group. You’ve seen just about every facet needed to win an important game tonight.”

Nashville looked rested, healthy, in form, finally ready to ignite at a perfect time.

And its opponent was not. Miami was down three starters and two reserve players, including Higuain, for COVID-19 reasons.

The MLS has long been to a point where all of its teams have good players, but the gap in this league versus top ones in Europe comes with a smaller number of great players. There’s a clear way in MLS to distinguish those guys. They are called designated players. The DP label allows each team to pay exponentially higher salaries, so those are what the top guys are called.

Friday was the first time since the season’s restart that I scanned Nashville’s SC starting lineup and truly thought that it was the best possible 11 they could field. “I’m not sure we can be much stronger,” Smith agreed.

Striker Jhonder Cadiz got his first start after signing in midseason. He joined Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal. In the three, all of Nashville’s designated players were together out there for the first time.

“With Jhonder, Hany and Randall all on the field at the same time, there’s an air of expectation,” Smith said. “There’s a different feel about the group. Guys look at what we’re capable of and go into the game with far more vigor. … The game was won in 20-25 minutes.”

Seems like we’ve been waiting all season for a goal like the game’s first from Leal — a dead-eye strike from distance into the top corner, leaving the Miami goalkeeper no chance. Only a certain level of player does that in a playoff game. All along, we suspected Leal had it in him. Just hadn’t seen it enough.

1-0.

Seems like we’ve been waiting all season — through early slumps and late injuries — for that truly special, showstopping, significant moment from playmaker Mukhtar. Something like outmaneuvering the goalkeeper to draw a solo penalty kick — and then stepping up and coolly converting it. Knew Mukhtar had it in him. Hadn’t seen it enough.

2-0.

If this game’s first 45 minutes wasn’t Nashville’s best half of the season, it was high on the list. The home team dominated possession and didn’t sit on an early lead, continuing to push players forward.

The third goal was equally special because of who scored it. Captain Dax McCarty — who is 33 and seems older than that after 14 MLS seasons — scored to join his young teammates coming of age.

“The thing that I like about our team is that we’ve constantly raised our level throughout the year,” McCarty said. “We’re constantly been on an upward trajectory. … I think that there’s more out there for us. I think that we can continue to surprise people and go deep in these playoffs.”

No. 2 seed Toronto FC is next on Tuesday. That’ll be much tougher. Nashville will be a heavy road underdog in the Round of 16. 

Even if this inaugural MLS season ends there, we finally got to see Nashville at full force, providing a tantalizing glimpse of possibilities in an increasingly bright future.

Maybe they’re the ones that’ll need shades.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

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