Not quite an extended preseason, but Loudoun win shows Nashville still finding form

Mr. Lancaster, please open our scoring for the year. Thank you.

Nashville SC learned plenty of lessons during its inaugural season in the USL before ever picking up a win. The Boys in Gold fell on the road to defending (and eventual) champion Louisville City FC, then returned home and drew the Pittsburgh Riverhounds inside cavernous Nissan Stadium. Even when they did pick up their first victory, in a game at Bethlehem Steel, it was hardly the most convincing, with a questionable penalty the game’s lone score.

All that is to say, this team has two goals in the books and has won its only game so far – and even if it wasn’t the most inspiring victory, it helps push toward the mid-season form that will be so important when the going gets tougher. Even if Loudoun United isn’t expected to be one of the year’s toughest tests, passing with a 2-0 scoreline provides a good feeling.

“Very pleased that we’ve got off the mark with a win,” said head coach Gary Smith. “These first games as you open up the season are very difficult. You get a little bit of tension and anxiousness in play. I honestly thought for a good majority of the game, and the stats bear me out on that, we controlled a lot of the ball. We certainly got ourselves into some very good areas, but didn’t make the most of it. That was, I felt, a bit of a feature of the game for us.”

Ultimately, a frustrating first half – including an opportunity at the goalmouth that Lebo Moloto couldn’t quite control, dribbling it wide of the post – opened up in the second, with the club’s two biggest offseason signings proving to be important ones. Strikers Cameron Lancaster and Daniel Ríos are signed to MLS contracts and slated to head to the Big Leagues with NSC in 2020, and they scored the first two goals of the season.

Lancaster floated a header over Loudoun keeper Calle Brown from corner kick service by Lebo Moloto to open the scoring, and Ríos blasted home a rebound just three minutes later to provide the final scoreline. Better still, Smith indicated that the best is yet to come for both players.

“If I look at the performances, I thought both of them have certainly more to offer,” Smith said. “They both did very reasonably if you look at debuts full-stop for forwards. They’re looking to score goals, and I’m absolutely delighted that both of them have got off the mark. Otherwise, you can sometimes be looking and waiting for forwards to find their groove and a bit of confidence. So it’s pleasing to see both of them hit the back of the net straightaway. I hope that bodes well for the future.”

Each was happy to not have to wait to long to open their scoring accounts with Nashville SC.

“It’s a big relief,” said Lancaster. “As a striker, you always want to get off the mark as quickly as possible. It was a great ball by Lebo and thankfully I got a head on the end of it.”

“I’m happy to score my first goal,” added Ríos. “It was a great job for the team. It’s good for confidence for me like a striker to score goals, but best for the team to achieve what we want, that is three points and score goals.”

Loudoun United’s squad didn’t come together until during the course of the gameweek – they were announcing player signings from the airport as the squad departed for Nashville – so it may be unwise to read too much into Nashville’s comfortable win without noting that it took the team quite a bit deeper into the game (Lancaster’s goal came in the 68th minute) to get onto the scoreboard.

However, with some wasted chances in the first half, and the side dialing in its shooting form during that time, it seems there’s some upside in getting through the first competitive contest with a victory, and letting the team work through those first-game jitters. That applies to Moloto’s missed golden chance in the first half – one he’d probably convert the next 99 times it were to come up.

“We started really brightly and that chance came in the opening exchanges,” Smith said. “There had been some really purposeful play and it would have been great to have seen a goal at the end of that bright opening. It wasn’t to be, but what you find is you get a little bit more frustrated and anxious and the opportunities and the moments come and go and before you know it, you’re starting to worry that you’re not going to find the goal.”

That dip in confidence could likely refer to Nashville’s 2018 season on the whole, and having overcome some of it in the first contest (how many times last year did Nashville miss an opportunity and then seem to go into a shell of its own doubt? Too many) should indicate that this team has the juice to be a more consistent squad throughout the year. They’ll have to be if they have designs on competing for the USL Cup.

The next step in that effort is the season’s second game, a second-straight home contest this Saturday at First Tennessee Park. Visiting Saint Louis FC was a surprising 2-1 winner over conference favorite Indy Eleven last weekend, and the Boys in Gold will have to be on form if they’re to prove themselves the team to beat in 2019.

Game highlights

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