The stakes for Nashville SC’s Saturday evening game against North Carolina FC were large. A win, and the Boys in Gold would seal a home playoff game (and by halftime, they knew it would seal two home playoff games, with Indy Eleven and Tampa Bay Rowdies tying, to prevent either of them from passing NSC in the Eastern Conference table). A loss or draw, and they’d still be able to finish as low as fifth.
All-too often in those high-leverage situations last year, the team faltered: they went 3-3-6 in the final two months of the season, and didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the final day of the regular season.
This is a different team, and a better one: having clinched their playoff berth in mid-September this time out, the team managed to aim for higher targets with headed goals from Ropapa Mensah and Lebo Moloto earning a 2-0 victory over North Carolina FC. In front of 9,901 fans, the team not only clinched at least the No. 2 seed, but remains alive for the top spot in the USL East on the final weekend of play. Completing an 8-2-2 stretch over the final 12 games (currently at 7-2-2 with one to play) would not be a massive improvement on last season’s results, but give the team
Nashville pressured North Carolina FC’s net early, with seven shots in the first 30 minutes, though only two of them were on the frame. It was in the 32nd that their fifth corner of the game – a volume that underscores the heat they were putting on Alex Tambakis’s net – turned into the first goal.
Moloto’s in-swinging service was bound for a large group of bodies in the middle of NCFC’s penalty area, and Mensah rose higher than anyone else to give Nashville the 1-0 lead.
After going on top, NSC was content to sit in and absorb pressure from North Carolina, but the visitors were unable to fire their third shot of the game (and first attempt on-target) until nearly 50 minutes had elapsed. A bizarre sending-off for Nashville SC coach Gary Smith just moments later gave Carolina even greater confidence, and they fired away for a long stretch of play thereafter.
NSC’s concession of the ball paid off in the 70th, though, with a beautiful counter-strike. Substitute Taylor Washington pushed the ball up the left flank, and spotted a streaking Moloto on the back post. His early cross played Moloto into acres of space, and the South African’s leaping header was precise, tucked just inside the far post.
Nashville managed to regain control of the run of play, and saw out Matt Pickens’s 13th clean sheet – all-but assuring him the USL’s Golden Glove award come the end of the regular season. He’ll have to allow fewer than three goals against Atlanta United 2 next weekend, and with the Baby Five Stripes’ offense having kicked into gear since early September, that’s no guarantee (likely though it may be).
Next weekend’s game has even higher stakes, too: with a win at 7p.m. Saturday, Nashville will be watching intently Sunday afternoon, needing Birmingham Legion to only force a draw against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds to give NSC the Eastern conference crown. Should Nashville draw Atlanta, they could still in the East if Birmingham – which will likely need a victory to make the USL playoffs – takes all three points against the Riverhounds.
For a team that seemed to be struggling at times early in the Summer, there’s everything to play for going forward.
- 3′ NC Yellow card – 3 Sam Brotherton (foul)
- 32′ NSH GOAL – 3 Ropapa Mensah (headed), assisted by 10 Lebo Moloto (corner kick)
- 45’+3 Half time
- 51′ NSH Red card – Head coach Gary Smith
- 55′ NSH Yellow card – 21 Darnell King (foul)
- 66′ NSH Substitution – On 23 Taylor Washington, off 3 Ropapa Mensah
- 69′ NC Substitution – ON 16 Justin Rennicks, off 31 Steven Miller
- 70′ NSH GOAL – 10 Lebo Moloto (headed), assisted by 23 Taylor Washington (left-footed cross)
- 73′ NSH Substitution – On 11 Kharlton Belmar, off 19 Alan Winn
- 79′ NC Substitutions
- On 22 Caleb Duvernay, off 4 Viktor Igbekoyi
- On 9 Marios Lomis, off 7 Ulrich Ewolo
- 85′ NSH Substitution – On 4 Derrick Jones, off 10 Lebo Moloto
- 90’+5 Full time