Nashville SC played a solid first half in Kansas City Sunday evening. A 1-0 lead on the scoreboard and a slight advantage in expected goals is a positive in any road game. That the Boys in Gold built those edges against one of MLS’s top teams – not just in 2020, but with a consistent history of success – was all the better. A headed effort from Walker Zimmerman moved him back into a tie for the club’s all-time leading scorer (with just two goals, joining striker Daniel Ríos), and relative to expectations, there wasn’t a whole lot to be upset about.
By the time the clock struck the 55th minute of the match, though the wheels had started to come off for NSC.
SKC wingers Johnny Russell and Gerso Fernandes combined to level the score in the 53rd minute, with Gerso dunking into an open net after Russell’s dribbling had drawn the Nashville defense away. Less than a minute later, Nashville right back Alistair Johnston earned his second yellow card, for a takedown of Sporting midfielder Gianluca Busio.
Back on level footing on the scoreboard, and down a man, Nashville SC’s only choice was to scrap for the remainder of the contest.
“I thought in the opening exchanges, we showed a real good attitude, positive front-foot display, terrific goal from Walker from a dead ball gives us a really nice platform, and really and truly the chat at halftime was about getting through the next 10 minutes,” head coach Gary Smith said. “Kansas, understandably were going to come out with a renewed vigor and energy. To not make it through that 10 minutes was always going to be tough, and it was compounded, of course, with the sending-off. Which is out of character for Alistair, but a massive learning curve for a young player who’s been incredibly good for us.”
At the very least, Nashville can take a small amount of solace in the fact that, even at a man-disadvantage, it took a world-class strike to beat them. Substitute Erik Hurtado’s volley on a deep cross was struck sweetly, and found opposite side-netting to provide the 2-1 final margin.
Despite the loss, there were a number of positives to take away. NSC winger Randall Leal kept up the positive form that he showed in the midweek draw against Minnesota United, and although a nagging injury for Zimmerman is far from “good,” the silver lining is that rookie Jack Maher was able to join Jalil Anibaba and Dave Romney in the middle of a five-man backline to get his first taste of Major League soccer action.
“The result, needless to say, just didn’t fall our way today,” Maher said. “Despite that, I think that getting my debut is something that I’ll surely remember for the rest of my life. Hopefully first of many here for Nashville, and hopefully able to wear the Gold for years to come.”
“With these first 15 minutes or more in the game, I thought Jack showed us some of the qualities and signs that we can look forward to in the future,” Smith said. “It’s certainly my job to give him the right opportunity and platform to keep that development going. Centerbacks, in my mind, invariably take a little bit longer to mature, and to find their feet, given the position and the pressures that they encounter. Jack again is a very focused, hard-working, and good professional. And I’ve seen all the signs that I believe will see him in the group in the very near future for this team.”
The major storyline of the contest, though, will be how Nashville SC – even at full strength – was given problems early in the second half by Sporting KC’s talented wingers. There has been little to criticize about the defensive effort over the course of the 2020 season to date, so a fairly rough performance against Gerso and Russell is something that will inspire some adjustment from the preparation and execution next time the team sees the pitch.
“Alistair and Daniel [Lovitz], when they’ve run into those other opponents, have worked out exactly what was needed, or have had the opportunity to work with others to get the job done,” Smith explained. “If you look over to the other side of the field, as well: Johnny Russell creates the first goal. Gerso is involved probably mentally in getting Alistair sent off. Their wide players were terrific today. They made a difference.
“It’s a combination of good individual play – and both of our guys are capable of it to your point: they’ve produced before. Away from home, it’s getting the right balance between committing players to attack, and also making sure that they help their fullback wherever and whenever they can.”
The Boys in Gold will be without Johnston when they travel to Houston Wednesday, likely drawing Jalil Anibaba into a full-time role after the veteran’s substitute appearance Sunday evening. Nashville faced the Dynamo at home Sept. 26, with a stoppage-time equalizer robbing the hosts of a victory – something they’ve now gone four games without experiencing (though they have just the one loss in that stretch, as well).
The game kicks of at 7 p.m. CDT from BBVA Stadium in Houston. With a win, Nashville would certainly climb back into playoff position in the Eastern Conference table (NSC also has a game in-hand on the opposition, but has little leeway to waste any points), and stake a claim toward making the postseason in its debut year.
Header photo courtesy Major League Soccer.