Nashville SC

One two-nil deficit too many

Header photo by Tim Sullivan/Club and Country

HARRISON, N.J. – When you’re a team that goes into a 2-0 hole regularly, you probably aren’t winning a ton of games. Until Friday evening, that still hadn’t mean any losses for Nashville SC. The Boys in Gold gave up a pair of goals early in games against FC Cincinnati, CF Montreal, and Atlanta United, but managed to claw back to earn a draw in each of them.

In between, NSC drew matches against Inter Miami CF and Real Salt Lake (both scoreless), and earned wins against New England Revolution and Austin FC. A solid early-season résumé was on the books, even if the position in the Eastern Conference table left a little to be desired.

Entering Red Bull Arena Friday evening, Gary Smith’s squad knew that, in order to maintain an undefeated record, an early deficit couldn’t be part of the proceedings. Alas, that’s exactly what happened, an NSC couldn’t recover en route to a 2-0 defeat.

“It pretty much took the sort of shape and picture that I expected coming here,” Smith said. “I’ve run into this type of Red Bull team on numerous occasions, and they go about their business in a specific way. They took their moments very well that they were presented with. I think the story of the game for us was: first goal changed the dynamic of the way things were going. We felt pretty comfortable up until that first goal.”

A free kick from within Red Bull territory seemed innocuous enough. However, the long service from Sean Nealis bounced over nearly everyone – and found striker Patryk Klimala inside the penalty area. He nodded the ball back to his unmarked strike companion Fábio, and the Brazilian’s right-footed volley kissed the far post before settling into the back of Joe Willis’s net.

Although NSC recovered from the shocking 37th-minute strike, the Boys in Gold never managed to get enough of a foothold in the game to find an equalizer.

“The initial ball got flicked on, and it kind of got flicked on to their other forward,” defender Dave Romney said. “Surprisingly, the ball checked up. I think both Walker [Zimmerman] and the forward were kind of playing as if it was going to skip. The ball was skipping, and the field was wet the whole time. The ball checked up, for some reason – like the field was dry. So the ball went kind of short, and then he flicked it on, and the guy had an amazing finish.

“It’s unfortunate, but some goals you just have to take your hat off and just say that was a nice finish. We obviously could have done better as a team. I could probably have been shifted over more, guys could have won their battles, but at the end of the day, it was a half-chance that the guys makes an amazing finish on. Joe couldn’t do anything.”

Gerhard Struber’s Red Bulls – in typical fashion for the club and its global parent organization – put pressure on Nashville SC in all areas of the field. The visitors were unable to advance the ball into the final third, or even threaten to do so, in the face of the full-field press for which RBNY is known.

The difficulties connecting to the attack persisted until after after the game was effectively put away. Nashville managed just one shot – a Matt LaGrassa attempt well off-target – by the time Red Bulls scored a second and effectively put the game away in the 56th minute. Red Bulls right back Kyle Duncan collected a cross-field pass, and faced little resistance as he dribbled to the top of the box, and slotted home with his left foot to provide the winning margin.

Nashville had some chances to at least rescue some dignity (if not, as in previous matches, come all the way back for the draw). Five minutes after Duncan’s goal, breakaway with striker CJ Sapong and Randall Leal behind all but one Red Bulls defender ended with Leal’s shot drawing a save from RBNY keeper Carlos Coronel – and the rebound going so far out that Sapong didn’t have a chance to collect it in a dangerous area.

Another solid chance arrived in the 73rd. Sapong was fouled on the edge of the Red Bull area – and in-behind the defense, there was a question whether VAR would send Duncan off with a red card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity, though a quick check opted to stick with the yellow card on the field – and Hany Mukhtar’s free kick rung the crossbar. Alas, it was as close as NSC would get to pulling one back.

“Listen, moments were few and far between, that was for sure,” Smith said. “Randall had the best opportunity in open play. At two-nil, the goalkeeper makes a decent save. Big moment.

“My opinion on the CJ one – and I’ve have to see it again, I haven’t seen a replay so maybe I’m speaking a little bit out of turn, but – the player impedes him as he takes his touch, and then fouls him and brings him down. So the touch is affected by the player that’s closest to him. Now if I’m wrong on that, I’ll hold my hand up. But that was the way I saw it. The referee’s decision was that his touch had taken him wide. I guess VAR felt the same thing. But my opinion was that the defender had affected that touch, so therefore, the player should have gone off. However, as I’ve said, I’m open to looking back on that and changing my mind, of course.

“And Hany’s was a terrific effort. You know, you’re talking about an inch either way. He practices those many, many times a week. We were very hopeful he might have got us back in the game. But it’s a great effort – yes of course I’ve thought it might have gone in – but it wasn’t to be.”

Nashville rolled out a number of substitutions, including veteran Jalil Anibaba (facilitating defender Walker Zimmerman’s first minutes away from the pitch this season), the longest run-out in a Nashville uniform for winger Luke Haakenson, and the MLS debut for rookie Irakoze Donasiyano. The trio entered in the 63rd, and while they were unable to change the outcome, there was some foundation-building for the future, as well.

