MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Nashville SC took 26 shots against Charleston Battery Wednesday evening. 17 of them came from inside the box, including a number of golden opportunities. For their efforts, the Boys in Gold managed to find all of one goal, and ultimately fell in a penalty-kick shootout to the Charleston Battery in the third round of the US Open Cup.
A masterclass in finishing, it was not.
Understandably, that’s a frustrating situation for everyone involved. Gary Smith’s reputation as a defense-first coach is built upon low scorelines (for both teams) in games, but the coach couldn’t do much more than he did Wednesday evening. The players were put in positions to make the plays, and short of lacing up the boots to finish chances himself, the loss couldn’t be lain on the feet of the coach.
“There’s no way of ever telling why somebody misplaces a shot, doesn’t tap one in, heads a ball three goals wide when they should head it on target, misses a target when they’re six-seven yards out,” he fumed after the contest. “You name it: there were a multitude of missed opportunities from all angles and from a lot of people, but obviously there were more than one or two opportunities that fell to one or two individuals. There’s nothing I can do on the line other than burst a vessel in my neck or head screaming at what might have been.”
With such comprehensive and team-wide failing in the final moment, it may be slightly unfair to single out any individuals. It’s a professional athlete’s job to make those plays, though, and four different players on the team took multiple shots while failing to put any of them on-goal.
The most frustrating of all, though, may have been a chance not even taken. With just moments remaining in regulation, a Taylor Washington cross found the head of winger Alan Winn inside the six-yard box. His attempt was headed just wide of frame, but midfielder Lebo Moloto was alone on the back post. The veteran midfielder – who led the team in goals from the run of play last year – inexplicably didn’t poke home the would-be winner.
“I still can’t believe that in particular moments we did not convert,” Smith said. “I just don’t know how people missed the target or failed to read a scenario: header that goes back across the goal looked like, for everything, that it should be could be blown in. I still don’t know why, I don’t know who it was at the back post; I’ll have to have another look.”
By the time the game went to penalties, a Nashville SC team that had dominated in almost every statistical respect other than finding a game-winner was gassed. Charleston hit three of four attempts from the spot, while Liam Doyle, Matt LaGrassa, and Moloto combined to go 0/3.
“You’ve got to convert,” LaGrassa said. “It’s too much pressure to put on Connor [Sparrow]. I think all three of us that missed will be disappointed; I know I am. I think for me, there’s more disappointment in that we couldn’t make more of our chances earlier in the game, because any time you leave it to penalties, you’re not really giving yourself the best chance to know you’re going to get the result. I mean, the penalties are for sure disappointing as well.”
“For a coach, it’s pretty simple,” said Charleston head coach Mike Anhaeuser. “It stinks for players, because there’s a lot of nerves, they’re nervous, and heavy legs. In the end, it comes down to who really can hit that ball, and put it in the spot they want to. Our first two were very good, and we put them in under pressure, and my goalkeeper made two really strong saves.”
The lone bright spot came from winger Kharlton Belmar, who tapped home a cross from Ropapa Mensah (just four minutes after Mensah had entered the game) to find the equalizer in the 72nd after Charleston had scored against the run of play in the first half.
At that moment, Nashville seemed ready to open the floodgates – and in terms of chances created, did with 11 more shots from that point until the end of 120 minutes – but it just didn’t happen for the Boys in Gold.
“You always want to get on the score sheet, but at the end of the day, we don’t get the result,” Belmar said. “It doesn’t really mean too much. It’s… it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.”
“The chances just came and went, and it gave them an incentive,” Smith said. “There were one or two little scary moments at the end, when really it should never have been in doubt. That’s the most disappointing aspect of the night: That the guys have played very well, they’ve committed themselves to the game, they’ve looked like they want to win it, and unfortunately, they’ve not done enough in front of goal to do that. I’m just speechless as to why.”
With the Open Cup run ended, Nashville will re-focus on USL Championship league play. Things aren’t looking half-bad there, with the club occupying second position in the standings, behind only a Tampa Bay Rowdies team that defeated them at First Tennessee Park at the beginning of the month – just 21 days but six games ago.
Smith seems to have found the recipe for his team to create more chances, and the thing that needs to change is making them count.
“We’ve just got to keep going,” Belmar said. “It’s those things: after training working on those things every day. You can only hope that next time in front of goal, we put them away. You’ve just got to keep practicing, keep plugging away and eventually they’ll fall our way.”
The team gets a brief break, its first in what feels like ages, before hitting the field again. They have no weekend game in USL play, and will travel to Bethlehem Steel June 9. The Philadelphia Union affiliate currently sits tenth in the Eastern Conference, but has conceded the third-most goals per game of any team in the conference (at 1.83 per game, better than only Swope Park Rangers and Hartford Athletic). This is a game that a Nashville SC hungry to prove itself should be able to generate the chances.
The difference between winning and losing is making the most of those opportunities.