Is Nashville SC to the point that a 2-0 win on the road is considered not just a positive result, but the expectation? The Boys in Gold approached Saturday night’s contest against the Swope Park Rangers with that quiet confidence, and took care of the Rangers with a 2-0 result.
The star of the show was midfielder Lebo Moloto, who spent the 2017 season as a member of Swope. He scored the game’s opening goal – on a feed from fellow former Ranger Kharlton Belmar – and added an assist in the second half, feeding striker Daniel Ríos for the goal that put the game out of reach. The duo taking on SPR for the first time since leaving the Sporting Kansas City organization (in which Swope is the USL Championship affiliate) proved crucial to Nashville’s win.
“I’m sure there’s little aspects of coming back to where you’ve been for a good while,” head coach Gary Smith said of Belmar and Moloto. “I think more importantly, you normally get an internal feeling of wanting to impress and wanting to go back to an old club and put on a bit of a display. I know both of them put a tremendous amount of effort into the game. They both combined for the first goal, which was great.”
“Both of us probably looked at this like a homecoming for us,” Belmar added. “We’ve won big things on that field and were very familiar with what Swope was going to try and do. Especially wanted to show well back in Kansas City. I think we both came out and really wanted to get after it. I think it was shown in the opportunities we were creating and the way we were able to combine for the first goal.
“It definitely felt like I had a good extra bit in the legs and especially matching up against fellow teammates and everything. I spent a lot of time practicing against those guys, playing with those guys, so that competitive edge was still there. I wanted to beat them out and like I said just show up back in my old city at my old club.”
Moloto’s opening goal didn’t come until the 43rd minute, by which time there had been a few frustrating moments. Nashville had taken nine shots – including doorstep opportunities from Belmar and Ríos, saved by Swope keeper Adrian Zendejas – by the time Moloto’s first-time strike from outside the box found its way into the bottom-right corner of the net.
“I did feel as though there was some frustrating moments, along with a few other players in that first 30 minutes or so,” Smith said. “But slowly but surely, I thought both of [Moloto and Belmar] started to take a bit more control over the role that they were working in.”
“I think, to be honest, it just shows how resilient this squad is, how tough mentally we are,” Moloto said of persevering through that frustration. “Even though we had a lot of good chances, we kept on pushing. We kept on encouraging each other, like, you know let’s keep going. A goal will come, because the more you create chances, the more optimistic you should be. You know what, we’re getting in good spots, it’s just a matter of putting one in the back of the net and I was happy to do that before going into the half.”
Swope Park’s form going into the game – the team has consistently languished near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, and was looking for just its fourth win of the year – meant that Nashville wouldn’t have to lean on the opponent too hard to close out the game. Avoiding slip-ups probably would have been enough to secure victory.
Instead, Moloto fed Ríos in just the 47th minute, right out of the locker room, and put the game out of reach for all intents and purposes. The connection between Moloto and the rest of the offense has been impressive. Somehow, though, only one of Moloto’s prior seven assists had been in service of Ríos. The league’s second-leading assist-man and second-leading goal-scorer finally turned potential into production to seal things early.
“It’s all about chemistry; it’s all about movement,” Moloto said. “Defending is all about, obviously, structure and all that but going forward, I have to be on the same page with the people that are playing up top. Last week, I had a good assist off Alan [Winn] because we have an understanding. Same thing: we have a lot of understanding; me and Ríos tend to connect. He likes to be on [to shoot] as soon as he opens up and I always try to find his feet.
“There’s going to be times where, for argument’s sake he doesn’t score a goal, but overall I think we’re on the same page in terms of I get the ball, I know his movement, I know when he wants to shoot, we try to combine and I think it’s always good to have that connection going forward.”
With the win, Nashville SC has won three straight league games for the first time in club history, and hopes to extend the franchise-record win streak Wednesday with another cellar-dweller, Hartford Athletic, traveling to First Tennessee Park. With a trio of consecutive 2-0 victories in the books (shutout victory Nos. seven, eight, and nine on the year), the club’s form seems to be on the upswing. Smith subbed out some of his stars – Winn, Ríos, and Moloto – to keep them fresh for the important upcoming stretch.
“There’s some really encouraging aspects of this little run,” Smith said. “Of course the clean sheets jump out. We are creating chances. We’re six goals to the good in that run. I felt as though we might have extended that certainly tonight, and if we look back over those games, we’ll probably feel as though there were other moments. I think in the main, those sort of results where you can get back-to-back wins and shutouts just gives the players tremendous confidence. I think there’s a little bit more of a belief, a swagger, however you want to put it. There’s a bit more of a ruthless edge about the group and a belief that we’re going to get it done.
“At this point, that front line needs to stay fresh. The connection between Lebo and Daniel has been very good, so I wanted to make sure that they weren’t pushed to their limits. Alan has been very bright, whether supplying or scoring himself. Kharlton hasn’t had as much football as they have, so especially at a place like this where I’m sure he was delighted he got a full 90, it didn’t seem any sense in affecting him. But for those three, it certainly was in my mind if we were in the right place, could we give them a little bit of respite.”
That respite won’t be long: the Hartford game kicks off at 7 p.m. from First Tennessee Park Wednesday. A win would at least temporarily move the Boys in Gold to third in the East. With Indy Eleven (currently in third) not taking the field until Aug. 18, Nashville can take advantage of its games in-hand to prevent getting caught by the Eleven for quite some time.