Boys in Gold still lacking sparkle in loss to Tampa Bay

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NASHVILLE – Things are not super-fun in Nashville right now. A Nashville SC team that entered 2019 as one of the favorites to hoist the USL Championship Cup is on a poor run of form. The Boys in Gold dropped a home contest for a second time of the Spring Wednesday evening. For the second time, a game devoid of serious offensive chances for either team ended with a set-piece goal for the visitor as the lone tally.

Back on March 16, it was Saint Louis FC capitalizing from a corner kick. Last night, the Tampa Bay Rowdies saw Juan Tejada poke the ball into Matt Pickens’s net at the conclusion of a set piece from a free kick just outside the corner of the Nashville penalty area.

“I think with their first real passage of play that got them into a fairly decent area out wide, Taylor [Washington] made a rash choice,” said head coach Gary Smith. “He dives in on a challenge, he gives them a good opportunity to effect a situation that they’ve been very good at.”

“To be honest, on the first look of it, it just seemed to be one on the back post,” Nashville defender Bradley Bourgeois said. “After that, it’s just second balls. It’s literally just staying switched on. I wouldn’t say that’s something that we’ve struggled on this year, but it still stings a little bit from last year, especially: giving up goals in key moments.

“I thought we started off bright, and started off with some purpose going forward. But to say switched on, it’s just about individual moments and individual battles. Unfortunately, we were on the losing half of that.”

A moment’s lapse may not be significant in every game. But when Nashville SC is unable to muster much on the other end, a moment of brilliance, fortune, or effort from the opponent becomes all the more crucial. That was the case thanks to the offensive impotence of both teams.

While Nashville managed nine shots against the Rowdies, keeper John McCarthy was only called into action on three of them, all comfortable stops on efforts from outside the box. The two best chances – free headers from the edge of the six-yard box by Kharlton Belmar and Daniel Ríos – were flicked just wide of the frame, when either could have been a game-changer.

“There is no doubt about it: we have to do more,” Smith said. “That’s on the shoulders of everyone. That’s attacking players to find a moment to be a difference-maker: to step forward and make a difference. And for defenders, in those fleeting moments, and they are fleeting – no one’s going to tell me tonight that Tampa’s been laying siege to our goal, they’ve been the stronger side throughout – they’ve won the game, that’s the most important point. They’ve added another three points to the table. There’s lots of work that need to be done with the group in the final third when we run into occasions like this.”

The paucity of Rowdies chances – they had only six shots, including Tejada’s goal, with the only other to find the frame of Matt Pickens’s goal coming from a free kick – makes it all the more frustrating that Nashville couldn’t muster anything of its own.

The teams’ battling 3-5-2 formations meant plenty of play down the wings, and while Nashville was consistently able to find room on those flanks, the final piece of service was unable to make a difference.

A trio of offense-for-defense subs in the second half –  striker Cameron Lancaster and winger Alan Winn replaced fullbacks Darnell King and Taylor Washington, and attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto replaced defense-first midfielder Bolu Akinyode – couldn’t find the magic recipe for a Nashville team that has improved its scoring output from a season ago, but seems to have difficulty finding that magic moment.

Chasing the game to a large extent, they launched 13 crosses after going down 1-0, only completing two of them. The stout defense wasn’t enough without a complement on the other side.

“It’s not like they shredded us open and created a bunch of chances, and it’s not like we shredded them open,” Akinyode said. “It was the one moment, and unfortunately, that’s football sometimes.

“It was a game kind of – they played the same formation as us, same system – that it was stagnant. I don’t think there was much in the game other than they have a set-piece chance, and we have a half chance on a header in the first half. I think that’s really it. There wasn’t much in the game; it wasn’t played much in the midfield. It was more bypass and over-the-top. I think I certainly could have done more to help the team getting on the ball, which I didn’t today, and that’s the game sometimes.”

The question for Smith, then, becomes how to coax more offense out of his team. Lancaster’s longest shift since the season opener (he played the entire second half after replacing King at halftime) was encouraging as the USL’s single-season scoring record-holder has been limited with injury so far in 2019. There will still be some acclimatizing to this lineup before the goals can pour in, though.

What Nashville needs is not necessarily another goal-scorer on the pitch – Riíos finished second to Lancaster in goals last year when they were with North Carolina FC and Louisville City FC, respectively – but for someone to turn effort and desire into that special moment to create the most important stat on the scoresheet: a goal.

“I think there were some individuals that will certainly go home and feel as though they were below par,” Smith stated frankly. “There’s no way I can tell, when the players step onto the field, how their form’s going to be. There’s no lack of energy, there’s no lack of determination, but there was a lack of sparkle.”

Nashville lacked that sparkle at times last year, and the high-caliber additions were supposed to change that (and to a large extent, they did through the first few games of this season). For now, Nashville SC remains in search of that sparkle.

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