Through 15 games of its inaugural season in Major League Soccer, Nashville SC has managed just 11 goals. A scoreless streak extended to over 200 minutes with another goal-free effort Wednesday night against Minnesota United. However, despite the struggles putting the ball in the back of the net – with the understanding that the players signed to do specifically that are largely unavailable through injury – head coach Gary Smith was proud of his team’s ability to generate opportunities in the 0-0 draw.
After a game at New England Revolution Saturday in which the team managed only one shot on goal – a game that Smith classified in the “good draw” category at its conclusion – the Boys in Gold were more forward-thinking and productive against the Loons.
“The challenge tonight was: back at home, to maybe control our destiny a little bit more with the ball,” he said. “We certainly didn’t and weren’t able to achieve that in New England, in Boston. Tonight, I felt there was a completely different picture. The players played with a lot of confidence, they looked bright and purposeful, and unfortunately that execution again wasn’t where we needed it to be. You could say the same obviously for Minnesota. They had one or two moments late-on, or certainly in the second period.
“Look: it’s been an achilles heel for us in the season so far, and we’ll keep working hard to try and correct that. But in the process of a team evolving and obviously getting stronger, we have to have some foundation, and that foundation is a strong core of individuals who take a lot of pride in keeping their goal intact.”
As disappointing as the offensive effort may have been when it came to final product, there was plenty to like in terms of getting into strong scoring positions. That was particularly true early in the contest. Nashville SC consistently progressed the ball up the right side – where they didn’t have to wrestle with first-choice Loons fullback Chase Gasper as he served a suspension for yellow-card accumulation – and got into dangerous positions.
“It was something that was discussed once we realized that Chase Gasper was going to be out,” said Nashville right back Alistair Johnston. “It wasn’t something that really changed our gameplan at all: we knew that we were going to be a pretty narrow formation in terms of our lineup that we were putting out, with the threes [front and midfield lines] and stuff. We knew that the width was going to have to come from myself and Dan Lovitz – whoever was playing the fullback position.
“It was nice that first 30 minutes. All credit to our midfield and our front three just working hard to win those second balls, win those first balls, and win those battles up top. If we’re not doing that, there’s no chance that myself or Dan is getting up the field to help the attack. I think it was just really important, especially in those first 30: you saw us keeping the ball, keeping possession in their third, and that lets those fullbacks push on, and get some joy down the flanks.”
The major regret for Nashville in that period was being unable to find the game-winner. Midfielder Derrick Jones, playing as a winger and striker in Nashville’s fluid front three, in the absence of any healthy strikers, had the best opportunity of the early going. A pass from the edge of the six-yard box from Randall Leal found the former US Youth International at the goalmouth, and his first-time hit nicked the edge of the post as it went just wide.
“The way I saw it, we were the certainly brighter and more positive in the first 30 minutes of the game,” Smith explained. “Probably looking back on it, missed our opportunity to win it right there.”
With strikers Daniel Ríos and Dominique Badji on ice, along with fellow attacker David Accam – and incoming striker Jhonder Cádiz yet to complete his quarantine period after arriving in Nashville just over a week ago – the short-handed front line had perhaps more opportunities than expected. But the season-long bugaboo of being unable to turn those into scores reared its head yet again.
On the bright side of things, injured winger/forward Abu Danladi made his return to the lineup in a substitute appearance for the game’s final 20 minutes. The former Minnesota United player had the chance to try to beat his former teammates head-to-head. While he was as frustrated as his teammates by the final product, there was certainly a relief in a healthy return to the pitch.
“It definitely felt great,” he said. :I feel like, out for a little bit, we were missing a lot of forwards, so it was very, very important
to be there, to be an option. Just try to help out the team as much as I can, you know that’s what I’m here for: try and help the team, whatever the coach needs me to do, I’ll do. It was a very hard-fought point and I’m really happy to be back.”
There was another notable positive, and one that didn’t take place inside the white lines. Fans were able to make their return to Nissan Stadium, and even with just 3,478 of them in the house, the energy difference from other recent games at home was notable.
“It helps a ton, and if you’re playing, it affects you in a lot of ways that people don’t comprehend,” Danladi said. “I think it’s very, very good to have fans back, and hopefully we’ll be able to get everybody at full capacity.”
“I’ve got to give them credit, too: for 3,500 it sounded like a lot more. I thought once they got going with the chants, and one they kind of felt the momentum go in our favor: they were getting on Minnesota’s backs,” Johnston added. “For me it was enjoyable. I mean it would’ve been great if we’d have been able to score one and celebrate with them, but there’s more home games to come and we’ll be looking forward to doing that.”
It will be a couple weeks before Nashville has the opportunity to play in front of its home fans again, though. A road trip – inasmuch as same-day travel in and out makes individual games part of a singular “trip” – to Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo awaits. The Boys in Gold will try to break their three-game streak of draws (and nearly two and a half without scoring) Saturday evening in KCMO at 6:30 p.m.
Joe Willis photo courtesy Nashville SC.