Nashville SC

Offensive explosion and rivalry win point Nashville in the right direction

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Two goals. That’s all Nashville needed Saturday night to set a new club record for scoring in an MLS match. Quite frankly, not a high bar to clear: entering the day’s action, it had been pulled off 93 times: 54 by home teams, 39 by visitors in 125 MLS games so far in the 2020 season. Every team in the league save one had put up a two-spot so far this season (in FC Cincinnati’s case, only after benefitting from an own-goal by New York Red Bulls).

The Boys in Gold did better than that, putting up four goals in what was ultimately a comfortable 4-2 win over a reeling Atlanta United side.

They scored early – within a minute of the opening kick – and often, with a 3-1 halftime lead representing as many goals in 45 minutes as they’d scored in the previous six games combined. Capping things off with a second-half goal from winger Abu Danladi meant four different Nashville SC players scored – all of whom notched their first for the club.

“They’ve achieved something tonight that we haven’t done all season and that’s get ourselves on the scoresheet on multiple occasions,” said head coach Gary Smith. “I felt there were some displays tonight that really offered a different dimension, not just for individuals but for the group.

“We certainly understand that if we are going to give ourselves any opportunity of competing for play of positions, we have to hit the back of the net more often. Of course, tonight that is the most pleasing factor for me and the group: that we put in a great display and we’ve seen some reward for it.”

Smith had described Atlanta united as a “bogey-team” earlier in the week, and that was a fair assessment. Nashville SC had opened the season against the Five Stripes – in the very same venue, though Nissan Stadium was filled with over 59,000 fans on that day, rather than completely devoid of them in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – losing 2-1 to what was then considered one of the top teams in Major League Soccer. Even after the Five Stripes proved to be… not that… a trip to Atlanta once again saw NSC struggle, losing 2-0.

That bump in the night was a real one, and Nashville’s resounding win went a long way toward letting the Boys in Gold rest easier when considering their Southern rival.

“If you want to build a rivalry and a competition of some substance, then you know: you’ve got to be part of that action,” Smith said. “Up until now, whilst I do believe the games have been very competitive, they’ve certainly come a way of having got the better of us. Tonight, it just felt – I said to the broadcast team as I walked off the field – sometimes you feel an energy and spirit within the group pregame.”

Dominique Badji’s first-minute goal – dunking home a headed assist from midfield captain Dax McCarty – set the tone for the contest. Even though Atlanta’s Jeff Larentowicz leveled the score early in the half, the type of response from the hosts was, in a very literal sense, unprecedented. McCarty once again found Badji, this time near midfield, and the maligned striker head a ball onto attacker Hany Mukhtar, who slotted past Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan. After that pair of assists (including the “hockey assist” on Mukhtar’s goal), McCarty found the back of the net for himself, heading home a cross from left back Dan Lovitz in the 36th minute to give his team a 3-1 lead. By assisting on Abu Danladi’s tally for the team in the second half, he had a hand in all four goals.

“Honestly it feels good, on a personal note, any time you can help contribute to a win,” McCarty said. “My role on this team is more defensive. Me and [Aníbal] Godoy, we try our best to control the middle of the field help our back four defend, and usually leave the attacking for our attackers. I don’t think it is any secret that our attacking front four have been creating plenty of chances and we’ve just been a little bit snake-bit in front of goal. The fact that I was involved in four goals tonight is something that I do not believe is sustainable but I certainly am extremely happy that Abu, Dom, and Hany all got their first goals for our club, because I am going to score one or two goals a season, it’s not going to happen often, that’s not my job but when our attacking players score goals, when they get confidence, our team is going to become really dangerous.”

With four different goal-scorers on the evening, Nashville SC has nine tallies on the year – and from nine players (central midfielder Godoy, centerbacks Dave Romney and Walker Zimmerman and wingers David Accam and Randall Leal had previously scored). For a team that’s been criticized for its lack of talent, spreading the wealth is one way to prove that a strong sense of organization and camaraderie can help overcome the lack of a big-name star.

For Nashville, though, the lack of big names doesn’t mean a lack of potential – or even likely – stars. Mukhtar is a designated player, and one who found success over the past three years for one of Denmark’s top teams. He hasn’t found nearly as much success in the Music City, with only two set-piece assists and one from the run of play to show in the scoring column. His goal and (second) assist on the evening were positive milestones as he continues to grow comfortable with a new team, and bright things are in the 25-year old’s future future.

“I have, for myself, high expectations when I came here, when I arrived here,” Mukhtar said. “Yeah, I was for the last three-and-a-half years a very, very important player for my old team [Brøndby IF] and it’s always difficult to come into a new team. Different characters, different players, so you need to adapt your way of playing and learn about your teammates more and more because in the end if you know more about your teammates, you can get better on the pitch. So, yeah, that will take time, but I try to do my best every day and work hard. My job is to help the team.”

The upcoming arrival of another high-value player – Venezuelan striker Jhonder Cádiz – can not only provide more opportunities for Mukhtar as a passing option, but also provide the type of competition that sees the rest of the team step up its game, particularly on the attacking end of the pitch.

A team that’s already proven to be one of the most defensively-stout in the league (1.1 goals-against per game, and having pitched four shutouts in 10 games) could be taken to another level if the scoring touch sticks around for the rest of the year.

“Competition is always a key factor in the way players play,” Smith said. “Those guys know that there’s someone coming in. They’re certainly looking over their shoulder, and maybe feeling they need a little bit more out of themselves. Whatever it takes, I’ll accept. The fact that three of our front four tonight have scored is something brand new for us. I’m going to enjoy that.”

Nashville SC fans will enjoy the way the league table looks, as well: with the Boys in Gold sitting in ninth position – a playoff spot – ahead of Atlanta. A tough task is coming this weekend, with a Saturday trip to league-leading Columbus on the way. For the time being, the momentum is firmly in a positive direction, with the building blocks arranged in just such a way that this squad’s brightest days may yet be ahead.

Match highlights

Header photo by Sierra Swenson/courtesy Nashville SC

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