Nashville SC’s game against New York City FC Friday evening didn’t go according to plan. The MLS side struck early with a penalty-kick goal, and shortly before the half with a moment of individual brilliance from designated player signing Alexandru Mitriță. They were able to comfortably ride out the second half while inserting a handful of subs over the course of the game.
The visitors recorded nine shots, four of them on goal, while Nashville SC didn’t manage to put any of its five attempts on the frame. There were nice moments early and late for the home side, but the meaty middle of the game was filled with a show of overwhelming dominance from NYCFC.
First, a little context: The quality of New York City FC from the 2018 season gets a little lost to the history pages , particularly because two other Eastern Conference teams were ensuring their names would be scrawled on those very same pages: while New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United 2 managed record-setting (or -tying, in Atlanta’s case) points totals, NYCFC was a clear No. 3 in the league, despite some iffy moments in the second half after a mid-season coaching change.
A USL team – even a USL team expected to be among the best in its own league – should have trouble competing with such a high-quality opponent.
“There were some terrific players and quality on display from the New York City side, which enabled us to really have a look at the standards that we’re trying to achieve,” said NSC head coach Gary Smith. “Because even though we’re working in different leagues, you’ve still got that pinnacle of your game to try and aspire to. So that was wonderful to see: some of their composure.
“These games are great. They’re exciting games. For us, it’s a terrific preseason game; it’s serious competition. It’s very different to what we’re going to run into come the [ninth] of March. I don’t see Loudon playing through their 18-yard box and through the goalkeeper as confidently and as composed as we’ve seen some of the guys there.”
“I think we saw the difference between us and MLS,” said defender Kosuke Kimura. “It’s just more individual technique or mentality, but at the same time we are growing and have decent players on this team. We just have to grow together as a team, and it was a good step up today. We lost, but we can learn from this game. ”
That composure was a big part of what Nashville SC learned it needed to add in the stretch run of its preseason. The Boys in Gold contended with the New York City FC press well at times, but couldn’t consistently enough beat the press with passing or moments of individual brilliance. While they had some bright moments early by playing over the top (and more late, with the game all-but decided), extending that precision to an entire 90 minutes must be a huge focus in Wednesday’s friendly against Lipscomb University and Saturday’s against fellow Championship contender Indy Eleven.
“They were a good test for us said defender Ken Tribbett. “It is preseason, so to have a side such as NYCFC come in and truly test us, they put us under some real pressure tonight. It’s a pressure we haven’t faced all preseason and we might face once or twice this throughout this year with top USL clubs. So it’s a true test for us. I thought… I wouldn’t say we passed it, but we learned a lot from it, and we will get better from it.
“I just think it has to do with the mental side. We’re all capable players. We’re very good on the ball. We just need to be confident and trust our ability. If we’re out there playing – you see it in practice every day: guys are pinging the ball left and right – to translate it to the game, we’ve just got to come out and do what we know we can.”
“I learned that it’s the quality we need to have, what NYC brought, that’s what we need to bring all year,” added goalkeeper Connor Sparrow. “The focus is on this year, but the future of this club is apparent. We’re going up there next year, and our quality needs to rise, it needs to be raised and I think everyone in this locker room is capable of doing that.”
Sparrow kept a clean sheet in 28 minutes of relief duty for veteran starter Matt Pickens. It wasn’t the easiest task, though, with a free kick called eight yards outside the box just a couple minutes after he entered the contest. Mitriță’s attempt was bound for the top corner of Sparrow’s net, but the 24-year old was up to the task.
“A lot of goalies will tell you – and I’m no different – that that’s one of the best things that can happen to you: getting involved right away and not hanging out for 10 minutes back there and not being called upon,” he said. “Having to make a save early on is something that helps your rhythm and helps the mentality, and it honestly just helps you stay focused the rest of the time.”
Nashville SC’s focus going forward will be preparation for winning their league. While the Lipscomb friendly will likely be an opportunity for squad players who will receive limited playing time during the regular season (last season’s fixture against the Bisons saw the only NSC playing time for seven different players, including three trialists), Nashville has just two weeks and one more meaningful friendly – in Evansville, Ind. against the only USL Championship side that has added comparable talent this offseason – to get right for the regular season.
While Saturday’s game against the Eleven may go down as just another friendly, it – like the 2-1 win over Louisville at the beginning of the preseason – can be an opportunity to set the tone for the regular season. If Nashville looks the superior side, it will plant its flag as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Even if they didn’t get the chance to show it against superior competition Friday evening, Nashville SC will want to send the message that the club intends for its final year in the USL Championship to end with a cup.