NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There have been times in the history of Nashville Soccer Club, dating back to the previous incarnation in USL, that the Boys in Gold could put very solid-looking performances on the pitch. In the end, though, they’d find themselves unable to find that moment of magic – “sparkle” as NSC head coach Gary Smith calls it – to earn a victory. The team has taken a methodical build to its inaugural MLS season, and those moments have again been something of a struggle.
But the squad has also evolved from one that looked unable to provide those moments in the first two games, and used a long break to improve between the 18-yard boxes. They dominated possession against DC United Wednesday evening, just like they had against Columbus Crew SC over the weekend. But unlike the game in Columbus, the team was able to find that final piece, and earn a 1-0 win over the visitors.
“I’ve felt the last couple of games, we’ve controlled nice periods in our stadium here,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “That, for me, was a big key to today’s game against a side that were always going to be very difficult to break down and play against – a very rugged group, a very determined group. With two up top, they were going to be looking to possibly counter in a bright and positive way. So the early exchanges – and indeed, most of the first half – I felt as though we had some real nice control, managed the game well, lacked a bit of sparkle in that final third.”
The game changed in first-half stoppage time, when DC midfielder Russell Canouse was shown his second yellow card of the game, and sent off. That gave Nashville a man-advantage for the entire second half – though while it sounds like it’d make life easier for the Boys in Gold, that’s not always a guarantee.
“DC – even though they went down a man – you know they’re tough to break down, it’s not super-deep. Everyone says when it’s 11-v-10, it’s going to be easier – and yes, we did dominate the ball – but they were still at points hard to break down. I’m glad we were able to not only break them down and Daniel score, but hold on and get the three points.”
“The sending-off, of course, makes a huge different to the way that we attack the game, and I’m sure the way that they felt as though they needed to,” added Smith. “The second period was one of, ‘were we going to find that moment?’ And fortunately, we did. It comes from another set piece, which is wonderful. I’d like to have seen us extend our lead – and we had some very nice moments – but all-in-all, terrific three points and delighted again to play here.”
A 70th-minute header from Daniel Ríos was ultimately the difference between the teams. The former Mexico Youth International has cracked the lineup in fits and starts in his first season at the MLS level, but was given a spot in the opening XI Wednesday evening and made the most of his opportunity.
A corner kick from rookie fullback Alistair Johnston found centerback Dave Romney near the front post, and he headed it on to Ríos. Winning a jump ball, Ríos looped a header past veteran DC keeper Bill Hamid to provide a goal, a win, and ninth place* in the Eastern Conference table.
“The goal comes from him being alert, alive, and ultimately listening to what his role is when we are planning with the set pieces,” said Smith. “I watched a lot of [DC’s] dead balls: they’ve got some real good air individuals that load up that near post and it’s not easy to deliver a ball immediately to the back post. It’s a tough ball and ends up getting a lot of air under it and the goalkeeper comes and gathers. With someone like Hamid in goal, he will gobble those up. Getting somebody in a position where they can work the ball there, maybe draw some attention to the near post, but ultimately make a difference at the back post: not easy, and doesn’t always come off, but tonight it has. He’s listened to what his role is, and he has fulfilled it to the team.”
“It was a corner and Dave Romney win the ball and flicked it right,” Ríos said. “It was a matter of ‘be ready’ and to finish that ball, because I thought it was coming. It was good ball. It was a good goal and good confidence for the team. Great three points, we are looking to scale in those standings.”
That final piece – particularly should goal-scoring become a habit for Nashville SC – could be the next evolution in this squad. They started the year defensively sound but unable to avoid one or two big mistakes (arguably, they’re still making mistakes, though less frequently and typically with less catastrophic results). They added a possession element after the restart of play in August. Now, they’re able to control games and even create chances on a regular basis. The difference has to become both taking and finishing those opportunities.
While it’s still a work in progress, they’re closer than ever before.
“You’ve got to put the goalkeeper and the goal under pressure, and funny things will happen,” Smith said. “You know, you get a bit of fortune, you see some true quality and edge to the game. We’ve had some nice efforts tonight, albeit against 10 men, but in the end, we found a way to get the job done. There’s no easy games at this level – none at all. So to break the deadlock and to keep a clean sheet again is a real positive from the group.”
The team will have its next chance to add a building block to the résumé Saturday afternoon, welcoming Houston Dynamo to Nissan Stadium at 2:30 p.m. CDT. The Dynamo currently stand 11rth in the 12-team Western Conference.
* The table was announced as a points-per-game affair – in which case Nashville would actually be above Montreal Impact and rank eighth in the East. Given that it appears the entire regular season will be played without further significant delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, Nashville is currently ninth with a game in-hand.
Daniel Ríos header photo by Sierra Swenson/Courtesy Nashville SC and Major League Soccer