Daniel Ríos photo from file.
NASHVILLE – Although Nashville SC has been one of the top teams in the USL Championship so far this season, it’s fair to question just how successful they can be against other high-caliber sides: home losses to Saint Louis FC and Tampa Bay Rowdies, a road flop at Charleston Battery, and even dropping points in a tie at the Pittsburgh Riverhounds were all disappointments.
One thing is certainly clear, though: this team can handle lesser competition. They did just that in a 5-1 blasting of Swope Park Rangers Saturday evening. Striker Daniel Ríos notched a pair of goals, wingers Kharlton Belmar and Alan Winn added one apiece, and substitute striker Cameron Lancaster put on the capper to provide the largest scoring output in club history – and tie the largest margin of victory.
“The first 15 minutes really set the tone for the game,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “We got a complete grip of proceedings, and I’m just delighted that we’ve gone on and won handsomely and given two or three of the guys a real boost. Daniel’s two goals [statline] is great, but Cameron coming off the bench gets his second for the group after having some frustrating injuries. Kharlton Belmar gets his first for the team – and we’ve been searching for that one for all of his endeavors and hard work. Alan has been very, very professional in his work and diligent weekly and waiting for his chance, and he gets back on the sheet, makes a real difference for the group. I think it just re-emphasizes again the strength of the squad as well.”
There was plenty of firepower added this offseason to augment what had been one of the best defensive units in the league. Last year’s meager scoring output should be eclipsed with MLS signings like Lancaster and Ríos (a third, midfielder Derrick Jones, will arrive to the squad this week). Belmar has MLS experience himself, with time spent playing for Sporting Kansas City.
Earning his first goal for NSC and notching his first assist for the club on one of Ríos’s tallies was nice. Given that it came against the reserve side for his former club – and the team with whom he’s played most of his professional career – was all the sweeter.
“It’s one of those things that happens in football, so you know, you’ve got to just get on with it and keep playing,” he said of this early-season struggles to dent the scoresheet. “If you get too frustrated, then the performances start dipping. It was one of those things where the guys around me have been galvanizing me and lifting me up, so it’s been good just to have that support behind me and just keep pushing. I knew it would come eventually, and it finally did.
“No better way and no better team to get it against, so I’m happy. It was interesting. A lot of those kids I’ve been playing with for the past two years, so that was good to see those guys and also just kind of knowing how they operate makes it a little bit easier. It was good, a good experience.”
Nearly every aspect of Saturday’s game went according to script for Nashville. A high-scoring game in front of a big crowd is exactly what this club needs in order to build momentum for its Major League Soccer debut in less than a year’s time.
Things went so well, in fact, that even some of the negative aspects were actually positives. Former Swope Park defender Liam Doyle joined Belmar in earning an assist (a headed pass to Ríos helped open the scoring), giving two of the three former Rangers a line on the scoresheet. Only midfielder Lebo Moloto – one of the team’s unquestioned stars a year ago, and making the starting lineup after having begun the previous three games on the bench – didn’t join his past and present teammates.
He was close, though. Standing nearly alone in front of the goal as a pass across the box arrived, he looked poised to score on himself. However, Winn arrived just before the ball, and his own shot found twine. Certainly Winn isn’t in position to regret his first goal of the season after a slow start brought about by injury, but he recognized that Moloto was in just as much an early-season position to be hungry to score, with the added bonus of it coming against his former club.
“He just smiled,” Winn said of his veteran teammate. “I said ‘sorry’ about 17 times before, but he was excited for me, so it was good, fun times.”
The lone true negative was the team giving up a clean sheet in the second half. Nashville native Felipe Hernandez blasted a long-range shot just over the shoulder of Nashville keeper Matt Pickens, or the team’s offense and defense would have been considered picture-perfect on the day.
“I never want to concede goals, I don’t think any coach does, at any point,” Smith said. “I’d’ve loved to have kept a clean sheet. But I’m certainly happier that we’ve scored five. We’ve still been very professional in the way that we’ve played. The players were not flippant about their roles and the amount of energy that they put into the game.
“I don’t have a major concern. Matt said that the ball moved and it was a difficult one to deal with. Listen: he struck it very well. Certainly, [there are] guys in their group that are very very capable. I think it just highlights the fact that if you allow them to get into good areas, and too consistently, you’ve got a problem.”
The next stretch of USL games should be a drop down in difficulty for the Boys in Gold, though you could certainly consider Swope Park the first step in that journey. Over the next five games, Nos. 11, 14, 17, and 18 in Eastern Conference quality are on the slate. Only Indy Eleven – coming in No. 6 to date – breaks up that relative cakewalk.
We saw last year that no game is a gimme – Nashville went 0-1-1 against cellar-dwelling Toronto FC II – and with the US Open Cup arriving to provide a more strenuous schedule in terms of games played, there aren’t four guaranteed wins in that stretch. Still, if Nashville SC wants to prove itself a championship contender in 2019, strong results through mid-June will be necessary to remain near the top of the table.