LEESBURG, Va. – Nashville SC has had a number of chances – particularly in 2019 – to climb to the top of the Eastern Conference. Each time, the Boys in Gold have failed to earn a win and take that mantle. Saturday evening in Metro DC, they may not have exorcised every demon from their short history as a club, but for the first time, Gary Smith’s charges managed to do what was expected of them, and take over the top spot in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference table.
With a 2-0 win over Loudoun United, Nashville SC – even if it’s for a limited time only – stands atop the East.
“We’ve been searching for that as a team for a good while, and we certainly missed out on a number of opportunities, but as always, the team and the group grow and appreciate moments more,” said NSC head coach Gary Smith. “I couldn’t have asked for a better attitude and focus in tonight’s game against a very dangerous side I have to say. They’ve improved enormously. Very, very pleased. Three games to go, first time in the top and it gives us something to fight for now.”
Against a Loudoun United team that was very capable of passing the ball around, but less capable of generating solid scoring chances, Smith was content to implement a 3-5-2 formation, allowing strikers Daniel Ríos and Ropapa Mensah (supplemented by attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto) to generate the majority of the scoring chances from the run of play.
The young duo stepped up early. Mensah found space along the right side in the 19th minute, and struck for the far post. While his shot didn’t find frame, it did find Ríos wide open in front of the face of goal. The second-leading scorer in USL Championship this season did what he does best, and slotted home to give the Boys in Gold the lead on the road.
The duo would almost connect early in the second half, with a left-footed cross from Mensah – a player who typically avoids using his left foot as much as possible – finding Ríos’s head in front of goal, but the effort finding the woodwork and bouncing out to deny Ríos the brace.
Mensah would complete the deed himself just a minute later. Again finding himself an inch of space in a dangerous area close to the endline, Mensah tried once more to strike inside the far post. This time, he needed no help to finish. His blast beat Loudoun keeper Earl Edwards to the far post, and tucked inside to provide the winning margin.
“It feels great especially going into the final matches of the season,” the 21-year old Ghanaian said of his performance. “I stepped up tonight when the coach and the team needed me, but of course that wouldn’t be possible without the help of my teammates.”
A rise in his form at just the right time was welcome for Nashville.
“I think the challenge for everyone, and I think that challenge becomes more difficult for attacking players because they normally take more chances,” Smith said of Mensah. “They’re the ones that are trying to make something happen. It can be that their form goes up and down a bit, and finding consistent creative players makes them very, very valuable of course. Extremely pleased that he had such a big impact on the game.”
A high-powered duo atop the formation (Ríos seeming to be completely healthy for the first time in over a month, including three games out of the lineup entirely with a minor groin injury) allowed the 3-5-2 to provide offense from the run of play, while the natural defensive strength of the setup facilitated NSC’s 14th clean sheet of the regular season.
A goal-line clearance by Ken Tribbett in the 90th minute and a two-save performance from veteran keeper Matt Pickens were enough to shut down a talented-but-youthful (17-year old Griffin Yow, 16-year old Kevin Paredes, and 15-year old Moses Nyeman were in the starting lineup) Loudoun side. Nashville ceded the possession battle 58-42% to Loudoun, but managed to generate four shots on target, and converting two of those was enough to earn all three points.
“Honestly, it’s the whole team,” Tribbett said. “It’s not the back four, it’s not Pickens. It’s the midfielders, it’s the forwards, everyone worked hard. The midfield put in an incredible shift tonight. They listened well, and we moved as a unit, I think. We were in the right places to save ourselves the work, and we ended up making a couple of important clearances, important saves. Another big shutout for us.”
With the win, Nashville is level with Pittsburgh Riverhounds at 58 points, but holds the tiebreaker thanks to a better number in the wins column (17 to Pittsburgh’s 16). Although the Riverhounds have more chances to accrue points – four games to play, compared to Nashville’s three – making it to the top of the table is a strong look, and a long time coming for the Boys in Gold.
“When you’ve got your hands on it, I think everyone loves that feeling,” Smith said. They’ll look at that and really let that sink in. That with three games to go, if we can grind out results out of those games – which will never be easy of course – it’s going to be a permanent top spot. I do think maybe it’s going to take all three wins, but we’re more than capable of that for sure.”
With the remaining three games all at home (Louisville City next Tuesday, North Carolina Saturday, and Atlanta United 2 the following Saturday), a strong finish is in the cards, even if NSC ultimately doesn’t have enough runway to end the season clear atop the East.
“Obviously some teams have games in hand, but nothing is guaranteed,” Tribbett said. “They have to go out and win those games, so we’re in the pole position now. We’ve gotta keep going to maintain it and hope the other teams stumble.
“We have to take care of business, so it starts with the next one. Hopefully we can continue our shutout streak, and that’s where it starts. If we don’t concede, we always have a chance to win games. With our forwards, with Ríos, Ropapa, Alan [Winn],
Cameron [Lancaster], we will always score goals. So as long as we do our job in the back and keep a clean sheet, we’ll get our chances.”
With a crowded top of the table – just two points separates Nashville and Pittsburgh from fifth-place Indy Eleven, with the Eleven also holding a game in-hand on Nashville – even a short sprint to the finish can have plenty of twists and turns. NSC will play spectator this weekend, hoping to see the out-of-town scoreboard produce the results that will allow for the top of the table to remain Gold come season’s end.