NASHVILLE – Through three games against Charleston Battery in 2019 – two in the USL Championship’s regular season, and one in the U.S. Open Cup – the Boys in Gold saw each possible result: a win, a loss, and a draw (with Charleston using the draw and a penalty shootout to advance in that Open Cup game). The Boys in Gold certainly entered the playoffs with an air of confidence, given their seven-game unbeaten run (6-0-1) to end the regular season.
Their history against head coach Mike Anhaeuser’s Battery – including an 0-0-2 mark during the 2018 season – could have provided a seed of doubt, though. A 3-1 victory in First Tennessee Park later, and it’s on to the next one for NSC.
“There’s a lot of tension – as you can imagine – in the build-up to this,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “I think the guys, even on a good run, felt the pressures of coming into a home playoff game. I thought throughout, their attitude, application, and quality in the game was very good.
“They’re a good side. They’ve made the playoff in I think every year of their history and I think Mike’s own abilities are there for all to see. He’s been an incredible head coach and servant for the club, so it was never going to be easy. They had a wonderful win in the week; I’m sure they were very confident and buoyed by that, but our job was to – in our very first home playoff game – was to try and take advantage of what we have here in these surroundings. I thought the guys did a very good job of that.”
The 6,253 fans in attendance were pleased early, with Lebo Moloto getting on the end of midfielder Matt LaGrassa’s pass after an interception in transition, and easily finishing past Battery keeper Joe Kuzminsky.
“I think, if you look at the first goal, that really epitomized an awful lot that we’d worked on, which was to try and get higher up the field to put a seed of doubt in their mind as to what this game was going to be about, but to also get us in the right mindset,” Smith explained. “It took – what was it? – nine minutes to get on the scoreboard. The pressure, the interception, and from one challenge or interception from Matt LaGrassa, Lebo has a clear-cut opportunity on goal.
“Now if I could have written up an ideal or more ideal scenario, I’m not sure I could’ve. It was everything we could have asked for. It put us on the right track and I think mentally it gave us that opportunity to just warm into the game rather than feeling the tension of a nil-nil or a difficult first half performance where we haven’t broken the deadlock, which we’ve seen before.”
Charleston would respond before halftime, though. A sloppy tackle from NSC centerback Forrest Lasso saw him get none of the ball, and a lot of winger Nico Rittmeyer at the top of Nashville’s penalty area. Forward Zeiko Lewis was able to convert past Matt Pickens, and despite a 9-1 advantage in total shots – that’s right, Charleston’s only attempt (much less attempt on-target) in the first half came via penalty – the Boys in Gold didn’t boast much of an advantage on the scoreboard.
What mattered, though, was the ability for Nashville striker Daniel Ríos – who finished second in the Championship’s Golden Boot race – to give his team the lead. Despite a dry spell during Nashville’s strong run at the end of the season (just one goal between Aug. 17 and Oct. 12, the penultimate game of the regular season), his brace in the regular-season finale gave him the confidence to nod a header home after a short-corner cross from left back Justin Davis.
“I’d have to say, he’s if not the best forward in this league, then I’d love to know who is,” said Smith. “There’s a reason that the club have taken a chance to sign Daniel and take him to the next level because he has all the credentials that can make him a good player, a successful player and an effective player at the next level as well. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s gotten on the score sheet again. It shouldn’t surprise anyone because he scores regularly. So that’s a delight to have in your team. It’s a bit of a comfort blanket for me and for a lot of players out on the field, make no mistake about that. The goal that he scores, when we look back on it, is the winner.”
“We talked about it last week: that I will enter the playoffs with a good run after scoring two goals,” Ríos added. “Then I scored another goal tonight, so it feels good for me. I’m feeling confidence, and of course I have the back up of my team that we are playing great.”
That would lead to a much more even second half. Nashville’s 53.1-46.9% possession edge before the break turned into 54.2-45-8% to the Battery’s side in the second 45. With Nashville content to try to sit on a one-goal advantage, the Battery were given plenty of the ball. They were able to muster more offense (five shots), but again, were unable to put anything on the frame.
Late substitutions to solidify the lead were effective. In fact, they were more than that. In the 88th minute, midfielder Derrick Jones – who had replaced Lebo Moloto as the attacking midfielder just seven minutes earlier – scored one of the goals of the year for NSC.
The US Youth International slalomed past Charleston’s Angelo Kelly-Rosales, barreled through a tackle attempt from AJ Paterson, and despite being taken down from behind by Kelly-Rosales at the top of the Charleston box, managed to swing through from a seated position, providing the cherry on top of the strong outing from the Boys in Gold.
“The goal, I mean, he must’ve stumbled 14 times,” Smith effused. “At one point, I thought he was crawling along on his knees, and I don’t know how he ended up getting an effort on goal anyway. But he managed to get one of those long legs out and force it goalwards, which has taken the pressure off everyone. You don’t want to be going into the last few minutes at 2-1, there’s that edginess and nervousness about the group. Really pleased, and he actually had an opportunity to get a second as well.”
“I felt excited because that was the team I played against when I got injured,” said Jones. “So, it’s like a little revenge back. It was a one-v-one, and obviously we were trying to come down because we were winning 2-1. I just had to take a chance, so that’s what I did, and it resulted in a goal.”
Jones, who broke his ankle early in the Open Cup loss to Charleston May 29, has rounded into form not only in his previous role as a holding midfielder, but almost exclusively since returning from that injury as an attacker. While his late-game substitutions hadn’t previously provided many chances to get on the scoresheet, he took advantage of the opportunity in this one, and showed the potential that has seen him signed to next year’s MLS roster.
A jump in league isn’t on the forefront of the players’ minds, however, even though both Ríos and Jones (among others) will continue with the club along its next journey. There’s still championship potential in the USL era.
“I think it is [on our minds], but right now we are focused on what’s going on right now,” explained Jones. “That’s what our mind is at right now.”
With the victory, Nashville SC advances to the Eastern Conference semifinals, with a contest against Indy Eleven up next. The Eleven come to Nashville Saturday, where the two sides will square off for a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference championship game in their 7 p.m. contest at First Tennessee Park. Indy defeated Tampa Bay Rowdies 1-0 to join Nashville in the round, and the victor earns the opportunity to either host Louisville City FC or travel to Pittsburgh Riverhounds for that East title match.
It’s clear, however, that Nashville has embraced the “one game at a time” mindset that served them well late in the season. Certainly the stakes are apparent, but all focus will be on Indy – against whom NSC drew 0-0 and won 2-0 this season – this weekend.