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NASHVILLE – Nashville SC fans got a preview of the MLS experience Saturday evening with the Boys in Gold taking the field in Nissan Stadium. Their home venue for the first two years of Major League Soccer play in 2020 and 2021 (and typically the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans) found its first winner in a USL match. More importantly, Nashville took down Indy Eleven 2-0 in a battle of sides competing to be at the top of the Eastern Conference come season’s end.
Daniel Ríos poked home service from midfielder Michael Reed to score his 13th goal of the year – just one behind USL leader Solomon Asante of Phoenix Rising – in what would ultimately be the game-winning tally in just the 24th minute, and winger Alan Winn would add an insurance goal in the 42nd.
“I mean, the win’s important, full-stop,” Nashville head coach Gary Smith said. “Against your close competitors, it becomes even more important. This is a very, very important statement: not just three points, the style of the victory, to win here at Nissan as well. I was told on the way in here and reminded, that’s three clean sheets we have here [at Nissan] – long may that continue, by the way – two clean sheets on the spin in the league, and it’s the first time we’ve scored goals here, as well. I have to say, the field itself was immaculate, the support I’ve already spoken about, the guys raised their game today.
“You’re never quite sure emotionally how people will deal with a big occasion – and it is a big occasion coming here, it’s very different to the normal home games we play – and there’s an attachment to MLS. As much as you might want to say, ‘well it’s a USL game,’ we’re playing here next year. Those guys that are on the field, no doubt in the back of their mind, saw this as a bit of a dress rehearsal, and that can affect people in different ways.”
The MLS preview factor is certainly one Nashville SC didn’t want to focus on, but it’s also something that they couldn’t avoid. Playing in a massive venue in front of 13,047 fans, you can’t help but remember the stakes not just in the league table, but on an individual basis going forward.
“I mean it’s exciting, Winn said. “Playing in a crowd like that, you get hyped up a little bit more, regardless of what you think. Obviously, if there’s four people or there’s 13,000, you want to have the same mentality. But it does give a little motivation, and it’s crazy to see how Nashville’s grown, and how committed they are to soccer in these past two years. We’re trying out and hoping to make it, because it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
The crowd didn’t live up to last year’s outputs when the team made its special appearances at Nissan Stadium – 18,922 fans in the home opener against Pittsburgh Riverhounds, 18,228 against FC Cincinnati later in the Summer – when it comes to sheer numbers, but the result outstripped either of those games.
Nashville remains unscored-upon at Nissan Stadium, but for the first time ever, scored a pair of goals of its own, earning a win rather than the prior scoreless draws. Putting on a good show for the crowd and earning three points on the table were both crucial pieces of the puzzle when it comes to building toward the future.
“It’s very important, especially – we count every point,” defender Ken Tribbett explained. “We’re coming down, not quite down the stretch, but we’re over halfway through now. We’re playing catch-up to some teams, and we want to get in that top position: top one or two. So to be able to win tonight and catch them a little bit was very important.”
Tribbett made his return to the lineup after five games lost to a calf injury. In his absence, Nashville SC allowed 2.0 goals against per game – a far cry from last year’s 0.91 allowed, or the 0.57 to date this season when he sees the pitch.
The shutout may not have been largely attributed to Tribbett, though. He played a substitute role, entering as a defensive midfielder in the 67th minute. Instead, it was a pair of new signings making the difference along the backline. Jimmy Ockford was in his second game for Nashville SC, while Forrest Lasso in his second day with the Boys in Gold, both having signed on loan from MLS clubs. Ockford’s time away from the San Jose Earthquakes will last until the end of the USL season after initially being planned as a short-term move, while Lasso’s has been through the end of the year from the time he made the move from FC Cincinnati Thursday evening.
“I thought both of them were immense in that middle part of the field,” Smith said of his two new players. “There’s many different ways of obviously having players in there, and types of players that you can have. I think we’ve got some terrific defenders here, full-stop. But these two guys, I believe, bring more out of others. They have a presence, they’re ready to carry others on their shoulder when things are difficult, and it gives confidence to players in front of them.
“It’s a quality you can’t measure. At a professional level, you want more of those types of players than less. There are plenty of players that can show what they’re about, but they need others around them to lift them. These guys lift the group, and they did that tonight.”
With the defensive reinforcements in place, Nashville SC will likely be keeping its eyes on the top of the table. One of the highest-scoring teams in the East (only New York Red Bulls II and Pittsburgh Riverhounds outscore them on a per-game basis) now has the personnel to become a defensive juggernaut like the 2018 edition of the team was.
Currently standing fifth in the table with fewer games played than three of the teams ahead of them, a regular-season title run isn’t out of the realm of possibility. But it’s also not the only silverware that Nashville would like to take when it leaves for Major League Soccer. This team is building for a playoff run, and not just a strong finish to the regular season.