Nashville SC tilts the field and finds a winner against Hartford Athletic

Cameron Lancaster photo from file. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

It’s be easy to look at the teams’ respective records and say that Nashville SC had every expectation of blowing out Hartford Athletic Sunday afternoon. However, the expansion side has found a run of form recently, and its home games (after starting the year as road warriors) have gone much better than those outside of Connecticut. Earning a draw against Hartford wouldn’t have been shameful. Coming away with a 3-2 win establishes Nashville as a serious Eastern Conference contender.

That the game came with plenty of drama only added to the sense of accomplishment in heading back to Music City with all three points. The degree to which NSC dominated the game – while only winning by a single goal – can be considered a mixed blessing.

“I still think there are, being ultra-critical, too many times where we miss the target,” said head coach Gary Smith. “It certainly felt as if it wasn’t enough. In saying that, I won’t get too bent out of shape having won the game and coming from behind in the second half against a side that is getting better and better.”

The Boys in Gold came out in a 3-4-1-2 formation – similar to what we’ve seen away from home in a number of other contests, typically when facing stronger opposition – and was on the front foot early. However, Hartford had two of the best early scoring chances in the game. A 30-yard free kick from Mads Jørgensen rung the crossbar in the 27th, and a chipped effort from Nicky Downs just a minute later beat keeper Matt Pickens, but drew a SportsCenter Top-10 highlight clear off the line from Nashville defender Darnell King.

That left the door open for NSC to draw first blood. Ropapa Mensah got in behind the defense on the right wing, and pulled back a low cross for fellow striker Daniel Ríos. The prolific Mexican made no mistake in placing the ball into the bottom corner. Alas, it would take barely a minute for Hartford to respond.

Confusion on a makeshift backline – the absences of Bradley Bourgeois and Ken Tribbett to yellow card accumulation and injury, respectively, meant that fullbacks King and Justin Davis were drawn into centerback roles to facilitate playing with three of them, with that duo flanking Liam Doyle – led to a headed effort from Sebastian Dalgaard sliding past Pickens at the far post and a level scoreline.

“They’ve had three terrific results here in the last three games against sides that are in the top 6, and this was never, ever going to be an easy game,” Smith said. “To go in front, but to squander the lead as quickly as we did caused some frustration and disappointment.”

It would be Hartford staking out to a lead of its own in the second half – but it took a wild sequence of events to come about. Athletic right winger Harry Swartz pulled the ball around a sliding Justin Davis, who was judged by the center official to handle it inside the box, leading to a penalty kick for his team. José Angulo fooled Nashville keeper Matt Pickens with the direction of his attempt from the spot, but the placement allowed the crafty veteran to make the save nonetheless, kicking out his right foot to deny the goal.

“I tried to go to one side, and when he didn’t go to that one side, I tried to react and keep the ball out of the net, and that’s basically it,” Pickens explained. “Luckily, I was kind of in the air, and my foot was in a good position, so I just tried to get something on it.”

The ensuing corner kick nonetheless allowed Hartford to get on top. It ultimately saw Hartford centerback Sem de Wit head home a deep cross to give the hosts the lead. That simply meant it was time for the first of two Nashville goals by recent (or soon-to-be) fathers on Father’s Day. Midfielder Lebo Moloto ran onto a rebound in the box and blasted it home with his left foot. Once again, the game was level.

“It is special,” he said of scoring on the special occasion. “I remember last year I scored on Mother’s Day. This year it’s on Father’s Day. I’d be happy if it were Mother’s Day or Father’s Day every weekend. Maybe that way I would bang goals every weekend.”

Substitute Cameron Lancaster – who is expecting his first child this Fall – would find the match-winner. It was his second goal in as many games after missing several due to minor injuries.

“After being out injured, it’s always nice to hit the ground running, get some goals in the bones, and get the confidence up,” he said. “I’m happy I was able to come on, get a goal and help the team get three points.

“Yes, [it was special to score on Father’s Day],” he added. “Now that I know I am going to be father, scoring felt really good.”

Taking home all three points in a game that could have gone either way – despite Nashville’s 56-44% advantage in possession and 32-11 shot margin – is another step in the growth of a side that is looking primed to contend at the top of the East.

“It shows that we are very resilient, that our guys are strong mentally,” Moloto said. “I think that we could have still done better with both goals, we scored one, and they scored back a few seconds later. At the end of the day, it’s always good to come away and get three points.”

Nashville next has the opportunity to find itself some space near the top of the table. While the Boys in Gold can’t take over the No. 1 spot without some help from the out-of-town scoreboard, taking on an Ottawa Fury team that is in playoff positions (and has two games in-hand on Nashville and a couple other teams near the top) means NSC can try to put a demarcation line between themselves and the teams chasing them.

Match highlights

Postmatch quotes provided by Nashville SC.

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