Nashville SC’s 2-1 victory on the road over Tampa Bay Rowdies didn’t come easy. A battle between two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference was never going to be an easy one for either team. Through nearly the entire first half in Tampa Saturday evening, that was proven to be true. Nashville SC stood toe-to-toe with the Rowdies, but neither side could find the difference-maker.
That changed when striker Cameron Lancaster earned a free kick minutes before the half. The talented Englishman couldn’t put the ball into the net for Nashville SC, but his shot – cleverly snuck under a leaping Tampa Bay wall – was pushed back out into play, where NSC midfielder Lebo Moloto ran onto it to finish the deal, with Rowdies keeper John McCarthy left to admonish his teammates for falling asleep on the job.
That wouldn’t be the end of it, though: coming out of the locker room with a renewed vigor, finding the equalizer in rapid order, and the front foot from that point forward.
“Maybe sometimes you find that the details are the differences, and the free kick and the follow-up were massive just before halftime,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “Although, I thought they responded incredibly well and probably for a good 20-25 minutes, they were better than us, and we were on the rack. They had all the momentum, which is when I made the first change.
“We put a lot into the first half, and you’ve gone in front. Sometimes the players’ minds are back on the sort of energy and reaction that you’re going to get from a team like this. They came out with a renewed vigor. The goal was massive, and you could just see in their eyes that they could smell blood. I thought we rocked, we were a little bit too deep, we couldn’t get out, fatigue set in, there were some worrying signs.”
A surge from Tampa is not something that Nashville had trouble weathering, despite the equalizing goal.
“You talk about those moments, and we knew with them playing at home, it was going to
happen, and it was going to come,” said centerback Bradley Bourgeois. “It was unfortunate that we gave up the goal, but for us to stand strong and withstand those shots, I think it’s a testament to how much we’ve grown throughout this season. We just knew if we could get a hold of it and kind of break out and move up the field a little bit that we’d be alright.”
Bourgeois’s presence in the lineup was part of a larger tactical choice by Smith. Instead of the team’s typical 4-2-3-1 formation, a three-man backline was in the offing – as has sometimes been the case against opponents that Nashville wants to catch on the break after absorbing offensive pressure. Tampa’s talented offense, spearheaded by strikers Juan Tejada and Sebastian Guenzatti, was able to muster 20 shots to Nashville’s 10 – and racked up a 58.5-41.5% advantage in possession for the game. But the Rowdies could only find net once, while Nashville struck a second time.
Bourgeois was on the field at right centerback, with his athleticism earning him the nod over Jimmy Ockford (getting his first rest since joining NSC in mid-July) as the right centerback. It probably wasn’t the plan that he’d provide the game-winning assist, but he was able to do just that.
“As they were pushing forward, we kind of saw that their midfielders liked to come forward, but defensively trying to track from that midfield space in behind, he said.” “We kind of knew we could take advantage of that. I kind of saw a gap about five-ish minutes before that, and I knew with Belmar’s fresh legs, we could try and get behind. As soon as I take that touch, credit to Belmar. We made eye contact, and he just darted in behind. I knew if I could just put it in a good area, hopefully he could do something with it. It’s a fantastic finish by him.”
“The whole thing with the formation change was to try and open up some pockets that their centerbacks are going to be uncomfortable stepping out into,” Belmar said. “From the goal, I ran into that space unmarked because guys aren’t willing to kind of step into that space there. It was a good adjustment, a good tactic that paid off at the end of the day.”
Bourgeois stepped just over the midfield stripe and launched for Belmar. The striker made no mistake, taking it on the full after a high bounce behind the backline, and beating McCarthy to find the game-winner.
“In the end, that one moment was a real bright spot from Kharlton: an incredible strike, and it wins us the game,” Smith said. “How many times have you seen it, a goal
like that separates two very good teams.”
The game would extend well past the 90-minute mark following a knee to the face suffered by veteran Nashville keeper (and former Rowdy) Matt Pickens – who would finish in the No. 84 jersey after his customary No. 18 was blood-stained – but Tampa would be unable to find a second, and Nashville snuck away with the win. The separation came not only in Al Lang Stadium Saturday evening, but now extends to the standings, where NSC has a one-point lead on the Rowdies, and seven games left in the regular season.
“We’ve got our job done, but it’s 21 points to play for,” Smith said. “I think we’re still going to run into some very tough scenarios as we know. Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Louisville all at home. These sort of results give us a little bit of a buffer, not that we’ve wanted anything else other than to beat those sides as well, but it certainly gives us a bit of a breathing space.”
With everything to play for in the final seven weeks of the season, there won’t be a whole lot of opportunity to exhale, either.