NASHVILLE – Throughout the 2018 season, Nashville SC had one consistent problem: the Boys in Gold had trouble putting the ball in the back of the net. An elite defense allowed the team to make the playoffs and go toe-to-toe with MLS-bound FC Cincinnati before succumbing in penalty kicks. But the team’s offense finishing in a tie for 23rd in shots taken, and 26th in conversion rate.
Through about 77 minutes Saturday evening, it certainly felt like they’d unlocked the answer to the first problem: they had 18 shots in their inaugural rivalry match against USL Championship expansion side Memphis 901 FC. The latter issue, on the other hand, persisted. None of those shots – though four of them were on target, and 11 of them had come from inside the Memphis penalty area – managed to find twine.
You’d have been forgiven if a “here we go again” sense of foreboding crept into your consciousness.
“It felt that way,” said NSC head coach Gary Smith. “The first half, if I can remember well enough, I think we had much clearer sights of goal. We looked more threatening, and I thought there were many moments that we should have made more of, or certainly should have opened the scoring. You have to give credit to [Memphis]: the second period, they looked I thought more difficult to break down. They grew in confidence the longer the game went on with a clean sheet, and it does wonders for team spirit when you can keep your goal intact, especially when you’ve been under pressure.
“I thought as though maybe we weren’t going to find that moment. It’s just the feeling you get standing on the line that you’ve been banging on the door for so long.”
Nashville made a pair of 64th-minute changes to the lineup – Ropapa Mensah replaced Tucker Hume at striker, and Alan Winn entered at left midfield in relief of Lebo Moloto – and it was one of them ultimately making the difference.
Mensah received a 78th-minute throw-in from Justin Davis deep in Memphis territory, fended off an on-rushing Memphis defender, and slotted a pass in to an on-rushing Matt LaGrassa. The midfielder played himself into space with the first touch, and slotted between the keeper’s legs with his second.
“I thought [Mensah] did really well to hold it up,” LaGrassa explained. “I think sometimes the longer you hold onto the ball like that, the more attention it kind of draws to him. I popped into a little pocket of space, and he saw me and played a great ball. I had an idea with the touch, and it ended up being kind of perfect. The keeper comes out, and I am able to finish it.
“I had a little look, I saw where the centerback was, and when he whipped it in with some pace, I was hoping I could take my tough in that direction. Honestly, it couldn’t have been better.”
Mensah would get onto the scoresheet himself just three minutes later. A Davis corner kick was flicked on by Daniel Ríos on the front post, and Mensah was alone on the back. While his initial header was saved, Memphis keeper Jeff Caldwell couldn’t spill the ball away from danger. It landed at Mensah’s feet, and he poked it home to provide the final scoreline in the 2-0 Nashville victory.
“I thought the set piece or second-phase set piece was wonderful,” Smith opined. “I’m absolutely delighted from the corner, the flick, and Ropapa’s finish at the back post. The substitutes, as I’ve said, I felt made a difference: they injected some energy and some life into what had been a good attack, but probably needed a little bit of help. I couldn’t have been more pleased how the players have performed, and of course the way the game went.”
For multiple reasons, it may have seemed like the game wasn’t going to go that way – or maybe even go at all. A 78-minute lightning delay saw the teams retreat to their locker rooms, then return to the pitch only to see the 30-minute counter reset after another strike within six miles of the stadium. By the time they took the pitch, fans were restless – though running through a greatest sing-alongs catalog of Queen and Vanilla Ice chart-toppers certainly kept the supporters sections entertained.
The Boys in Gold stayed loose thanks to a little activity in the locker room, led by strength and conditioning coach Stacey Daniels, and a little ingenuity by the players to keep their minds and bodies sharp as they waited for action to begin.
“There’s no way around it: you’ve got to somehow stay focused, stay engaged,” Smith explained. “I actually felt we started very brightly and credit to the players. They took all of it in their stride: they’re very professional. Stacey Daniels, our fitness coach, was terrific in the locker room keeping the boys engaged and active, which is not easy.”
“I actually beat [LaGrassa] in soccer tennis,” defender Darnell King boasted. “Me and Daniel [Ríos] played him and Michael Reed to keep our legs moving.”
“We taped a little soccer tennis court in the locker room, just to move around a little bit,” added LaGrassa.
The anxiety perhaps didn’t end for the fans as the game played out by a frustrating script. For all the advantages in possession (ultimately 54.9%-45.1% in favor of Nashville) and shots (by game’s end, 21-6 for the Boys in Gold, 17-4 edge in those that weren’t blocked by a defender), Memphis had a chance to take a lead against the run of play when halftime sub Rashawn Dally forced Matt Pickens into a save.
It would end as Pickens’s only stop of the night (three other shots were off-target, while two were blocked), but it couldn’t have been more important. Had Memphis taken a surprising lead out of the halftime break, it may have been tough to find a comeback, much less a winner.
“Kudos to Matty [Pickens] for making that big time save,” King said. “It really kept us in the game. Overall, I think we maintained possession the majority of the time, we were pretty composed. Defensively, yeah, there were some slips and falls that we had to cover each other, but that is what we are there for: to cover each other’s back and just stay tight as a unit.”
The slips and falls were literal, in addition to figurative, with a water-logged pitch taking on nearly an inch of rain during the course of the contest. Fortunately for Nashville, even a couple scary moments saw defenders and midfielders recover and step into support for their teammates.
For King especially, it was a huge game – his first regular-season action of the year. After an All-USL Second-Team selection in 2018 when playing for San Antonio FC, he was happy to be back out on the pitch.
“You want your time to come, and when it does you just have to perform,” he explained “I can’t really explain the feeling. You just want to support your teammates. Obviously, I became a part of a great group and it doesn’t matter who is on the field. Yeah, I want to be on the field, but I want to motivate the guys who are on the field to win games, because at the end of the day that is what we are here for – to win a championship.”
“Credit to Darnell, because I think as a player it’s a difficult situation when you haven’t been in the team for the first few games,” LaGrassa added. “To come in and step in right away at a home game against a good side against a good side, and to perform the way he did, I thought he was fantastic.”
With a clean sheet – the team’s third in five games – and multi-goal output in the books, a win feels great. But King’s assertion isn’t just lip service: the goal for 2019 is to bring a championship to Nashville. A rivalry victory will never be overlooked, but it’s just one step in the process. Rising to No. 3 in the USL East table with the win puts the club in comfortable position to defend its right to remain in playoff position.
That effort continues in just a week’s time with a trip to Charleston, S.C. The Charleston Battery is traditionally among the better teams in the entire USL, and will look to defend their home fortress, MUSC Soccer Park, in what could be their final year at the site. With their slip down to ninth in the East with Saturday’s 3-1 setback at the hands of Bethlehem Steel, the Battery will be hungry to remain solidly in the playoff hunt, even if there is a lot of season to play.
For Nashville, they will arrive in the Holy City having rounded into some form.
“There’s a lot of things that you want to try and get out of any given game, and especially early in the season you want to see some progression in the way the team’s playing and some consistency,” Smith said. “What I saw was really a nice progress from last Saturday’s game against Ottawa, where we had good sights of goal, we were effective going forward, and we were also very difficult to play against. That bodes well for the future.
Can they continue the run on the road next weekend? There’s no reason to doubt them anymore.