Every sports season has been affected in major ways by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nashville SC may have had the roughest go out of anyone, though. Even before the novel coronavirus became the massive global ordeal that it has been, a local-government red-tape nightmare threatened the club’s future stadium, then the city of Nashville was ravaged by a tornado within days of the squad’s season-opener.
Of course, the Boys in Gold – like their Sunday opponent, FC Dallas – were also withdrawn from the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, giving them a gap of more than five months between games. Even after making up the first of those games Wednesday in Dallas – and earning the franchise’s first MLS win – nothing can be easy.
The Boys in Gold earned a 0-0 draw Sunday evening. Even that had to come at the end of a three-plus hour weather delay to (literally) rain on the club’s plans.
“We had a couple of times that we thought that there could be a break that we could get out, and you get some more lightning or a wave coming,” said head coach Gary Smith of the seemingly interminable lightning. “It seemed like the clock just kept ticking and we really weren’t going anywhere. I think it’s a time – from my experiences here in the US of weather delays – if the players can keep themselves mentally in a positive place, and ready and understanding that there’s a job to be done afterwards, then we’re moving in the right direction.
“Three hours or more is a long time to be cooped up in a locker room. They’re desperate to get out and play, and they’re just waiting their chance. The big issue is flicking that mentality and now saying, ‘it’s time for work,’ and they got it just about right.”
When the ball was finally rolled out at a few minutes after 11 p.m. local time, things looked very different from the mid-week contest. Both coaches implemented numerous changes to their starting lineups, with FC Dallas switching from its 3-5-2 of Wednesday’s game to a more-typical 4-3-3 formation.
Smith had two first-time Nashville SC starters in his opening lineup – veteran defender Jalil Anibaba and rookie midfielder Alistair Johnston ahead of him on the right side – while sticking to the same formational (if not philosophical) plan. The result on both counts was a far more open, end-to-end game.
Somehow, despite that lightning pace (pun entirely and regrettably intended), Nashville SC managed to actually be more sound defensively, giving up just seven total shots – only one of which required a save from keeper Joe Willis – to an FC Dallas team with plenty of firepower.
“I’m looking at the stats here: they actually had one shot on target all game,” Smith said. “That, for me, away from home, is a fabulous statistic for us to be looking at. It means that, as a group – and there’ll be individuals that performed exceptionally well within that of course, but as a group – they’ve shown a real sacrifice to earning points away from home.
“I think that’s a quality of the group we have through the core of the team. I’m really reiterating some of the things that I said after Wednesday’s game. If you look at the way that Anibal [Godoy] and Dax [McCarty] played together, experience they have, the competitive nature of those two, their understanding of those situations, and behind them you’ve got two very, very good defenders. Walker [Zimmerman] and Dave [Romney] are starting to form a very, very nice partnership and understanding, and of course Joe [Willis] I think is a very calming influence for the guys in that back line.
“And then you look around that, and you’ve got some real good performers. Jalil had a wonderful game tonight. He used all his experience and put on a terrific debut for the group. Daniel Lovitz continues where he left off on Wednesday night, and again put in a wonderful effort. So, I’m starting to tell you about maybe the main contributors to maybe the way that we restricted a very talented side.”
Despite a lack of scoring output, it was the rookie Johnston who impressed in the offensive third. After substituting into the previous game as a defender, he was on the pitch in a more advanced role to begin Sunday’s game, and provided one of Nashville’s best shot attempts (with the save by Jimmy Maurer also resulting in a shot off the rebound from fellow winger Randall Leal), and an audacious cross-field pass to central attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar that resulted in another of Nashville’s shots on goal.
“The simple one, the shot, is ‘take the safety off,’” Johnston explained. “I was like ‘you know what? shoot this one low, hard, let’s see what happens.’ It was a good save, a strong hand, but it felt right to [Leal], and I thought, ‘you know what, it didn’t go in, but that’s about as goos as it’s going to get.’ [The other] was a questionable cross. In my mind, it was definitely a driven cross that I saw Hany cutting to the back stick. The cross-field ball, Hany gave a great shout, he’s one of the quieter lads, so when I hear him yelling, he must be really open. So I pinged that one over to him.
“Those two chances – and hopefully being a little more decisive. Obviously, guys like that – Randall, Hany, Badji – they’re the guys that are scoring tons of goals in training, and I’m the right back normally serving them balls, so just taking those next steps and being more confident in the box. Like, ‘hey, if I get a yard, let’s take a shot and let’s bury this.”
The potential Johnston showed was intriguing, and if he can add that additional dimension to it, he may be difficult to keep off the field.
For Nashville, the disappointment of being unable to find a winner – a second-half strike from Dominique Badji was deflected of the right post, and a half-field attempt from substitute David Accam was inches wide after he noticed Maurer was out of his net – it mitigated by the simple feeling of getting back onto the field, and earning a second-straight road result against a difficult opponent. Earning four points on the road in difficult weather conditions, against a talented FC Dallas team is a good way to return to not only the normalcy of games, but the good graces of the fanbase after zero previous wins in franchise history (albeit with only two tries).
There won’t be a long break before the team takes the pitch again, and then the games come in rapid-fire fashion: Nashville travels to Atlanta United Saturday evening, the beginning of a stretch of five games in 16 days.
If anyone can handle that type of adversity, though, you’d be unwise to bet against a team that’s already handled much tougher.
Hany Mukhtar’s headed effort on the end of Johnston’s cross-field pass isn’t strong enough to beat the keeper. Photo by Cooper Neill, courtesy Major League Soccer.