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If Nashville SC is to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown in its final season in the USL Championship, there’s no margin for error in the final weeks of the season. They took that message to heart Tuesday evening, finding a late winner – after having given up a late equalizer – to beat Louisville City FC 2-1.
Jimmy Ockford played the hero, with a long header (on even longer free-kick service by the left foot of Forrest Lasso, in his own end of the field) finding the upper-left corner to give his team all three points. It’s the third time his team has found a stoppage-time winner – this one in the 92nd minute – at First Tennessee Park this season, with Ockford himself forcing an own goal against Birmingham Legion in late September.
“I saw a perfect ball in,” he said. “My eyes were on it the whole time, and I had a good feeling that I was going to get something on it. I barely had to get anything on because it had so much pace. It felt good. Good contact.
“We know that we don’t give up. We give it everything we have until the final whistle and it shows. It’s happened multiple times now which is good. It’s good for the group.”
Louisville had entered the game on a 10-match unbeaten streak, and the visitors had every reason to believe they’d be able to continue that run against one of the top teams in the East. Their run of form has seen them enter the mix for a home playoff game, and a win could have given them the upper hand on a home game in the second round of the USL bracket.
The back-to-back defending champs put up a stiff test, clawing back in the 79th minute after Nashville had led on a Taylor Washington goal since the early stages. That’s the expectation for John Hackworth’s team, given its championship pedigree.
“You don’t win the championship twice and not have an inner confidence and belief about yourself as a group,” said Nashville head coach Gary Smith of his opponent. “They have a very strong squad so John had a number of bodies that he could call upon should they get in a tight spot, which he did. He added some more firepower to the group, but their play was very, very good.”
Louisville City had a 66.4-33.6% advantage in possession, tilting the field in Nashville’s direction especially after Washington hammered home an assist from Justin Davis in the fifth minute. What they were unable to do throughout much of the contest, though, was turn that advantage into end product. For the game, they led Nashville only 14-11 in shots, with a slight 5-4 edge in attempts on-target.
“I feel like they were pressing the whole time,” Ockford said. “They were bombing forward every time me and Forrest had the ball in the back: They were flying forward. They kept it up for the full 90 which was tough for us, but we were resilient and persevered and got through it.”
Nashville defenders blocked five of Louisville’s shooting attempts (including an incredible day for Lasso that went well beyond his game-winning assist), and goalkeeper Matt Pickens made three incredible saves – including one after Ockford had given his team the lead – to preserve the victory.
“I try to react,” the veteran said. “That’s all I do. Don’t have to do too much when you don’t have to think about things. Just react and sometimes it works out your way. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
The four-save performance (it also included a pedestrian stop in the first half) likely will see Pickens end up as the Golden Gloves winner in the USL this season. Another Nashville SC player gunning for a league-wide honor – striker Daniel Ríos has 18 goals, four behind Golden Boot leader Solomon Asante of Phoenix Rising FC – was unable to advance his case on the evening, though one attempt that was just out of his reach ultimately led to the change that Washington converted to put Nashville ahead early.
The individual honors, though, are not the focus for the time being. With home games against North Carolina FC and Atlanta United 2 coming up, Nashville has a chance to win the East. Pittsburgh Riverhounds are one point ahead, and any slip-up in a pair of contests away from Steel City would give NSC the opportunity to take the crown with a pair of wins.
Beating Louisville was an important result in keeping that pressure on the league leaders – and in getting accustomed to clawing for victory in must-win situations.
“This group needed to feel a victory in those circumstances,” Smith said. “They’ve given everything that they can tonight. They’ve come away with all three points that puts Pittsburgh under some more pressure with two away games.
“The players all feel after tonight they can win both [remaining games in Nashville], and it means that Pittsburgh has got to win both their away games. A draw somewhere won’t be good enough… Whilst they’re a very good side and very, very capable, there is a big, big difference between going somewhere and needing to win and going somewhere and just getting a point, so we’re confident, and I’m sure the side we put out at the weekend will replicate and reflect the fact that we intend to win both games.”
That effort resumes Saturday evening in an NFL venue: the home of the Tennessee Titans, Nissan Stadium. North Carolina FC has sealed a playoff berth, but will be hunting for all three points with the opportunity to move as high as fourth in the final table. The game kicks off at 7:00 p.m. and tickets are still available.