Importantly, Smith was able to give Zimmerman – fresh off an appearance for the US Men’s National team in a friendly nine days earlier – some rest.

“Walker’s one – he came back from his international duty up in Salt Lake against Costa Rica with a little bit of a difficulty in his lower abdominal, and Io was really trying to protect him more than anything,” the gaffer explained. “He got through an hour of football, and at that point, I felt we needed to chase the game a little bit more, and it may put him under some undue pressure knowing that we’ve got some very big games coming up. So I hope I caught that early enough.”

Donasiyano’s entry was a nice milestone for a player who suited up for the University of Virginia the final time only back in April.

“My heart was racing really fast, you know, because it was in front of a lot of fans.” he said of his debut. “I’ve never played in front of so many fans. Other than that, it was a great feeling: it was a great feeling coming on, and trying to do my best and help the team. You know, my mindset was to just be brave and play my game, and just – as a midfielder in that role – try to prevent them from scoring more goals, and try to push the ball forward to get some results, at least.”

“He’s been absolutely terrific in the work in training,” added Smith. “Deserved this opportunity. Unfortunately for Koze, not an easy game to come into: a bit of a baptism of fire. I would have liked to have maybe introduced him into a game that might have helped navigate his experiences a little bit easier. I thought he did and performed in a sterling way. Not an easy environment to make your debut. But he’s a very very genuine kid, and he’s got a bright future.”

With a 2-1-5 record, Nashville currently sits in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, outside the playoff line. However, NSC is level on points with No. 7 CF Montreal, and hosts a struggling Toronto FC team in the midweek before hosting the Quebecois club in an early-season six-pointer this Saturday. A solid week of results could see NSC climb back to where the club wants to be – and while the loss against Red Bull was far from desirable, it may very well be the kick in the pants this team needed to round back into form.

Match highlights

Bullets

  • That Red Bull press is well-known, of course, but it’s a whole different experience to have a front-row* seat to it. This was the worst game to not have Aníbal Godoy and Jhonder Cádiz available. Godoy’s ability to be physically strong and strong on the ball with technique was missed. Nashville also could have really used a guy with Cádiz’s ability to retain possession with hold-up play or running in-behind. CJ Sapong is a good goal-getter and high-energy player, but his pure speed and technical ability weren’t quite to the level needed to provide a bit of respite for NSC to go over the top more consistently.
  • Despite the long layoff, NSC’s players in large part looked sluggish. That could go back to the rested-v-rusty question, or it could just be the way RBNY manages to make opponents look. With a busy week coming up, we should get indication fairly early against (a struggling) Toronto if it was a one-off – whether by internal factors or the opposition.
  • Caden Clark did not score – or even have any super-dangerous opportunities in this one – but his ability was on display. He provided the cross-field ball that led to Duncan’s goal (somewhat generously an assist), but more impressive was a play toward the end of the contest where he managed to win battles of physicality and savviness against Dax McCarty and Alex Muyl (both former Red Bulls) back-to-back. His growth in the non-scoring areas of the game should turn him into a high-value player in short order. I’m hoping he makes the cut from Gold Cup provisional roster to the squad that actually participates in that competition.
  • The acoustics at Red Bull Arena made it feel like a full-throat crowd. The supporters culture in New York Harrison, New Jersey is not known for being among the best, but even in a pandemic world (full capacity was allowed, certainly there are many who remain at home as they wait for life to get closer to normal), a 40% full stadium sounded good. Hopefully some of the covered-seating factors will help NSC’s sound similarly impressive.
  • Dax McCarty and Alex Muyl both got big hometown cheers when they were announced. Obviously, McCarty is a fan favorite there, but feelings on Muyl are more mixed (the first-ever homegrown from Manhattan, but also a guy whose technical skill never progressed to the point to keep fans on his side). May Nashville SC fans eventually treat their own former players as well. On the playing side, I thought this was one of McCarty’s better games of the season until he (understandably) tried to make things happen a bit too much late in the game. Muyl seemed to be a little more shaken by the moment and his return to town.
  • Donasiyano didn’t seem like the level was above him. Obviously he showed some nerves in his professional debut, but now that he’s broken the season on that, I think his potential level as early as this week rises quickly. The ceiling is very high (and his position potentially helps answer one of the questions about this team in CDM depth).
  • I didn’t see with my own eyes (the press workroom is in the bowels of the stadium, and I went there shortly after the final whistle), but have heard reports that the team didn’t go to the away supporters section for a round of applause to the dozen or so NSC fans who were in attendance. I’m agnostic on the matter – I think I’ve been clear in the past that some of the things a subset of fans feel entitled to are unreasonable – but it’s something that’s upsetting supporters, and in a way that would be extremely easy to avoid. Will be interesting to monitor this one going forward.

* actually fourth-row. I cannot stress enough how Red Bull puts its media right in front of the action.

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