NASHVILLE – Too often this season, Nashville SC has found itself playing from behind. More often than not, the Boys in Gold have managed to turn deficits into a result on the scoreboard – the team is 1-4-1 when the opposition finds the back of the net first – but notching within the first two minutes and holding on for a 1-0 win against Philadelphia Union Saturday evening was a different sort of experience for the 21,822 fans in Nissan Stadium.
It may have been as impressive as any contest this year, though. CJ Sapong’s second-minute tally was enough to hold off one of the Eastern Conference’s top clubs in recent years. As he did 38 times while playing for the Union, Sapong made no mistake and found the back of the net against them.
“It feels really good, feels really good,” said the onetime Union striker. “Philly was a place I think I was able to… come to an understanding of who I am on the field and off the field. I do owe a lot to them, but obviously when you leave a place and it’s unexpected, any time you play them again you want to obviously show what you feel like they’re missing out on.
“I felt like I could have scored many more. Ultimately, I am just happy that we got the three points, and it’s a good game for us to grind out, and get back at it on Thursday.”
Nashville switched its tactics in comparison to recent games – head coach Gary Smith combatted the Union’s diamond midfield with a three-man backline that gave the team width against an inherently narrow formation. Sapong benefitted, with midfielder Randall Leal sliding him a pass from the wing in a breakaway situation.
“That shape is incredibly competitive,” Smith said of Philadelphia’s formation. “They win a lot of second-phase balls, and because of the quality of their group, they tend to – for want of a better terminology – work you over a bit. They’ve got two excellent forwards, whoever plays. And if you look at their stats, what they do is just, in the process of a game, get their fullbacks higher and higher, work crosses into good areas: they’re incredibly efficient in the way they go about their work, and they make the game quick.
“I always felt that the tough part of tonight would be, ‘how can we get to grips with the game and ask them some serious questions?’ In our usual shape, it just looked to me like some of our more-creative players would get overwhelmed with either pressure or on the wrong side of the ball. Listen, it wasn’t always perfect, but I felt that there were some very, very good occasions for us to counterattack, for us to be aggressive, to manage the ball, and to ask a top team some serious questions.”
After Sapong put his team up, Nashville had a number of additional first-half chances – including a couple near-misses from Sapong on set pieces – but the Boys in Gold couldn’t find another tally. That’s perhaps no surprise given NSC’s reputations for iffy finishing and for playing a little less expansively with a lead. Against a strong squad, there’s no shame in any type of win.
And Philadelphia is just that: the Union remains ahead of NSC after the result, in third place on 19 points while Nashville is just a slot behind on 18 (albeit with one fewer game played). A Nashville team that few probably expected to win against that caliber of opponent will regret nothing about taking home three points.
“A lot, a lot of respect for what Jim Curtin and the group have done there with this team,” Smith said. “Incredibly consistent group of players. Up close and personal – first time that we’ve run into them – I was even more impressed with some of the quality of their group. They have ability to score from all areas of the field. Set pieces, they have pace, they have power, they have quality on the ball.
“So I think it leads nicely into how well we played, how well we executed a very different plan. There were what I felt were some heroic performances from individuals that took on a lot of information in one week, and gave us not only a very important victory, but a clean sheet, as well.”
There were times that the clean sheet was at risk. Philadelphia put four shots on-target, all of them after Nashville had taken a lead. Two of them came in the second half, when the Union took a bit stronger grip on the game after the teams split possession in the first half. But the streak of being able to hold onto leads without allowing any goals continues for Nashville SC.
No Union opportunity was scarier than a 63rd-minute blast from Sergio Santos. Sneaking into Nashville’s box late, he got on the end of a Kai Wagner pass near the penalty spot. He fired away with his right foot, but put the attempt close enough to Joe Willis that Nashville’s veteran keeper was able to push it over the bar. The Union would not threaten again.
“To be honest, I don’t really remember exactly the buildup,” Willis said. “I know they had a player on the ball on my right side who crossed it. I tried to just get myself to the center of the goal as fast as possible and get set. Fortunately, I had a clear view on the shot, and then he hit it right at me for the most part. So I was able to get a fingertip to it.”
Nashville has now beaten two of the three teams higher on the Eastern Conference table – previously knocking off New England Revolution, also in Nissan Stadium – and has felt defeat just once this season. That’s a pathway that one could quite clearly see leading to heights that this team has yet to reach, after making the playoffs in the No. 7 spot in the inaugural season.
“It’s obviously nice to beat top teams in this league, especially when they’re ahead of you in the standings,” Willis said. “But we need to keep this as the standard. Too many times, especially at home, we’ve gone down early and scratched and clawed and eked out a draw at best and those are games that if we start a little bit better, we get a win out of and we’re higher in the standings.”
“Yeah, 10, 11 games in – a third of the way through – we’ve been able to get wins against two of the top teams in our conference,” Sapong added. “We ultimately have found ourselves in positions where we either got a tie or a loss but we know we could have given more, and while that is a bit of a stinger, it is better to know the only reason why we’re not higher up in the table is because of ourselves. So, when we go into training again, the confidence aspect leads to more sharpness in training. There is a belief now amongst this group and I believe that will carry us through the rest of the season.”
The next opportunity to continue the climb up not only the standings but the respect of those around MLS comes Thursday. Atlanta United travels to Nashville for the second of three scheduled games between the Southern rivals this season. The first was a draw in Atlanta, and NSC will be trying to improve the result at home.
- Sapong’s chances in the aftermath of the goal were painful. This game could have been put away early. Of course, it’s hard to hold it against him personally – they were tough chances, and one or two he didn’t even manage to get a foot on as it slid past him – but certainly the opportunity to cruise home comfortably certainly would have been preferred for the fans and team.
- Of course, Sapong also almost created an own-goal, forcing Olivier Mbaizo to slide to prevent a back-post dunk later in the contest. It’s a shame Sapong was unable to get back on the ball (and a nice play from Mbaizo) to hit the rebound home. Seeing the ways in which Sapong was able to find space on the back post may be a worthwhile film or stat piece later this week if I have time for it.
- This felt like a game where we were going to get that weird mistake from Joe Willis, and we did with a failed punch that created some serious moments of danger. We’re also in the course-correction portion of the year where those mistakes aren’t getting punished maximally, as they were in the first couple games. That’s how you eventually see the results regress to the mean (and if Nashville regresses to its xG expectations, this season is only going to get better).
- It was a handball. Alejandro Bedoya would tell you the same. That VAR checked and did not even make the center official go to the monitor, much less call the obvious handball is a really bad look.
- It’s an even worse look that PRO – in violation of league policy (this situation is working through those processes at this point) – simply declined to answer a pool reporter question about the call. That’s not acceptable stewardship of the game.
- That’s all, trying to keep it short with another busy week on the way here.