“Today will be a monkey off everyone’s back.”
Gary Smith was evidently relieved after Nashville SC won their first away match of the season on Saturday. In front of 42,506 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and against a quickly-improving Atlanta United side, Nashville didn’t just play smash and grab; they were deserved winners.
“To be able to come here and to win is immensely satisfying,” said Smith. “It really is. They’re our rivals, you know, they’ve got the better of us on occasions. I do think that we’re slowly-but-surely developing and creating an environment and a group here that should be sustainable.”
The win was a stark difference to the 2-2 draw between the sides just 51 days ago in which Nashville conceded two set piece goals to throw away a victory. “ I’m not sure I’ve been more frustrated this season”, said Smith in retrospect.
On Saturday, Nashville took 20 minutes to adjust to the pace of the game, but after weathering the early storm, the visitors were the better side. And Smith got a vital performance from a player he’s relied on in big moments over the last three seasons, striker Daniel Ríos.
After spending much of the season recovering from injury, Ríos rewarded Smith’s trust in him, giving him the nod ahead of Aké Loba, who arrived from Monterrey for a club-record $7 million transfer fee. Ríos rewarded his faith with a goal just before halftime that proved to be the winner.
“If you look back at some of the games that we’ve played away from home, there’ve been some really good signs. But the thing that I think struck all of us was that we had some nice moments in the game, but lacked that goal threat,” said Smith. “Daniel was of course our top goalscorer last year. He is a threat in front of goal. What we know is, he is a clinical finisher. And Daniel doesn’t need many opportunities. He’s made the most of very few sights at goal today, and that has certainly given us a huge platform and foundation to work from.”
For Ríos, the goal was the light at the end of a long injury tunnel.
“I was injured for a long time. I needed time to start training again, get my fitness. Most of my teammates had fourteen games while I was trying to get back in training,” he admitted.
“I’m happy that this is my third game playing. Before this game, I didn’t even have 90 minutes on the year, so I’m so happy that I’m finally able to play, I’m finally able to score my first goal of the year,” Ríos said. “I’ve been working so hard to get back. I’ve been supporting my teammates outside the lines. So now that I’m able to help my team and to give joy to the fans is fabulous.”
Getting the first away win of the season was certainly a morale booster, but Nashville have little time to celebrate. They’ll return home to face New York City FC on Friday, who have arguably the most fearsome attack in the conference.
“It will give all of the guys huge confidence to have won here against our local rivals and a top team,” concluded Smith. “Hopefully as we go back home for Friday’s game against New York City, and then into a long stretch [on the road], there will be something in the back of their minds that says, ‘okay, we’ve shown some excellent form at home, and we know if things don’t always go our way, we’re capable of earning all three points in difficult surroundings,’ because I’ll be honest; I’m not sure they come much more difficult than this.”