Photo from file. Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country.
Two games, two teams jockeying for positions comfortably inside the playoff field. Two defeats at the hands of Nashville SC. After a 2-1 win over Louisville City FC Tuesday, the Boys in Gold put a cherry on their week with a dominant 2-0 win over North Carolina FC Saturday evening at Nissan Stadium.
“I have to say, I’m absolutely delighted with the way that the guys approached this one,” NSC head coach Gary Smith said. “You can imagine that there’s an awful lot of tension and a little bit of pressure starting to mount on both teams at the top of the table. We come to a venue that is not very natural to us, although our performances here have improved along the way. After Tuesday night’s escapade and excitement, we find ourselves in such a grand stadium that we’ve now got to perform I think in a very different way.”
Perform they did. Nashville got a set-piece header from Ropapa Mensah to break open the scoring in the 32nd minute, then struck on another header – this time From Lebo Moloto – to cap a beautiful counterattack and give the team the final 2-0 margin.
North Carolina FC – like Louisville – had beaten Nashville on its home turf earlier in this season, but the Boys in Gold were determined to show that not only are they a different team at home, but they’re hitting their stride at just the right time this season, with the opportunity to win the USL’s Eastern Conference still beckoning.
Despite losing their head coach early in the second half, the side responded to the external pressures put upon them.
“It’s full credit to the players,” Smith said.” They have to deal with that situation and the pressures of winning and putting Pittsburgh under the pressure. Don’t win, and probably you’ve waved goodbye to the opportunity to be the No. 1 seed and top of the Eastern Conference. I have very good staff, which was typified tonight when I was ejected. And those individuals do a wonderful job of making sure the players are given the right type of training opportunities, the diet of work that we go through, the connection personality-wise is vitally important.”
Moloto was a deserving Man of the Match, assisting with the corner-kick service on Mensah’s goal, then nodding a cross from Taylor Washington back into the far corner to cap the later counter-attack. Last year’s leading scorer and assist-provider has thrived in a more complementary role, but showed Saturday night that he can still make the massive plays his team needs.
Nashville doesn’t win this game without him, starting with Mensah’s goal.
“It’s something that we’ve worked on the whole year,” he said. “I think it’s always good to finally be on the front foot with set pieces. I think it’s good that we actually are doing well in terms of scoring set pieces, so credit to him for jumping the highest and finishing.”
…and his sublime diving finish on service from Washington to cap the scoring.
“I mean I think it was three-v-three,” Moloto explained. “I made eye contact with Taylor and [striker Daniel] Ríos made a good run to go to the front post which kind of dragged all their players so I was able to drift out wide and good ball from Taylor. He says I did the hard part but it was a good ball. Good ball, good header, good goal.”
“I saw him out of the corner of my eye and in practice I’m always trying to find Lebo at the top of the box and finally we were able to connect in a game and it was great,” Washington added. “It was just a great header from him and a great run from him. He did the hard part, I just put it there for him.”
NSC conceded the majority of possession after taking the lead, forcing North Carolina FC to generate their offense through possessional interplay. It worked, with only two shots on goal allowed all contest.
The win secures a first-round bye and second-round home game for Nashville SC in the USL Championship playoffs. A guarantee to earn at least the No. 2 seed, the Boys in Gold even have a chance to finish top of the East if they earn a better result than the Pittsburgh Riverhounds (who currently lead NSC by one point) this weekend. Nashville takes on Atlanta United 2 at home Saturday, while the Riverhounds travel to Alabama Sunday to face a Birmingham Legion team that will likely be playing for its playoff life.
“At home, you’ve got the fans, you’ve got the surface, there’s a massive difference between playing at First Tennessee Park and playing at Lucas Oil Stadium [home of Indy Eleven],” Smith said. “There’s no comparison. We’ve been able to solidify the opportunity to play in front of our home fans, to prepare in a normal fashion and hopefully show what good form we’re in.”
Nashville will certainly be watching the scoreboard Sunday, but has to first take care of business against Atlanta United 2. The Baby Five Stripes were one of the weakest teams in the East throughout much of the Summer – including a rainy 2-0 loss to Nashville outside Atlanta back in May – but have been on a strong run of form recently. The Boys in Gold will try to snap that (much like they snapped Louisville’s 10-game unbeaten run Tuesday) Saturday evening at 7 p.m. from First Tennessee Park.
If all goes according to plan there, Nashville fans will be watching the television intently – or perhaps even making a pilgrimage down to the Yellowhammer State – Sunday afternoon. After all, first place is on the line.