NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — “Absolutely bizarre.”
That’s how head coach Gary Smith described Nashville S.C.’s 6-3 win over F.C. Cincinnati in which Nashville trailed 2-0 and 3-1 in the first half before rallying in the second half to win and clinch a playoff spot for the second straight season to start its MLS existence.
The start was quite possibly the worst sequence of soccer we’ve seen from the Boys in Gold in their two years in MLS. Cincinnati, which entered the game with the worst point total in the league and losers of nine straight matches, buzzed early. The home team took advantage of three major miscues from a normally sound Nashville backline to go up 2-0 – it would’ve been 3-0 if not for a blown penalty by Cincy star Brenner – over the first 20 minutes of the match.
Walker Zimmerman’s header got Nashville on the board, but Cincinnati extended its lead back to two when Brandon Vazquez took advantage of a giveaway and a missed tackle by Alistair Johnston. The three goals are the most Nashville has conceded this season, but it didn’t deter them.
Randall Leal’s spectacular volley cut the deficit to 3-2 at the half, and the second half opened up to allow a flurry of Nashville chances. C.J. Sapong got the equalizer connecting his foot to another Zimmerman header, continuing Nashville’s success on set pieces, and tying the game 3-3. Just minutes later they took the lead when Hany Mukhtar set up Leal for his second goal of the match on a strike from the top of the box that was placed expertly inside the far post.
Even Ake Loba, the team’s $1 million man acquired from the Mexican League in July, broke through for his first MLS goal, which was followed by another tally from Sapon to cap the scoring on a night that Nashville found a way to overcome its sloppiness to get the job done.
While it may have been a bizarre game, the playoff-clinching result is well earned for a club that has been absolutely remarkable over its two-year run.
It all started with a debut attendance record followed by a season in mostly empty stadiums due to COVID-19. There was a team outbreak that caused them to withdraw from the MLS is Back tournament last summer, but Nashville regrouped and found its way not just into the playoffs, but on a run all the way to the Eastern Conference semifinals before a loss to eventual MLS Cup champ Columbus.
This season has been even better.
The defense continues to be stout. Joe Willis is a contender for goalkeeper of the year with 13 clean sheets. Walker Zimmerman is one of the MLS Top XI, and the rest of the back line continues to perform.
But this team has developed an attacking personality that was on display in this match. Hany Mukhtar is having a MVP-caliber season, Randall Leal is an emerging star and C.J. Sapong has given Nashville a consistent finishing threat.
Throw in the leadership of Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy and this is a team that has been as consistent this season as anyone outside of New England, which just set the MLS Record for points in a regular season en route to the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the Supporters’ Shield.
But Nashville sits just behind the Revolution and will try to lock up the conference’s second seed with a win in one of its final two matches, at Orlando City Saturday or home against the New York Red Bulls next Sunday. And Gary Smith’s team will be a threat in the MLS Cup Playoffs, especially playing early rounds at home where they are unbeaten this season, with the ability to play a lock down defense or a wide open attacking style when offense is the need.
This team keeps turning heads and raising expectations. And as weird as it was, Wednesday’s sloppy start just set the stage for this club to show just how far it’s come.
Now we wait and see just how far they can go.