Nashville SC played its first international friendly in front of a live audience on Wednesday night. The Boys in Gold matched up with Liga MX giant, Club América, and delivered a wildly entertaining night for viewers at home and in person at GEODIS Park.
Here are my three thoughts on the match:
Rotation, rotation, rotation
Gary Smith was always going to rotate the lineup. With just two matches remaining in the regular season and in the middle of a playoff chase, Nashville simply could not risk its star players. I am pretty sure there would have been a riot among the Nashville supporters if Hany Mukhtar showed up in anything other than street clothes.
The second-half injury to Handwalla Bwana proves the point. It was an unfortunate and devastating injury for Bwana, who may have dawned a Nashville jersey for the final time. Imagine the outrage had that been Mukhtar laying injured on the pitch.
Hopefully, Bwana makes a quick recovery and makes it back on the field in short order. But it underscores how needless a late-season friendly felt for both sides with much bigger fish to fry coming out of the international break.
With the rotated lineups, Nashville supporters received an extended look at many players who have not featured heavily this season.
Aké Loba drew the most eyeballs. The Ivorian showed flashes of solid play holding up the ball and sparking early attacks. However, his night will be most remembered for a goal called back due to offsides and a gold-plated chance that went wanting just minutes later.
The constant churn of substitutions also gave a debut for Ahmed Longmire. The 2022 MLS SuperDraft first-round draft pick made his debut for the home crowd. Personally, I have been really curious to see glimpses of Longmire. He never looked out of place in his ten minutes of action, which is all you can ask for from a center-back debutant.
Others certainly had notable nights as well. Josh Bauer found the back of the net early on a set piece. We also saw glimpses of Irakoze Donisayano, who made one competitive appearance for Nashville in 2021.
Elliot Panicco made his first appearance since making a couple of midseason starts in place of Joe Willis. Panicco put in an up-and-down performance with some good highlights and some poor moments. He will certainly want to have another chance on what became América’s tying goal. Panicco must ensure that the rebound is pushed wide rather than falling in the middle of the six-yard box.
All told, the biggest value of Wednesday night was providing an opportunity to those further down the depth chart for Nashville SC.
Shaffelburg’s speed is a cheat code
I hope the developers of FIFA 23 were watching last night. Shaffelburg needs to be bumped to a 99 pace. He looked like he was shot out of cannon all night constantly getting in behind América’s backline and delivering devastating square balls across the box.
Nashville could have scored four or more goals in the first half just off Shaffelburg square balls. Despite not scoring a goal, Shaffelburg absolutely deserves Man-of-the-Match plaudits for his 45-minute performance.
Miguel Layún, a 72-cap veteran of El Tri, will have nightmares of Shaffelburg blowing past him as he goes to sleep tonight.
In the 8th minute, my match notes literally read “Was Shaffelburg shot out of a cannon?” The acceleration here to win the loose ball is otherworldly.
If it is not abundantly clear already, Shaffelburg quickly established himself as a hero among the Nashville faithful. Once his purchase option is officially triggered, I have to imagine we will start seeing several #14 jerseys around the park.
Confidence boost for Leagues Cup and Playoffs
Wednesday night’s match served as an appetizer for the real thing. Next season, MLS and LigaMX will pause their seasons in August to play a month-long, World Cup-style tournament. The coming together of the two leagues will be unlike anything in world soccer. For Nashville, it will be their first foray into international competition.
Even if last night was just a friendly, it should give the Boys in Gold a boost of confidence knowing that they stood toe-to-toe with the biggest club in perhaps all the Western Hemisphere. América has not always lived up to its lofty stature. This season is not one of those years. The Águilas sit top of the table with just one match remaining before the playoffs.
Now, América, like Nashville, featured a rotated lineup. This was not Fernando Ortiz’s first-choice XI with a few young defenders sporting triple-digit jersey numbers.
However, there were familiar names across both the initial lineup and second-half substitutes. Jonathan dos Santos, Jürgen Damm, and Brian Rodríguez should be well known to most MLS observers. Also featuring for América was Roger Martínez (25 caps for Colombia), Jonathan Rodríguez (24 caps for Uruguay), Alejandro Zendejas (at the center of a recent national team controversy), and the aforementioned Miguel Layún
This was not a C-team filled with entirely youth players. There were players of legitimate talent and pedigree lined up on the other side.
Nashville stood toe-to-toe and frankly outplayed the Mexican giants.
Beyond the confidence boost this game will provide heading into next year’s Leagues Cup, the Boys in Gold may also have gained a bit of confidence heading into the MLS playoffs where they face the prospect of another penalty kick shootout.
It has been no secret that Nashville, as a club, has struggled when faced with do-or-die penalty kicks. Even if this was a friendly, it is always good to see a few kicks from the spot go into the back of the net and to come away with the win.
As much as you think this match does not matter, it can still create memorable family moments. The reaction to Josh Bauer’s goal, from who is believed to be his mother, tells you that meaning can still be derived from the most “meaningless” of games.