NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Nashville SC didn’t enter the 2020 season with high external expectations placed upon the club. Indeed, the national perspective on the expansion club has been that the inaugural season at the MLS level should be a struggle.
NSC didn’t earn any points on the table Saturday evening, but the Boys in Gold may have just changed the narrative going forward. Their 2-1 loss to Atlanta United showed that, while there’s work to be done yet, this team should be considered a threat to rise out of the Western Conference basement. With 59,069 fans in the house, the off-field narratives were incremented toward the positive, as well.
“As far as the occasion goes, I don’t think we could have asked much more of the fans that turned up and supported us, the atmosphere that was created, the opportunity for the players to perform in front of such a great environment and crowd, I felt as though they rose to,” said head coach Gary Smith. “It was a quick game, it was a competitive game, and there was some terrific football from both sides, I felt. If there was a way of creating that week-in and week-out, I’m sure it will be a massive asset for us.”
“The crowd was fantastic,” said captain Dax McCarty. “They were the best part of the evening. I think everyone can see that on a national stage, introducing Nashville to the world of MLS, they were top-notch. I give them an A+. I hope that they keep coming back out and supporting us, because if we get support like that every week, we’re going to be really, really good at home. I can promise you that.”
Atlanta’s high-dollar attack got the contest off to a quick start. Argentine Designated Player Ezequiel Barco collected a loose ball 35 yards from goal, cut to the center of the pitch after shaking Nashville right back Eric Miller, and hammered a ball to the far post in the 10th minute. The outstretched left hand of keeper Joe Willis couldn’t push it wide, and the visitors took a ninth-minute lead.
“Eric was pinching inside but still kind of worried about the guy in behind,” said center back Walker Zimmerman. “Just a moment of a 50/50, unfortunate for him to go by. Then it was kind of scramble mode. As we’re dropping as a line, I’m kind of ready to take the runner. Eric’s thinking the same thing.
“[Barco] takes that touch inside and hits a really good finish from outside the box. Normally we’re going to take shots from 20 yards and live with that. Probably could have been a little tighter or a little closer from either one of us to give Joe a better chance to put Barco under pressure, but yeah, tough first goal.”
It was Zimmerman who would put his team back level 20 minutes later. A free kick in a dangerous position outside the box turned fruitful when Hany Mukhtar’s service ultimately landed at Zimmerman’s feet after his header was deflected. He poked the ball past keeper Brad Guzan to the sound of roars from the crowd.
“We had a set piece, Hany had some really good service,” Zimmerman said. “I just wanted to be really aggressive with the near-post run. I got up with Martinez, and then we both kind of headed it off each other. It fell down, and just tried to instinctively get a foot on it, and toe-poke it past Brad.”
From that point onward, though, Nashville was able produce more chances, but unable to seriously test Guzan again. Meanwhile, a controversial play allowed Atlanta to grab all three points on the road.
An offside flag raised in error by the assistant referee saw both teams momentarily stop playing after a corner kick. When the center official gave the play-on signal, Atlanta had a free cross. Anibal Godoy’s clearing header went only as far as the edge of the penalty area, and former US International Emerson Hyndman trapped it with his chest and blasted a world-class volley past Willis.
“The assistant referee raised her flag, and a lot of us paused for a split second, expecting a call of offside,” McCarty explained. “She put her flag back down probably after two or three seconds, and then you’re kind of like scrambling, ‘oh crap, what’s going on right now?’ The ball bounces around, we clear it out, and look, Emerson Hyndman has a fantastic goal, right? But I think maybe if we don’t pause for two or three seconds, maybe we can eliminate that. So it’s disappointing, it’s a lesson to be learned for us because you have to play to the whistle.
“He explained that the was sorry that the flag went up, it was a mistake, but ultimately that the guy was in an offside position, but the ball came off of one of our defensive players. That negates the offside, which, fair enough. Still doesn’t make it feel any better when the ball goes in the net. We have to learn from it.”
The phase of the game in which Nashville has even more learning to undertake is on the offensive end of the pitch. Lone strike Dominique Badji had difficulty connecting with the players around him to get on the ball, and he pushed his best chance of the evening just wide of the left post.
While Nashville ultimately performed better than Atlanta in terms of putting shots up – they outshot the Five Stripes 14-6, and 4-2 in shots on target – they were unable to find that magic moment in the same way that the visitors did.
“I wouldn’t say frustrated, but I know we can do better for sure,” Badji said. “We showed it in practice, we showed glimpses of it in the game. I think there were moments when we could have tried to make a play where we kind of hesitated: we were hesitant today. But I know going forward, having discussed it at halftime and at the end of the game, we know what my strengths are, and it’d be nice to have more opportunities to be able to really show what I can do.”
The game took another sour turn in the 69th minute, when Atlanta striker Josef Martinez went down with what ultimately proved today to be a torn ACL. The Golden Boot contender will miss at least 4-6 months of the season, and may be on the shelf for the entire remainder of it. MLS is better with its stars, and losing one of them for an extended period of time is an unquestioned negative for the league.
For Nashville, though, the task is to shake off the loss and prepare to show that overlooking them in preseason was a mistake. A tweak here and a bit of polish there, and the Nashville team that showed up Saturday night may just be able to exceed those expectations.
“I think what you’ve seen here tonight is a group that’s full of energy, positive where possible in their play,” said Smith. “We have players in the group that want to make things happen, are quick to transition from defending to attack. Did we always make the right choices? No, but that’s part and parcel with the growing pains of a brand new team. With regards to the group in general, I think you can see a very good team ethic, and for me, there was a good balance to the game. We looked a threat, we, for the most part, defended very, very well, looked organized. Guys have taken on-ball roles and individual workloads very, very well.”
The Boys in Gold next travel to Portland, where they take on the Timbers Sunday evening in their second-straight national television game. Proceedings begin at 6 p.m. CDT from Providence Park, and Nashville will be looking for its first points in the table.