Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country
NASHVILLE – For more than 90 minutes, the narrative of Nashville SC’s game against Birmingham Legion was one of frustration. It was a tale of opportunities not quiiiite working out – or being simply wasted. It was a familiar tale from last season, when the Boys in Gold were on the verge of clinching playoff qualification for most of the final month of the year… but didn’t seal the deal until the final contest of the season.
In one fell swoop, though, the narrative changed. Striker Ropapa Mensah burst up the right channel, and while he was unable to find a look at the net, the young Ghanaian earned a corner kick for his team. Service from Justin Davis found the head of centerback Jimmy Ockford, and – with a little assistance from Birmingham defender Akeem Ward, who would ultimately be credited with an own-goal – Ockford’s attempt found twine.
1-0 Nashville, and the cardiac kids live on.
“Let me tell you: it does nothing for my stress levels, the inner anguish that you feel on the touchline,” said NSC head coach Gary Smith. “The delight and the sheer exhilaration of scoring that late, knowing that you’ve pretty much won the game, is amazing. But I had 90-odd minutes of tension and turmoil sitting on that bench.
“We’ve got five games at home here [to close the season]. We want to keep the pressure on the top groups. We still feel that there’s an outside chance of the Eastern Conference title. To keep in that race, you’ve got to win: we have to keep the pressure on. It’s not in our hands now, but if we don’t keep the pressure on, then the teams above us go into their games knowing that the world’s a much more comfortable environment to work in.”
Ockford’s header turned what could have been a disappointing night – taking just a draw from a match against a team sitting outside the playoff positions, on an evening when Nashville needed all three – and made it live up to expectations. A scoreline of 1-0 may have read of nothing more than “workmanlike victory,” but the way it unfolded provided plenty of intrigue as Nashville works to keep pace near the top of the league.
“Slowly but surely, I think we start to piece together a group that looks like a championship-winning team,” Smith said. “Now, is that an Eastern Conference-winning team? Maybe, but I certainly want to be in as good a position as I can be to have a very decent run in the postseason.”
After a long run of frustration, there was a certain level of catharsis in the goal. Even if Ockford ultimately doesn’t receive credit for the tally, there’s no denying the excitement he provided 5,702 fans in First Tennesse Park. There’s no denying the relief and excitement he received from the play.
“It feels amazing: it was a hard-fought battle from all of us and we grinded it out to the last seconds of the game and pulled off the three points. It was just amazing,” he said.
“I had a good feeling [the corner kick] could’ve come my way and I was just ready for it. You know, I was going to win my battle and I did and I couldn’t really see what happened after I headed it and, yeah I saw it in the back of the net.”
The win wouldn’t have been possible without a clean-sheet performance from the defense. Ockford and fellow centerback Forrest Lasso made a number of last-ditch interceptions on the mouth of their own goal, and for the night, Nashville managed to intervene quickly enough in Legion attacks that the visitors managed only six shots, three of them coming outside the box.
Keeper Matt Pickens was tasked with making only one save, but it’ll be one that goes down in the annals of history for his career. By keeping his net unmolested, Pickens collected his 100th career clean sheet. Certainly it’s only a milestone in the sense that we over-emphasize round numbers in the statistical world, but here we are nonetheless. He joins Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando as the only active American keeper to reach the milestone in domestic leagues.
“Yeah, I don’t know about a ‘good goalkeeper,’ but I’m an ‘old goalkeeper,'” he joked after the contest. “Listen: I’d be disrespectful or selfish if I didn’t have an ode to all of the players and teams that I played with that have worked their tail off in front of me. Every 100 of those shutouts including tonight as well: the guys did a good job tonight. Above all, I’m just happy about the three points. It makes it sweeter than just having a point this time of year. Moving in the right direction, got the monkey off our back, now we’re just going to keep going.”
Nashville remains one of the elite defenses in the USL – and indeed, is one of the elite offenses despite the meager output on the night – which is a big part of what has vaulted the team to No. 3 on the Eastern Conference table. Hammering out the scoring production will be an important task when it comes to closing the season with five more wins. As much as it seems automatic to be able to rely upon Pickens and the defense for a clean sheet, they weren’t given much margin for error on the night.
That will have to change.
“That just comes with the challenge, right?” ruminated winger Alan Winn, who took just one shot on the night (though he created three chances for teammates). “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. It’s just keep pushing, keep chipping away, keep chipping away. It’s one of those games where it didn’t happen, but we have guys like Jimmy that can put the ball in the back of the net in the 90th minute. That helps going forward.”
Birmingham proved itself up to the challenge Tuesday evening, but Saturday’s task will be even more difficult. Pittsburgh Riverhounds enter the contest just three points behind Nashville – but with two fewer games played – in the East. Beating the Riverhounds would go a long way toward sealing a top-four finish in the conference, and a second-round home game in the USL playoffs. It may not be necessary to win the game to advance to the later rounds – indeed, it’s possible Nashville SC has clinched a playoff spot by the time the game kicks off at 7 p.m. in First Tennessee Park – but certainly it would go a long way toward helping the final season in the league finish as a successful one.