PITTSBURGH – Nashville SC couldn’t have played a much better game for the first 87 minutes of their trip to Pittsburgh. They’d allowed only two shots – neither of which was on-frame – while scoring twice themselves on set pieces. A tactical shift from their standard four-man backline to a 3-5-2 seemed to be just what the squad needed to get the desired result against a notoriously stingy (and particularly stingy at home) Riverhounds piece.
In the course of just a couple minutes, it all fell apart. A through-ball found the head of Christian Volesky to bring the visitors back within a goal, and then a cross found the foot of former NSC player Ryan James, and his attempted pass ricocheted off the chest of defender Kosuke Kimura to level the score.
“I thought for 87 or 88 minutes we played a perfect game there,” said Nashville head coach Gary Smith. They’re always very difficult, they’re a very frugal team, and to be two-nil up, it was more than maybe we expected. I’m of course very disappointed in the way that we finished the game, but for lots and lots of reasons, it was a very very good performance.
“If I’m looking at what we achieved last week, how we attacked this, when we produced, to come away from home and dictate the game for large portions, at a place like this, is not easy. So, I’m, of course bitterly disappointed we haven’t taken all three – it feels like a defeat. However, I think at moments like this, we certainly have to look at the positives. I’d like to think if we attack games and give the type of performance that we have tonight, we get more out of these away games than we did last week.”
Of course, dictating the game is not the same as winning it, and given the dominance for large portions, the final 2-2 scoreline is a major letdown for Nashville SC fans. What looked like a rebound from a 3-1 flop at Charleston the previous weekend turned into only half a bounceback.
“This really isn’t about tactics or construction of the team: the job’s done,” Smith said. “This is about guys knuckling down and getting the final moments done and just getting us through. That really boils down to experience and some wherewithal and some inner strength to see off a good side. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to.”
A personnel change may have been partially responsible for the game-tying goal. James snuck behind his man-mark, Ropapa Mensah, and found himself alone at the back post to receive the service. While the ball eventually went in off Kimura, the veteran back was measured – if still transparent enough – about what happened.
“I mean, we did have personnel change: A couple of players were tired and we thought 2-0, a 2[-goal] lead was enough,” Kimura said. “Comes down to maybe just a little mental, and that one goal gave them momentum: it changed the dynamic of the game. They smelled, they tasted that. They were pushing forward, and we absorbed it. We should be able to absorb, but at the same time, we were just a little bit slower at the last second. It may come from fatigue or mental.”
The result sours a couple of positives from the game. First was the tactical shift to the 3-5-2 formation. With Kimura and Taylor Washington as wingbacks, and three defensively-oriented central midfielders in the game, the Boys in Gold didn’t allow anything for the majority of the game. Pittsburgh was able to out-possess Nashville by a very slight edge, but when it came to actually finding looks at goal, they didn’t attempt any, much less make them count.
It was a far cry from the previous week’s result, wherein Charleston was able to nab a pair of counter-attacking goals on Nashville’s four-man backline.
“I think we’re adaptable, I think we’re a group that is able to change and go into a three-back, and we can have a four-back at times,” said centerback Bradley Bourgeois. “I think from last week it’s a much-improved performance defensively. I know it’s disappointing to give up the last two, but for about 85 minutes there, I thought we were really good.
“It was one of those where it was really about having a locked-in mentality. I thought we did really well with that, and it’s unfortunate that as soon as they make one, it felt like the walls were crumbling down a bit. But in those moments – that 85-86 minutes – it really felt like there was no chance that they were going to get one.”
It was a particularly bittersweet evening for Bourgeois, who scored his first goal of the season in just his second start. He was the second centerback to find twine on the evening, with his header following Ken Tribbett’s earlier strike.
“Definitely came earlier than last year for sure. I think to see it go in the back of the net gives you confidence, especially going into the box this year, it feels good. For me, it feels good, especially since it’s only my second start of the year.
“To get one after two games, it’s nice. The thing is, your role changes all the time. For me, the first four or five games, my role was different: supporting and pushing the guys. I got my chance, and I felt like I took it.”
The task for Nashville feels much more similar to last week’s job – figure out what went wrong – than it should. The game wasn’t a comprehensive failure like the debacle in Charleston, but conceding once after what had been a dominant defensive performance would have been a letdown. The second goal, and failing to secure all three points on the road, feels like a disaster. Even if a game at Pittsburgh is firmly in the “a draw is enough” category, Nashville played well enough to be hungry for more, and disappointed to not get it.
The opportunity to wash that bad taste away comes Saturday, with a trip to Atlanta United 2. The Baby Five Stripes are the only squad Nashville has beaten three times, taking each game of the series in 2018. A 7:30 EDT trip to Kennesaw, Ga. is Nashville’s chance to make it four, and to bring their collective spirits back up.