Nashville SC is not a team built to come from behind. So when the Boys in Gold conceded to Orlando City SC in the first four minutes of Sunday afternoon’s game. It did not bode well. However, a back-and-forth match saw them manage to emerge victorious with some late-game drama. A squad that hadn’t previously shown that type of tool in its kit added to the overall image of a complete team as the postseason approaches.
“I think one of the most telling things about tonight was – I’m pretty sure – it was our first come-from-behind victory,”defender Dan Lovitz said. “We haven’t been in that position yet. I think that’s a very valuable experience, to be playing from behind. Obviously, you never want to have that be how you start the game, and to give up a goal so early, but it’s a great indicator of the character we have in the locker room, the guys we have and who’s able to come in, and who’s able to be right and be effective at both ends of the field in very important moments.”
After OCSC’s Daryl Dike began proceedings, it was Lovitz himself who managed to draw his team back level. A 20th-minute corner kick was cleared to the US International. Although a shot with his stronger left foot was blocked inside the box, Lovitz stepped to the rebound and hammered it home from distance with his right foot.
Much like the team overall, Lovitz is most-known for his defensive prowess. On a day when the defense didn’t live up to its season-long performance (NSC allowed two-plus goals just six other times this year), he was able to contribute in a different way. Playing a position that’s not typically known for two-footed players, the lefty managed to slam home with his right – though it’s worth noting that his only other MLS goal was also right-footed, and from a similar situation.
Stepping up in an unconventional way is a hallmark of this team, and one that’s going to be important through a run in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
“I think one of the most important characteristics of this team this year is how many goals have come from different guys in different moments,” Lovitz said. “I’m always going to be happy to score goals. I’m not going to discount that, but I think we just have a great mindset right now that we know that goals can come from anybody at any time. And it makes my job incredibly easy as part of the backline. We just need to focus on doing a better job of starting the game – I think tonight was a bad example of that, but for the most part I think we need to continue the good work we’ve done throughout the course of the season, and be solid and give a foundation to the guys in front of us that are special in the attacking third. You saw that tonight, and it’s a great combination of those two dimensions, and we’re very happy to get three points under the circumstances.”
When Orlando City’s captain, Nani, put his team ahead on a free kick midway through the first half, Orlando City appeared set to cruise to a third-place finish in the MLS table – while NSC would be relegated to eighth. The lead persisted until only minutes remained in regulation. Then, however, a pair of Nashville substitutes had their say.
Midfielder Hany Mukhtar missed the previous five games with a hamstring injury, made all the more disappointing by the fact that it came on the heels of an MLS Player of the Week performance in a victory at Houston Dynamo. Re-entering the lineup in the 76th minutes for his first appearance since Oct. 14 – nearly a month on the shelf – he made his presence felt with a goal in the 88th minute and an assist in the 93rd.
“I was waiting three weeks for my comeback,” Mukhtar said. “I saw the guys playing, and I missed to be out on the pitch. I’m very happy that I’m healthy again. It was hard for me, when I got injured in Houston. I think it was one of my best games here for Nashville, and I wanted to start now finally to play good for our team and help the team. So yeah, then I got the message from the doctor that it’s a muscle injury, so I was very sad.
“But yeah, that’s part of our job, and I think it’s part of our job also to focus and work hard again for the next chance. That’s the beauty of the game: you play bad today, you can be the hero next game. So we need to be realistic and we have the next chance in the playoffs, and we need to focus on our next game.”
Mukhtar’s stoppage-time assist was a free kick that found the head of a fellow Designated Player. Recent signing Jhonder Cádiz matched his season high with 50 minutes on the pitch, and notched his second goal for the club.
“I think the combination that we haven’t seen much of – of Mukhtar and Cádiz – looked incredibly profitable for us,” Smith said. “Hany scores and creates one for Jhonder. It wasn’t just that: there was an energy and a feel about those sort of final 10-15 minutes. Of course, again, the momentum shifted when we equalized, but you never felt as though the game was far out of our reach. I mean, there was one terrific save from Joe [Willis] – I think it was just after their second – that I think lifted everyone’s spirits, and we pushed on from there.”
With a come-from-behind win now in the books, and NSC’s Designated Players beginning to find some chemistry, the club’s hopes in the playoffs are incremented forward. An upset win on the road is nice, but won’t be repeated in the first round of the knockout tournament, at least: Nashville SC will host fellow expansion team Inter Miami CF Nov. 20 with the intention of advancing to take on Toronto FC in Round Two.
Miami has also shown a little bit of growth – and a lot of mettle – in bouncing back from a horrific start to the year (1-6-2 in the first nine games, including 0-5 to begin the 2020 season) to qualify for the playoffs. Making major mid-year signings in French World Cup-winner Blaise Matuidi and Argentina’s Higuaín brothers helped IMCF turn its expansion year into a successful one, as well.
“Miami looked absolutely out in the cold at one point, and have turned their form around,” Smith said. “They’ve had a couple of terrific wins, and today’s result, under pressure, shows that they’re certainly on the march.”
While no result in just over a week’s time can overcome Nashville’s eight-point advantage in the final Eastern Conference table, the history books may remember the top 2020 expansion team as the one that advances in their third (Nashville has a 1-0-1 mark so far) head-to-head match – and the one with the highest stakes yet.