NASHVILLE – Nashville SC’s inaugural season in Major League Soccer has had its share of high points. From earning the first win in club history, to back-to-back three goal outbursts in mid-October, to qualifying to the playoffs as an expansion side, there have been a lot of ups. There have been fewer downs – perhaps only painful losses to Orlando City SC (amid off-field turmoil around the league) and Sporting Kansas City truly qualify.
Saturday evening’s game against Chicago Fire split the difference, and there have been a whole lot of middle-ground moments (that’s not an insult, either – FC Cincinnati would kill to have a few of those). The 1-1 draw in Nissan Stadium was no different. Daniel Ríos got the goal-scoring going in the 28th minute, but Chicago’s Boris Sekulic answered in the 42nd to provide the game’s only goals.
“Well, it was always going to be a very, very tough night: I’ve watched this Chicago team evolve and develop and they are an extremely good footballing side,” said head coach Gary Smith. “I always felt that we were going to have our hands full tonight. Delighted to go in front, you know some nice qualities – albeit broken up with maybe some below-par possession play. But all-in-all, a very competitive first half and disappointing to go in at 1-1.”
Ríos – whose fourth goal of the season moved him out of a four-way tie with Randall Leal, Hany Mukhtar, and Walker Zimmerman for the club’s all-time lead in MLS – continued the hot streak that he began in late September. Although he missed four contests in-between, he’s scored four times in his past size appearances overall.
“Daniel’s output in front of the goal,” Smith raved, “his ability to be a goal threat, and certainly some of his qualities since coming back from injury – and even before, he’d scored two in two [games] before he did his groin and he’s now, I believe he is our top goal scorer with four – he’s moving in a very, very good direction and I am delighted with where he’s at.”
“It feels great personally, individually, because this was my main goal at the beginning of the season and the year. I think it’s not over, but I still have chances to score more goals. Yeah, I’m getting my full fitness, but I still feel like I can get better, because I have played a lot of games, but maybe with more minutes that I am having, I will get the best of me – talking about fitness.”
Chicago responded shortly before half with a defensive mistake allowing Sekulić to work into the box from his right fullback position and beat Joe Willis to level the score. A high line from Nashville was broken as Nashville attempted to absorb pressure and get into the half with the lead, but it was not to be.
“I think the goal that they score can certainly be put down to – and we’ve seen before – maybe a mental fatigue,” Smith said. “You know, we had been defending slightly too deep. Randall got dragged into almost a fullback position, and the backline was not anywhere near as sound as it should have been: Alistair [Johnston] was a little bit too deep, and wasn’t looking at the line, and played on that lateral run.”
With Chicago level on the scoreboard – and in major need of points to ensure playoff qualification – Nashville played the majority of the second half on the back foot. The Fire ramped up the physicality and dominated possession with NSC’s midfield unable to control the ball.
“The second period, I just felt that we lost control of that central and midfield area,” Smith explained. “Their possession and ability to get down the flanks as well was causing us problems: there were one or two things that weren’t quite right on our right-hand side. All-in-all, I think in the end, we can safely say it wasn’t our best night at the office, but we were able to show some of the qualities that we have before: foundationally strong, spirited, and that earned us a point tonight.”
“I think we let them have the ball and we dropped [deeper on the pitch],” Ríos added. “We were, I think, a little bit too deep. When a team doesn’t have the ball, it gets frustrated, and you have to run more. And the game goes and you get more tired and tired. Those are the small things that we need to improve for next games.”
Chicago had a number of chances to find a winner in the second half. That included two close-range attempts from substitute Elliot Collier in the final seven minutes of the contest. One – a headed attempt from the edge of the six-yard box – found the woodwork, while the other drew a block from center back Walker Zimmerman.
It was not the prettiest ending to a game this season. There’s also no denying that Nashville SC has found itself hanging on by a thread at times late this season, whether with the score knotted or the Boys in Gold holding onto a single-goal lead. The outcome that matters is holding on for the result. On a night when NSC wasn’t at its best, the team managed to do just that. In an expansion year when the team has rarely had its full complement of players, the signs of growth – incremental though they may be – remain importnt as the team approaches the postseason.
“I think it didn’t go the way we wanted, but we managed the game really well,” added Ríos. “I mean, we have a point, so it’s great for us. We feel more like they missed a chance to have two more points, so I think it’s a good result for us. It put us in a good position to go and win the next two games.”
A two-game blitz to close the year sees the team with a final home game Wednesday evening. An FC Dallas side that NSC has handled for two wins and a draw so far this season (with one of those wins a 3-0 shellacking in Nashville just a couple weeks ago) will try to finally break its winless streak against NSC, with kickoff at 7:30 CST. Then, Decision Day looms at Orlando City.
Nashville can finish anywhere between sixth (with a first-round playoff bye) and eighth (hosting a first-round game against a lower seed) pending the results in the final two matchdays of the season. If the team continues along its current growth trajectory, you’d be unwise to doubt success in the postseason, regardless of that seed.
Daniel Ríos header photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer