Nashville SC entered the 2020 season with a couple primary goals. One of them – “don’t look like the expansion team in any game” – is a little more nebulous. “Make the playoffs” is far more concrete, and while Saturday’s loss to Columbus Crew didn’t advance the team’s cause in that respect, it perhaps showed that the right pieces are in place to make a playoff push as the season moves along.
A 2-0 loss with goals by Columbus’s Pedro Santos and Gyasi Zardes gave the hosts victory, but the rest of the 90 minutes gave NSC head coach Gary Smith indication that his team is moving in the right direction.
“They are not one of the better teams, they are the in-form team at the moment,” said Smith of the Crew. “To come away from home and to put on the type of display that we have, albeit that we’ve gotten beat – and I understand that’s the most important stat, it always will be; when their manager comes in and he discusses whatever he will, it is the most important thing – but for a team like us that are developing, that are constantly trying to move forward, that are always trying to reinforce some of the qualities of our game, I think tonight embodies an awful lot of that. We’ve shown a wonderful attitude away from home, we’ve been terrific with the ball, there’s been some excellent displays, and – as I’ve said – we can really feel frustrated that we haven’t made more out of this and come away with something.”
Nashville possessed 58.3% of the ball – just the second time in an MLS game that the Boys in Gold have controlled more of the ball than an opponent – completing 85% of their passes, compared to just 81% for Columbus. In the absence of midfield maestro Darlington Nagbe, it was the Crew that didn’t look quite as connected as the visiting side.
“If you see the building up from behind is better,” said Nashville midfielder Aníbal Godoy. “In the first game in Dallas, if you see, we always tried to have the ball, to have control of the game. And we controlled the game [against Columbus] the first half, and also the second half before they scored. We controlled the game, we had so many passes: like 20 passes in one time. A really tough place is Columbus, and the first team in the league. This is really, really, really good for us. This is why we try to improve every day in the training. This is why if we continue like this, for sure we will go to playoff.”
Nashville even took 15 shots compared to Columbus’s eight. The problem was – as it has so often been this season – that the Boys in Gold weren’t sharp enough to put their chances on the frame of the net. Each team managed only two shots on target. Both of Columbus’s found twine, whereas keeper Eloy Room saved both of Nashville’s efforts, and therein lay the difference in the contest.
Striker Guasi Zardes’s lovely backheel in stoppage time sealed the Columbus victory, but it was Pedro Santos’s score early in the second half that put Nashville SC behind the eight-ball. A risky pass along the sideline – one of very few for Nashville – saw Walker Zimmerman put his fullback, Alistair Johnston, in a risky situation against Zardes. The Columbus striker managed to swipe the ball away, and find Santos in a transition moment at the top of Nashville’s penalty area.
His left-footed strike after two touches to find space was a sweet one, over sliding block attempts from Godoy and Zimmerman, and comfortably past the outstretched hands of keeper Joe Willis.
“The clarity of that opportunity… it was still a little bit to do, and it was a wonderful finish by Santos, take nothing away form him there,” said Smith. “But I think we all know that in 99% of occasions, Walker finds a pass forward, he drops it into a nice area, he doesn’t get caught on the ball and the opportunity just moves on. It’s something that he’s obviously very, very disappointed about, and so’s the group given how well we acquitted ourselves.”
A goal within five minutes of returning to the pitch from the locker room was a disappointment, but didn’t deflate Nashville until Zardes’s stoppage-time sealer. In fact, Nashville had actually put forth the most dangerous effort in the first half. A set-piece opportunity just outside the Columbus penalty area saw a punched clearance from Room. However, he didn’t get the desired distance on it, and the ball fell to Godoy near the top of the box.
A similar opportunity in space saw Godoy find a game-winner against Inter Miami just three weeks earlier. It was not to be against Columbus, with Crew centerback Jonathan Mensah making a save off the line. Godoy regretted being unable to put his team ahead in a game where that could have made it very difficult for Columbus to find a way back.
“For this set piece, it is like we always try to put the ball in the right spot,” the Panamanian veteran said. “We have really good targets like Walker, Dave [Romney], and Badji. But I am that: try to stay second in the box, try to find the second ball. In this moment, I stepped first, I alert the action, but I try to finish.”
With the loss to Columbus, all is not lost for the Boys in Gold. The team remains in ninth position in the Eastern Conference table – with 10 playoff positions available. Games against DC United (13th in the East) and Houston Dynamo (10th in the West) beckon this week, both of them in the friendly confines of Nissan Stadium where NSC hasn’t lose since the season-opening game against Atlanta United.
With nearly half the season in the books, though – 11 games played in a planned 23-game truncated schedule – the team is well aware that a playoff mentality is necessary from here on out if the team is to participate in the postseason.
“We know have a final here,” Godoy said of the loss to Columbus. “After here, all the games are a final for us: this is why Wednesday we have another final against D.C. also we have another final against Houston in three days more. This is why it is everything to try to recover quick to play this game against D.C.”
The next opportunity to win a ‘final’ begins 7:30 p.m. Saturday against DC.
Header photo by Sierra Swenson, courtesy Major League Soccer