Nashville SC’s Saturday evening game against Charleston Battery was one of the lowest lows: giving up a late first-half goal to the Battery after dominating the opening 45, and having a game-winning goal in the final minute incorrectly ruled out for offside. It also saw some of the highest highs: a headed effort by fan favorite Ropapa Mensah to draw level, and a stoppage-time winner by defense-first midfielder Bolu Akinyode. You couldn’t describe it much more succinctly than NSC manager Gary Smith.
“Certainly a roller coaster ride, that’s for sure.”
Nashville SC came out with a different tactical approach than in recent weeks. The absences of centerback Forrest Lasso (on a red-card suspension for two yellow cards Wednesday evening) and striker Daniel Ríos (rested with a strained groin), along with long-term injuries at the defensive midfield spot saw Smith arrange his side in a 3-5-2 formation to put more defense bodies on the field.
Even though some of the starters – namely left back Justin Davis and centerback Bradley Bourgeois – hadn’t seen as much of the field lately, they acquitted themselves extremely well during the contest.
“I know there’s some great relationships there, and there’s been some disappointment with some of these guys,” Smith said of their reactions to a smaller role than they had in 2018. “Bradley has not seen the field for a while, and his performance was monumental back there. To come in and to play to that level I think gives you an idea of the type of inner drive that some of these lads have. Justin Davis has not seen the field as much as he has in the past.”
“I think with the formation that we were running, I think they were drawn to the ball a lot, and it kind of just freed up a lot of space behind, and I have a little bit of pace,” added right wingback Darnell King. “Being at wing-back, you just find that space, you just get into it. They were pressing pretty high in the beginning, so they exposed themselves in behind. It worked for a little bit, and then it opened up.”
The problem in the first half is that Nashville SC’s talented offensive players couldn’t seem to convert on the opportunities they were given.
The Boys in Gold took nine first-half shots to just four for Charleston. Three of those Nashville attempts were on-frame, and came from the feet of talented finishers Ropapa Mensah and Cameron Lancaster (twice). To not receive any payoff from them was a major matter of frustration for the team.
When Charleston – which had managed just three prior shots, two of them from well outside realistic scoring areas – managed to nick one against the run of play in the 43rd minute, it was a matter of major frustration. Winger Kotaro Higashi took servce from Romario Piggott, slid between two Nashville defenders, and finished past veteran goalkeeper Matt Pickens to give the visitors a surprising lead.
“The only disappointment from the first period was that we didn’t convert when I thought there were enough good sights of goal to make that happen,” Smith said. “Then when they had their very first opportunity it seemed like, they took a lead. That’s incredibly deflating for any groups that have played that well and go into the break behind.”
The Boys in Gold responded well in the second half, though.
Mensah headed home a cross from King in the 56th minute, leveling the match. A frustrating period of his season – eight straight appearances held of the scoresheet – came to end end when ball hit twine past a flailing Joe Kuzminsky in net for Charleston.
That set up an exciting end to the game. Lebo Moloto’s seeming game-winner was incorrectly ruled offside when the South African, in an offside position behind the Battery’s backline, intercepted a backpass to Kuzminsky, rounded the keeper, and fired home. The ball was not played to Moloto by a teammate (and thus was a legal goal), but after a deliberation, the center official and linesman changed their ruling, ending Nashville SC’s celebration prematurely.
That wouldn’t be the end of it, though. With the allotted three minutes second-half stoppage time already elapsed, winger Kharlton Belmar played a cross to the top of the box. A touch from Lebo Moloto and header by Ken Tribbett kept the ball alive for Nashville, and Akinyode made magic.
“His job, and he does a damn good job as well, is to break up the game, to keep the ball, to show the sort of bravery and endeavor that I think all good central midfield players give,” Smith explained. “It was a colossal performance from him. He’s in a position where we’ve had numerous injuries. We’ve been hit very hard in that central midfield area with the likes of Derrick Jones and Michael Reed having long-term injuries, Matt LaGrassa being out for a reasonably long term. Bolu stood firm. I know he’s been a real foundational piece in there when most needed, and he’s a terrific character. A great performance tonight.”
Akinyode trapped the ball with his chest, juggled with his left knee, and turned to whip his left foot through it – all on the juggle. A fortunate deflection from Charleston defender Kyle Nelson helped the ball turn away from a diving Kuzminsky, and settle into the back of a wide-open net.
“At the end of the game, big time players show up for big time games, and score goals like that,” King said.
Akinyode, whose stoppage-time strike against FC Cincinnati in last year’s regular-season finale sealed a playoff berth for the Boys in Gold, has a new top memory with the club.
“Tonight’s bigger,” he said. “It’s an indescribable feeling. I honestly can’t compare it to anything in the world. Last year was good, but I think tonight is better. Given the position we’re in right now in the table, we’re trying to win a trophy in the Eastern Conference so that was big time. We also haven’t beat Charleston, this is the first time. It’s huge.”
The win allows Nashville to stay in the top three of the Eastern Conference table, five points behind top dog New York Red Bulls II (which had taken all three in a midweek contest that also saw some officiating controversy), and just one back of No. 2 Tampa Bay Rowdies. With a trip to Tampa on deck this weekend, the storylines couldn’t be weaving together any more perfectly.
“It’s kind of poetic in way,” King said. “These are where big stories are made. The run that we’ve been on is huge, and I think if we just keep this going, we’re going to be in a pretty big fight towards the end. We just want to keep going and get to the championship.”
Saturday’s game kicks off from Ralph Wilson Field in Saint Petersburg, Fla. at 7:30 p.m. EDT. A Nashville win could see the team move up to second place in the East, though Red Bulls are threatening to establish a stranglehold on the top spot with games against Indy Eleven Wednesday and Charlotte Independence Friday – opening up a possible nine-point lead (albeit with more games played) before Nashville and Tampa even hit the field.
With a little luck starting to turn their direction – even in a game that saw some horrible luck – it’d be unwise to count Nashville out.