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Entering Wednesday’s game against in-state rival Memphis 901 FC, it was fair to question Nashville SC’s form: the Boys in Gold were on two straight one-goal losses, their previous game had been abandoned at halftime due to inclement weather, and before that, they gave up three goals in a home draw against Ottawa Fury. You had to go back almost exactly a month to find the team’s last win, and even that came with question marks with two goals conceded to a struggling Hartford Athletic side in a come-from-behind 3-2 win.
The defensive production in particular hadn’t been up to snuff in quite some time. It made sense when Nashville signed defender Jimmy Ockford on a short-term loan from Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes. They made the move to shore up what had been a leaky backline in the wake of an injury to Ken Tribbett.
What Gary Smith likely didn’t know is that his new defender would find a game-winner on his first shot for NSC.
“Jimmy’s a good player,” Smith said of Ockford. “He has a good pedigree; he’s a very genuine and spirited player. I think in any circumstances, anybody who comes in can give the group a lift, especially somebody of caliber coming from an MLS side. For the guys who played around him, I think it steadied them a little bit. It gave us a
more assured approach, and there were some really good performances back there: there was some pressure to deal with.
“Jimmy did exactly what I hoped he would. The goal was a bit of icing on the cake. He’s shown in the past, and his record will tell us, that he’s more than capable of getting goals.”
Ockford knocked home a free kick service from Lebo Moloto in the 42nd minute, with the game’s opening goal standing up as the one to decide the outcome as Nashville held onto the shutout en route to a 2-0 win over their in-state rival. Both Ockford’s offensive and defensive contributions turned out to be crucial during his debut for the club.
“I thought I did pretty well, but it was a team effort,” he said. “With all of the guys in front of me, I think we did well as a group. We had good vibes from the start of the day, and we pulled off the win and a clean sheet. It can’t get better than that.”
A far more expected source would add the second goal for Nashville. Striker Daniel Ríos has been among the league’s leading scorers all season, and his 49th-minute finish after a lovely through-ball from winger Alan Winn moved him into the lead for the USL Championship’s Golden Boot, level with Phoenix Rising FC’s Solomon Asante with 12 tallies already this season.
“I feel like if I keep scoring one goal every game, being consistent every time, that’s a good thing,” Ríos said. “It’s not just about me. It’s also about the team. I work on myself to score goals and work on my finishing, but having all the help of my teammates makes the goals come.”
He’s not quite on that pace – 12 goals through 19 games played – but with 10 home games still on the schedule (and the five away games including contests three of the worst home defenses in the East), there’s a chance to make a run on the record of 26 goals, set last year for Louisville City by Cameron Lancaster – now Ríos’s teammate in Nashville.
The talented Mexican is one of three players on this team bound for Major League Soccer next year (along with Lancaster and midfielder Derrick Jones, both of whom are on the shelf with injuries), and his production has been a major part of what has allowed Nashville to maintain a high level of success on the pitch.
“He had an awful lot of attention from their back line, and in a lot of cases I thought he was impeded more than it was given,” Smith said of his striker. “He keeps going, he gets up, he keeps digging away, he gives us a great target. In those opportunities that came along, and there weren’t many – their back line was pretty sound – they’ll be disappointed that in the two or three moments that they did give up we scored two goals. He’s clinical. That’s what good players do, especially good forwards. They don’t get many chances, and when they do they make you pay for it. And he made them pay at a very, very good time for us.”
The 2-0 win means that Nashville has earned its first season sweep of the year (in its second opportunity – NSC drew Ottawa Fury June 22 after winning the first leg away), and will leave USL without dropping a regular-season game to a team from Tennessee. In all likelihood, Memphis will miss out on the playoffs – they currently stand 16th in the table, and are projected to finish there, whereas only the top 10 teams find themselves in the postseason – meaning Nashville’s time in USL Championship will see them finish with a 2-0-0 record against the ephemeral rival.
“This is a rivalry that we all wanted to try to make the most out of,” Smith said. “The fans turned out in droves tonight. I think there was great support for both groups: it was great to see some of our supporters here as well, in a game that was always going to be ultra-competitive.
“I think the attitude from our guys, the spirit they showed, there was a 10-12 minute spell in that first period where the goal was given offsides, that was an instrumental period. And maybe one where in the past we may have given up a goal and made life a bit more difficult. I’m really, really pleased. Three points is vitally important, and a clean sheet is something we’ve been looking forward to for a while.”
The last shutout Nashville had earned came against the team they’ll face next. A May 25 trip to Indianapolis saw both the Boys in Gold and Indy Eleven fail to find the back of the net in Lucas Oil Stadium, and Nashville will try to keep its own net clean when the sides once again meet in an NFL venue (this time Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans), but find a game-winner this time around.
The win over Memphis certainly raises the stakes on that one: Nashville SC currently stands No. 5 in the Eastern Conference table (with the possibility of dropping to sixth when this weekend’s results come in), while Indy is third (but can rise to second or drop to fourth pending this weekend’s results).
The July 27 game will be a clash of two teams that entered the year as the co-favorites to win the East. If they split points once again, they may find themselves beginning to fall behind the likes of Tampa Bay Rowdies and New York Red Bulls II, and not enough season remaining to climb to the top. The winner, however, stands a serious chance to contend for the top spot.