Randall Leal photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There aren’t many worse ways to begin a soccer game than giving up an early through-ball goal and then a penalty within the first 12 minutes after the opening kick. Nashville SC did just that, giving new FC Cincinnati Designated Players Luciano Acosta and Brenner a strong start to their time in Queen City. But the Boys in Gold did something that they didn’t have to do much in 2020: mounted a comeback. Jhonder Cádiz slotted a ball home on the back post after a Randall Leal cross, and Leal added to the excitement himself with a top-corner finish to salvage the draw.
Ultimately, a 2-2 result after such an ignominious beginning is nothing to be ashamed of. But given the way the game played out, Nashville regrets not finding that this goal and a winner.
NSC racked up a club MLS-record 31 official shots, 3.48 expected goals to Cincinnati’s 1.94, and dominated possession (57.5%) in a way that rarely happened last season. A number of golden chances – a set-piece header from CB Dave Romney that rang the crossbar, a long striker from Randall Leal that Cincinnati goalkeeper Przemisław Tyton punched out of the upper corner, a rebounded chance from winger Handwalla Bwana that required an impressive save from Tyton – will leave Nashville disappointed to find that third tally to take the victory.
“I should have definitely roofed it to the top, 100%,” Bwana said of his attempt. “But at that moment, I think I’d chased back somebody, and I was too far from where I needed to be. If I was a lot closer to CJ, it would have been a tap-in for me. But I was defending all the way, so I was trying to get back, trying to get to the goal-side, about the same time, and I feel like I definitely should have roofed it to the top.
“But you have to give the credit to the keeper, too: what a game he had, what a save he had. It’s unfortunate but that’s part of the game: sometimes the little things are the hardest part. At the same time we have to learn, and we have to learn, and move on and hopefully we’re doing better the next game.”
NSC’s early deficit was built on a pair of blunders from their own goalkeeper. Joe Willis was left alone with Acosta after an impressive pass from Ronald Matarrita, but was unable to pull the ball of the Argentine’s foot – and Acosta popped it over Willis before easily finishing on an empty net. Just minutes later, Willis took a heavy touch playing the ball out of the back, and fouled Brenner for a penalty kick (after a VAR review) that the high-profile signing converted himself.
Willis was among the league’s elite over the course of the 2020 season, but had a similar rough start (albeit it in ways that don’t show on the scoresheet as much) against Atlanta United in last year’s opener. He came far, far out of his box and earned a yellow card with a handball that potentially denied the Five Stripes a goal that could have made their final margin of victory 3-1, rather than the 2-1 nailbiter it turned out to be.
As he did last year, Willis should bounce back to have a solid season in 2021.
“He’s a very experienced guy,” head coach Gary Smith said. “I would think he’s disappointed going back home tonight as to maybe how the second goal developed and 99 times out of 100, Joe doesn’t try and beat the forward rushing on in, but I think that’s a consequence of the way the preseason has maybe unfolded for not just the team, but for some individuals in the group. And Joe’s not had a load of playing time. His performances and record speak for itself in our first year. I certainly have no worries beyond that, that he would pull himself together, and apart from being disappointed, be a foundational piece to whatever we are going to achieve moving forward.”
The moments of struggle and the moments of brilliance encapsulate the beauty of the game, of course. And aside from Tyton’s incredible performance, there was perhaps nothing as impressive as Leal’s goal to tie the game. As the ball fell to the Costa Rican outside the penalty area after a failed corner-kick clearance, he did what he does best: put his laces through the rock and fired from distance.
Of course, in a rare moment of honesty for goal-scorers after such highlight-reel moments, Leal admitted that has was trying to play it to a teammate at the back post. But they all count when they hit the back of the net.
“I think the most beautiful goals comes when you want to do another thing, you know?” he admitted. “Of course, I want to cross, and then the ball has come to the target. You know, this was like a surprise for me, you know. Because I say the most beautiful goals, I think the guys don’t think about ‘do this, you know?’ It’s like you want to do something and then the ball goes the other direction and you make a goal like that.
“But it’s God’s plans, so this is what I say thanks to God because the goal today comes because I pray a lot, and sometimes I want to do something – today I want to cross the ball, and then it’s come to the goal. Thanks to God.”
Nashville poured on the pressure thereafter, finishing the game with more than 1.5 more expected goals, but none of those 14 subsequent attempts managed to find the back of the net.
“I think it was unfortunate,” Bwana said. “I don’t know how we did not with that game. The first 10 minutes was very – you could call it difficult, or we weren’t ready, I guess. But I still don’t understand. I think guys in the locker room are shocked how we did not win that match. The chances we created, almost I think 34 shots or chances? I’m so shocked how we didn’t win that game.”
The bright side for Nashville SC is that the parts of the game most-projectable to future success all come up in favor of the Boys in Gold: a massive advantage in expected goals and possession, and a team that wants to fight back after bitter disappointment may very well show the attitude to turn that into more conversion and success in the future.
- The prose there probably makes it obvious, but this was really a snakebit game to not take all three points. The replicability of the ways FC Cincinnati scored, while the replicability of Nashville not converting another goal… those combine to make this a really statistically unlikely result. Tyton had a hell of a game, and while maybe it’s an indication that he’s going to be at a new level this year… he was pretty poor last season.
- I’ve seen negative takes on Alex Muyl – and maybe I’ll share them after a few more watches of the game, but I really didn’t see it. Handwalla Bwana had an outstanding game, and it feels like the greater offensive output he provided (which he was brought in to do) has people down on the player he subbed in for. I also think the expectations based on his background as a low-investment Homegrown player has people underestimating the expectations for him.
- Lots of preseason talk about how Hany Mukhtar needs to have a huge year for NSC to find success… I think this game was a testament to the fact that it doesn’t have to be him specifically, but rather than NSC needs somebody. It was Leal – and a supporting cast that included a healthy Cádiz and the likes of Bwana as a sub – in this one, but “more bullets in the chamber” seems to be the club’s prevailing philosophy, rather than “get more from one specific guy.” That seems a wise decision.
- I’ll be interested to see how good FC Cincinnati is this season. There should be some competence in attack, but this didn’t feel like a massive step forward from a group that really needs one. Playing with a two-goal lead and then ultimately trying to hold on for a draw made have made FCC look like there had been less improvement than expected, perhaps.
- Yes, the center official had a howler. From missing the Willis penalty-foul before getting VARed to extreme inconsistency in whistling physicality, there just was not a good performance there. However, Nashville SC fans saying that he was biased against the team, or determined the outcome of the game with his poor performance (aside from maybe citing one specific call – a fairly obvious foul in the box on Hany Mukhtar, but one that’s almost never going to be called off-ball)… taking it a step far, IMO.
Mucho más this week.