A heartbreaking end as Nashville SC bounced from playoffs by Indy Eleven

Photo from file. Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country

I’ll be honest: I’ve started this game column on multiple occasions, then deleted everything I’d written just a few minutes later. How do you write about an ending? Not just for a single game, not just for a single season, but for an entire era? That’s what we saw Saturday evening in First Tennessee Park.

Nashville SC hosted Indy Eleven, with the opportunity to continue on the quest to leave the USL Championship with some hardware to show for a two-year tenure in the league. The preseason favorites to take the title met in an Eastern Conference semifinal after neither had particularly lived up to expectations during the regular season, finishing second and third in the conference. It would be the Eleven – a team that had struggled away from home all season – finding the moment to keep a season alive.

“It’s never a nice position to be sitting here talking about defeat but reality is, unless you’re going to lift the cup above your head, at some point you’re going to be in a pretty
disappointed mood,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “What I will say is I don’t think the game was lost tonight on a lack of determination, passion, drive, or commitment. It was lost with probably a lack of quality in the final third and maybe that individual who was going to step forward as they had in their team and make a difference.

“So for me, I couldn’t be prouder to be leading this group. They’ve been a fabulous group of players. I’m desperately disappointed that we haven’t progressed. but if you look at the way that Indy have played tonight, I have to give them full credit. They’ve come away from home, they’ve played extremely well, they’ve shown a lot of qualities, and it was never ever going be a game that was full of goals or even goal opportunities, and the one goal that we probably all thought would get it done was just that, one goal.”

It was Indy forward Tyler Pasher providing the decisive moment. He ran the channel between Nashville defenders Justin Davis and Forrest Lasso, finding the end of an in-perfect lofted ball by defensive midfielder Tyler Gibson. Pasher poked it first time, pushing the ball around veteran keeper Matt Pickens before it settled into the bottom-left corner of the net.

“It was going to be one moment that they took advantage of and got in behind and scored a good goal,” Pickens said. “We had a little push after that, but obviously it wasn’t enough. We didn’t get any good, clear looks at their goal. These playoff games, that’s what it is. You only get one opportunity sometimes. They capitalized on it, and we didn’t. That’s it. That’s kind of how it unfolds.”

Aside from the goal, Pickens had an easy time with Indy’s other five shots, none of them particularly troubling to the 37-year old. He collected bouncers and low drives with ease, and Indy launched only two others from within the penalty area (both from a tight angle) and managed to bother Pickens’s frame.

The issue was that the Boys in Gold didn’t question the Eleven enough, either. A twisting strike from Daniel Ríos and a low blast from outside the box by Alan Winn made Indy backup keeper Jordan Farr work, but the only other attempt on net – in 14 total shots – was a second-chance hit from centerback Jimmy Ockford after his header on a corner kick was blocked.

Simply put, Nashville SC didn’t do enough offensively to force Indy to find more than a single goal.

“We’ve had a really good run of form,” Smith said. “Consistency is key, momentum is key. We had that, and Indy have done a great job to rip that away from us, so I don’t think my chat with them afterwards, it certainly wasn’t negative. It was that we’ve performed very, very well. On the night we fell short – in certain areas – of the standards that we have set, which have been very high, and if you’re going  lift silverware, you’ve got to be at your very best all the time: It’s a simple fact. You need a bit of luck as well, but you’ve got to need plenty of potential [for that luck to come into play] and there were good periods in the game where we didn’t.”

It was a poor passing night – in unexpected areas of the pitch – that helped doom Nashville. While 76.7% passing is hardly something to be ashamed of (the team averaged 78.3% in the regular season), too many of the misses came as the team was advancing the ball into dangerous areas. Indy’s defensive shape – three centerbacks and three defensive midfielders flanked by a wingback on either side – was designed to allow Nashville possession without turning that into legitimate scoring chances, and to some degree, that’s what happened.

14 shots, but six of them blocked before ever troubling Farr. Five of the other eight not finding frame. A Nashville team that has scoring talent simply couldn’t put it together from back to front on the night, and in a game like soccer – where 1-0 scorelines are common (particularly against Indy) – that’s not good enough to advance in knockout play.

And so begins a new era for Nashville SC, wherein the team leaves USL behind and moves along to Major League Soccer. A new visual identity will be donned by a new personnel identity, with only a handful of current players likely to make the jump.

“We’ll meet again on Monday,” Smith said. “We’ll have a meeting about the protocol moving forward, to sit down with players and discuss their futures and what that looks like. I’m sure the guys that are staying want to know, and the guys that are not going to stay want to make plans. That will be really what happens throughout this week.”

There’s a very different type of moving forward, of course, happening in Indianapolis. Indy Eleven will host No. 4 seed Louisville City FC at Carroll Stadium to continue the quest for the title. Real Monarchs SLC – the Real Salt Lake reserve side – will host El {aso locomotive in the Western Conference final for the right to travel to this side of the Mississippi in the Nov. 17 USL Championship Title Game.

Match highlights

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