In the only season they shared in USL, Nashville SC and FC Cincinnati squared off five times. In a preseason match, three in the regular season, and one in the playoffs, they didn’t manage to find any separation through the run of play (Cincinnati advanced on penalties in the 2018 USL playoffs).
That must have made it feel all the sweeter for Nashville SC – despite all the changes in personnel since those matchups two years ago – to take home a 3-1 win from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Sunday evening.
Nashville SC got goals from rookie draft pick Jack Maher, along with a pair of players who were with the USL side last year in Daniel Ríos and Derrick Jones (though neither played for NSC when they faced Cincinnati in 2018), while the Queen City side got just a single goal, from Frankie Amaya, to give the new expansion side the resounding victory.
“Very, very pleased,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “Lot of good display, some great energy. We’re really starting to set a little bit of a tempo to the games, which is important. I’d like to think that in all the games we’ve played so far, barring maybe a sticky 20 minutes against Chicago, we’ve shown pretty well.”
While Nashville has been without some key players at points in this preseason, many of them returned to the lineup this evening to give the squad a boost.
Midfielder Hany Mukhtar has been limited in the past week with an illness, while forwards Dominique Badji and Abu Danladi have suffered from ankle and back injuries, respectively. Centerback Miguel Nazarit was late to join camp after the paperwork process for his visa was a tedious one and lasted longer than expectations. All played key roles Sunday evening.
“We had a bit of a mixture of players on the field – one or two guys like Hany and Dominique Badji and Abu – who’ve been carrying knocks or little illnesses, and those guys came through ever-so-well,” Smith explained. “Then of course, some younger lads: Jack was terrific, Miguel Nazarit came into the came for his first 45 minutes, and I thought showed ever-so-well. One or two little moments of course in possession, but overall I thought acquitted himself great against the Cincinnati first team for 75 minutes.”
A full-strength FC Cincinnati team may not seem like something to fear. After all, last year’s FCC outfit was among the worst in MLS history, finishing with just 24 points in 34 games, and a -44 goal differential.
However, fans have lingering feelings from the USL days, when FCC was one of the strongest (and certainly highest-compensated) teams in the division. Among the players who spanned the distance from Nashville’s inaugural year in USL to its first go-round in Major League Soccer, there’s a sense of responsibility to do right by those fans.
“I don’t think a ton of the guys that were around when we were playing the USL side are still around – maybe a few here and there,” said midfielder Matt LaGrassa. “Being around Nashville as long as I have, I’m obviously well-aware of how much it means to the fans, and I think some of the other guys that have moved along from the USL side are as well. For me, I want to go out there and win every game, but I think maybe there are some feelings that still linger about Cincinnati.”
There’s certainly something to be said for preseason results being meaningless. The next team to bring wins from the preseason onto the regular-season table will be the first. For an expansion side, though, it’s important to Smith to build a winning culture in the team.
“I think winning’s a habit, full-stop,” Smith said. “I think one thing that all coaches want to see is a group of players that are determined, and they’re not going to give up and squander leads, or victories when they’re in sight. For a brand-new team, you’ve got to find the right personalities that want to fight for that. There’s certainly an edge that has to be created in training to try and make that a part of everyday life, in the fiber of the group that goes out on the field. And I think that we’re seeing that now.”
Nashville SC will round out its preseason Wednesday in Clearwater, with a 6 p.m. EST (5 in Nashville) friendly against DC United. The Boys in Gold currently stand 3-1-1 in preseason with the contest against DC United the last before the team shifts fully into preparation mode for opening opponent Atlanta United. The Five Stripes head to Nissan Stadium Feb. 29, with over 40,000 tickets already sold for the game.
IMG Academy photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country