Entering the year, nobody – not even this space – expected Nashville SC’s season to last into extra time of the Eastern Conference Semifinal. It’s safe to say nobody expected tornadoes pandemics, and personnel uncertainty to affect the season either. But late Sunday evening, there the Boys in Gold were, with a chance to play for the Eastern Conference crown after 90 minutes of play from MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus.
“There’ll be a lot of reflection in the coming days and weeks on what we’ve been able to put together here,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “How we have navigated a very difficult season, what we’ve achieved, obviously, and how we strengthened, and that will be happening, I’m sure, in many, many places. But on that basis, I’m delighted not only with where we’ve been able to extend ourselves to in this second round of the playoffs, I’m delighted in the way that the guys have conducted themselves.”
Alas, the dream came to an end with two quick runs from Columbus striker Gyasi Zardes. On the first, he assisted winger Pedro Santos on a breakaway, with the Portuguese Designated Player finally managing to put one past Joe Willis for the first goal allowed by the Nashville keeper. On the second, Zardes played the offside line perfectly (perhaps too perfectly?) and finished past Willis himself.
In the 99th and 103rd minutes of the contest – after a two-hour match against Toronto FC earlier in the week – Nashville SC finally broke.
“The first goal was instrumental,” Smith said. “I’m sure that everyone saw that – the way the game was unfolding – not many good opportunities either end. We look back on the one that hits the crossbar and bounces out instead of in. Joe [Willis] made a fabulous save at he near post. But aside that, there weren’t too many clear-cut opportunities, and the stats in the game tell us exactly what it was: after 90 minutes, it was very, very competitive and we very much held our own.
“The first goal, I felt as though the ball needed to be dealt with at source. I can’t remember who it was [midfielder Lucas Zelarayán] who wriggled out on our right-hand side, their left, right in front of us [on the bench] actually. But what we could see was that, being able to play beyond that defensive line. Zardes was in full flow then, and it was always going to be a problem, and it needed to be dealt with at source, and it wasn’t.”
Understandably, Nashville SC’s players were gutted not only for the end of their season, but for it to come how it did. After an impressive late-season run that culminated in a blasting of fellow expansion side Inter Miami and the extra-time victory over Toronto, to have it all end with two quick strikes after 90 minutes of shutout ball was the most painful way for it to end.
The time to reflect on the season as a whole comes later.
The disappointment with the season ending for me is just so, so apparent, and it’s so fresh,” said midfielder and captain Dax McCarty. “I think in a few days or a week we can look back on the season and say how great of a season it was considering the circumstances that we all went through. But right now, I think the reason I feel so much disappointment and so much frustration at our season ending is because there was a real belief, I think, in our group after the Toronto game that we could go on and really win MLS Cup. You can’t say that very often about an expansion team.”
In this one, it was the inability to put the ball in the back of the net that doomed Nashville. Certainly a 2-0 scoreline gives the impression that the contest was not close. But that belies a game in which Nashville kept a clean sheet for nearly 100 minutes, and finally broke after the attack couldn’t break down the Crew. Each team managed four shots on target, but Willis was forced into only one save before the Santos goal.
The Nashville attack didn’t ask enough questions of Columbus, and backup keeper Andrew Tarbell.
“Honestly, they’re a good defensive group,” said defender Walker Zimmerman of the opposition. “They’re solid in their organization, they’ve got two centerbacks who are very good in the air, fullbacks who are very technical and can keep possession. so that part is no different than how we defend. I think, you know, we had our chances tonight. We had plays that were: two off the goal line in the first half, we had some crosses that were dangerous. Really in that first 90 minutes, I think either team could have won it, and either team could have gotten that one goal.”
A clinical nature in the final third has been Nashville’s quest all season. There have been moments when it’s rounded into form – the team scored 15 goals in eight games in a 5-1-2 stretch to close the regular season and begin the playoffs. That largely coincided with improved health from one Designated Player (attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar), the integrated with the squad from another (mid-season striker signing Jhonder Cádiz), and an uptick in form from the third (winger Randall Leal).
That trio – combined with timely contributions from striker Daniel Ríos (himself limited with injury during the regular season), Zimmerman himself, and a rotating cast of supporting characters – managed to help provide signs that this team’s future is bright. On one evening in Central Ohio, though, they didn’t have it.
“A lot of our creative and attacking play was always going to be falling at their feet or on their shoulders to make the best of,” Smith said. “We’ve leant on them heavily in the last month or so. It was tough for all three of them tonight. They were kept under very tight wraps from a good backline.
“There were some things within the creative connections that could have been better, but the simplicity of this is: you’re in a semifinal. If you want to win, you’ve got to have those guys that creatively turn up on the day. You maybe need an hero or two in front of goal. And you’ve got to be ultra-competitive. Well, we tick one of those boxes, and for 90 minutes, we’ve been ultra competitive. But unfortunately on the day, we weren’t able to find that moment, and our hero went missing. But we’ve had many, many occasions where we’ve had more than one hero turn up. And tonight, I was waiting for it, but unfortunately it didn’t happen, and that is knockout football.”
It was finishing and strong chance creation – not progression into attacking areas – that was most frustrating of all. Nashville’s 17 total shots didn’t ask enough of Tarbell, and the team was unable to beat him.
“Ultimately for me, during the game, we’re just not sharp enough in the final third,” McCarty said. “We have a couple chances here and there, obviously really dangerous on set pieces. From the run of play, I just think we had too many loose passes, too many loose touches, not clinical enough in the final third when we had little opportunities to break forward. The difference in the game, honestly guys, is just one or two mental lapses and breakdowns from us in the back where Columbus took advantage and they were ruthless. And so, those are the fine margins, those are the tough lessons that we have to learn, and it’s extremely frustrating sitting here right now having not won the game.”
With the loss comes the offseason for Nashville, and likely a new-look roster the next time the Boys in Gold take to the field. Columbus is on to host New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference final Sunday with the opportunity to advance to the MLS Cup Final. Nashville will spend the foreseeable future figuring out what tinkering is needed to get there in 2021.
Hany Mukhtar photo courtesy Major League Soccer