Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Through one half of play Saturday evening, Nashville SC was in a position to be disappointed. Despite outshooting Charlotte Independence 7-3, and with a 4-2 advantage in shots on-target, the Boys in Gold were at a deadlock with their hosts. Daniel Ríos’s seventh minute goal on the second phase of a set piece opened the scoring, but Enzo Martinez struck against the run of play for Charlotte, and a Nashville team that felt it should have had a bigger lead went back to the drawing board.
“I thought the first half play, certainly in terms of creation, was as much as we could ask for on the road,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “I certainly felt as though we should have been in a better position than we were at halftime. There were one or two moments, more so the details, accuracy of passing, a little bit more of a clinical edge in front of goal. To be perfectly honest, their very first effort on goal goes right into the bottom corner. I was pretty disappointed at halftime. I felt as though our display was a pretty decent one.
“There were a couple of things that we spoke about at halftime, most importantly was being more aggressive out wide again. The amazing thing was both of the goals that gave us the victory came from the two wide players. So, very pleased. This was a difficult place for us last year, and we had a couple of very dejected journeys to this stadium, so I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to really exorcise that ghost, if you like.”
The wing play carried NSC after the break, with Alan Winn earning a penalty in the 53rd minutes – and Ríos finished it in the 56th – and Kharlton Belmar hammering home from the top of the box in the 60th to give the team a 3-1 victory in the Queen City.
For Belmar, getting onto the scoreboard was particularly cathartic. After scoring 10 goals on 45 shots for Swope Park Rangers last year, Saturday’s goal was just his second (on 21 shots) for Nashville SC. He’s also seen a step back in assists, with six last year and just two so far in 2019.
Finding twine in a high-scoring game for his team could be just what he needs to find a groove as the season enters its stretch run.
“I have noticed that it just hasn’t quite been my year, and that’s part of it,” he said. “A couple things just have not gone my way, and it’s kind of been tough to watch that happen, but I have to be a pro and continue to try and get opportunities and get in front of the goal and try to make them go in. Eventually they’ll come. So I just keep plugging away and hoping my goals will come and hopefully this can be a turning point. I thought maybe it would’ve come after the goal [against] Swope Park Rangers, but had to keep plugging away, and I got another one here so hopefully this one can start something.”
After a slight deficit in possession at halftime, Nashville SC took the air out of the ball once the two-goal lead was built. They finished with 51.1% of possession, and took just four more shots after Belmar’s goal extended the lead.
With two goals on the evening, Ríos maintained second position in the league’s Golden Boot race with 16 scores so far this season, one tally behind Phoenix Rising’s Solomon Asante.
Individual awards are important, but everything is ahead of the team when it comes to bigger-picture accomplishments. The Boys in Gold are third in the Eastern Conference with 45 points. Wednesday evening, they’ll face one of the two teams ahead of them – New York Red Bulls II – for the opportunity to potentially take over first position. While some out-of-town help is needed (Tampa Bay Rowdies, currently No. 1 in the East, kick off an hour earlier against North Carolina FC).
With just 10 games remaining in the regular season, it’s moving time, and getting one of the top couple seeds in the East would help Nashville achieve the biggest goal of all: a USL Championship title in their second and final season in the league.
“Yeah, we’re all checking the table; we’re all staying engaged,” Belmar said. “We all know what our goal is, and that’s to win the league. We all know that on Wednesday we have a great opportunity to put ourselves right in the middle of that race, if not pretty close to the top. So we’ve got our eyes on that one, and we can only take it one game at a time and Wednesday fortunately comes with a big opportunity like you said to go to the top.”
“I think we all know what’s at stake,” added defender Taylor Washington. “Bolu [Akinyode] said it best: we walked in and we were celebrating the win and he’s like, ‘As soon as we’re done celebrating, we focus on the game Wednesday.’
“Red Bulls II is a team that’s always tough to beat and tough to play, but we’re in great form. We’ve just got to keep improving and do what we need to do in training and implementing it in the games, and Wednesday should go our way.”
The game kicks off from First Tennessee Park at 7 p.m. CDT Wednesday evening, part of a stretch run that sees Nashville play seven of their final 10 games at home. Building a strong homefield advantage (the team has actually performed marginally better on the road so far this year, in part because home games have been few and far between) through the final gauntlet could see the side get into exactly the type of position they want as the postseason begins.