MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Nashville SC scored first Sunday afternoon against New York Red Bulls II, but ultimately it was not enough to bring victory back to Music City. Nashville SC couldn’t extend the lead, and a 55th-minute equalizer by the Baby Bulls allowed them to split the points.
“When you score first, you always feel as though you should be taking all three points,” said Nashville head coach Gary Smith. “I honestly felt there were some very good moments for us to extend our lead, and if we’d have been able to do that, I think that might have been enough.”
None of those moments was more heartbreaking than a half-volley off the post just minutes before the tying goal game. Matt LaGrassa’s lefty strike could have extended the lead to 2-0, and that may have been enough to put the game away.
“There were a couple of moments where we really should have made more of,” Smith said. “Everyone that played this weekend I’m sure will be saying, ‘we should have done more, we had moments, we should have converted.’ When you don’t, the game continues and gives them an opportunity to stay positive.
“At 2-0, it might have been a little bit of a blow for them, and certainly a long way back then given the way we were playing. Top sides, as you move along and you’re going to want to be competing for playoffs and silverware, you’ve got to make the most of those moments. I’m sure we will as we move down the line.”
Last year’s Nashville SC team was among the lowest-scoring in USL, but the side still managed to make the playoffs and go toe-to-toe with some of the top squads in the Eastern Conference. Indeed a stroke of bad luck here or there meant the difference between what would have been an extremely impressive inaugural season, and what turned out to ultimately be merely solid.
The goals are a little more lofty than that in 2019, with added firepower from some of the top scorers in the league last year. One of those top scorers – striker Daniel Ríos – found the net for NSC Sunday, but he knows that the team needs to do more on that end of the pitch. Finding the killer instinct to bury opponents – eight of NSC’s 12 wins came by double digits last year, and the team gave up points from a winning position in six of their 13 draws – will be important if the team is to achieve new heights.
Ríos is looking for his side to not only manage the lead, but extend it going forward.
“I think we need to manage the games better and if we score one goal, we need to score more goals,” he said. “We need to work more in the attacking, attacking players, and maybe work a little bit more with the second ball.
“That would give me confidence to score more goals. While it was early in the game when I scored that goal, mentally my mindset was scoring more goals. I had time, we had time, we were managing the game.”
Not adding to the lead (Nashville managed just six shots, including LaGrassa’s near-miss, in the time between Ríos’s goal and the equalizer) gave a talented and well-organized Red Bulls II team a chance to draw level.
The tying tally eventually came after a failed clearance on a corner kick.
“It was kind of just a broken play,” said keeper Connor Sparrow. “It got off a corner: it trickled kind of back out to the corner and the kid spanked the cross across and I turned around and it was in the back of the net. Kind of gotta sharpen up in that regard, but it was a good ball in a good spot for the forward.”
There is a silver lining in that the only goal the Baby Bulls managed came from a combination of a set piece and a broken play. Nashville SC remains unscored-upon in the run of play. Sparrow’s first regular-season action saw him make two saves and command the defense in impressive fashion.
“It was good,” he said of his first USL start for the club. “You obviously want to get off on a positive note, and I felt like I did my job. At the end of the day, obviously disappointed about conceding a goal: a shutout would have been great, three points would have been great, but at the end of the day, we came here, it’s a hard place to play against a very good squad and we took a point away from it.”
The team in front of Sparrow – or veteran keeper Matt Pickens, who earned the nod between the pipes in the first two contests – will have to continue progressing toward a high output in the goal column. The return of captain Michael Reed to the starting lineup and Alan Winn to the field after both suffered preseason injuries could be helpful going forward. Dishing out a taste of the set piece medicine Nashville has received in the past two games may be one way to do just that.
“I think the stats are somewhere around 40% of goals last year were scored from dead balls, so that’s a lot of goals in the league,” Smith explained. “We certainly need to be efficient in our 18-yard box, and wherever possible. There were some good moments today. We’ve got to try and snatch one or two at the other end.”
If NSC can clean up in its own penalty area and strike from a dead ball or two when it’s in the opponent’s end, adding production from the run of play can be the final piece to putting not only a competitive product on the pitch, but potentially a championship-caliber one.