When Nashville SC signed winger Randall Leal to a Designated Player contract, they expected to get offensive contributions. The former Saprissa star (and Costa Rica International) has a long history of banging in impressive goals and making game-changing offensive plays.
When the club’s General Manager Mike Jacobs traded New York Red Bulls a pair of international slots for winger Alex Muyl, it was an opportunity to pick up a defensive complement. Coming from the all-press, all-the-time Red Bull system, Muyl’s workrate and tackling have been more notable than his scoring output.
Each of them contributed in his typical way Tuesday evening. But it took both doing a lit bit of the unexpected in order to earn a 1-0 win over Montreal Impact, and put Nashville SC within a single matchday of qualifying for the MLS Cup playoffs in its debut season. They teamed up for the game’s lone goal, with Muyl making a savvy offensive play to feed Leal for the finish. And Leal worked hard in his own end, earning possession back for his team more than any other member of the Boys in Gold.
“The best sides work both sides of the ball,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “By that, I mean when we attack, they have the ability, they have the mental aptitude and intelligence to go and join in and try and be creative.
“For most attacking wide players, they tend to not necessarily switch off when the defending part comes along, but there’s a difference between going through the motions and just offering a tepid attempt at trying to defend, and individuals that really roll their sleeves up and work for the team. Both of those guys do a wonderful job in both areas of the game, and it gives us the dimension that we need.
“And at times when we’re under pressure, we can rely on those two wide attacking players. At times when we’re in the ascendency, you can see both of them come to life, and both of them offer a very nice, bright, and creative edge. But the one thing that you do need: the determination and a lot of energy. And if you’re prepared to really dig in with both of those, then you get what you got tonight: two good performances.”
A heads-up play in the 33rd minute provided the difference in the game.
Muyl was fouled by Montreal defender Jukka Raitala near the midfield circle. He quickly stood up and settled the ball. Sensing that Leal was leaning off the back shoulder of the other Montreal defenders, Muyl quickly played a throughball to his companion, and Leal was off to the races. He transferred the ball to his weaker left foot to shield it from Montreal’s Luis Binks, and slotted home past keeper Clement Diop.
“I think when you are in the game, you need to be always concentrating,” Leal said. “Concentrate on the game. I noticed a lot of things that you have to do, but you always have to be smart. I think I just saw him to stand up so fast, and then I made the run, and he saw me. That was good for us: we won, and this is what we can celebrate today.”
It was also a homecoming of sorts for Muyl. After nearly five years with New York Red Bulls, heading back to his former home venue – Red Bull Arena is the temporary home for IMFC, thanks to international travel restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic preventing them from traveling back and forth to Canada – provided familiar environs. It was nice to get his ninth assist in Red Bull Arena, but he’s looking forward to a little payback against his former club, as well.
“Yeah, it was – I’d be happy to get a couple against my old team, as well,” he said with a chuckle. “It was a familiar situation. For me, it’s a fun way to come back, and it’s a nice kind-of trial run for when we come and play the Red Bulls.”
Nashville SC had a number of opportunities to add to the lead. Perhaps none was more enticing than striker Jhonder Cádiz, played in behind the backline (this is a season-long theme for the Impact defense), but unable to beat Diop to put the ball on net. That 75th-minute chance could have put an end to the game. So too could either of NSC’s other two second-half shots on target, but Diop had a solid performance in his return to the pitch after spending time away from the Impact to tend to personal issues in his native France.
Thanks to Diop’s performance – and to Nashville’s inability to add to the lead – there were some tense moments late for the Boys in Gold. The team had trouble maintaining possession and clearing its own end as the final whistle approached.
“I think the only disappointing part of that, as I mentioned, was that there was numerous opportunities to extend our lead, and then ultimately we go into the final moments knowing that even a bit of fortune for Montreal could put a dent in what otherwise has been a terrific display,” Smith said. “So I have confidence in the guys: they work tirelessly every day at making sure they work with the right attitude and offer the right type of qualities for those moments.”
With a second-half possession deficit protecting their lead, the Boys in Gold inched below the 50% mark – but that’s hardly anything to be ashamed of against a possession-oriented Impact team, especially with a one-goal advantage for much of the contest. Their 14 shots to Montreal’s six (and the Impact only managed to put two on-frame) is a comparison that more accurately encompasses the flow of the game. That even in Montreal’s period of pressure on the Nashville end produced just one long-distance shot, and nothing remotely threatening to the net itself – a Romell Quioto goal in the 85th minute correctly called back for an offside infraction notwithstanding – speaks volumes about the defensive effort put forth.
It’s been that defense that has led Nashville SC throughout its expansion season, with the league’s third-fewest goals allowed, but also the fourth-fewest scored. However, the team has come into its own after a somewhat rough start to the season: with only two losses since the calendar flipped to September (and a 3-1-3 mark in October), they’re hitting their stride at the right time.
On 28 points in the standings, they’re one solid night on the out-of-town scoreboard (an Inter Miami loss and an Atlanta United loss or draw this evening) from officially clinching a playoff slot that is all-but assured at this point. With three games remaining, this club has already achieved heights that few outside of Music City said were possible at the beginning of the year.
That effort continues Saturday evening in Nissan Stadium (where the team is undefeated since the season-opener back in February, which it must be noted was 15 years ago, and boasting a 4-1-4 record overall). Chicago Fire – themselves a contender for the playoff field, and in far less-secure position than Nashville – will arrive with dreams of breaking Nashville’s home unbeaten streak. If NSC’s recent form tells us anything, the Fire certainly won’t have an easy go of it.
Nashville SC celebrates Leal’s goal. Photo courtesy Major League Soccer.