Three thoughts as Nashville SC advance past Cincinnati 

Nashville proved a difficult nut to crack in their Leagues Cup win on Friday night. They frustrated FC Cincinnati all night, eventually finding a 1-0 lead from an Aníbal Godoy rebound goal. The Lions equalized late after a weak, yet naive, push by Jack Maher in the box resulted in a penalty awarded to Brandon Vazquez. 

With the score level at full-time, the sides went immediately to a penalty shootout. Elliot Panicco made a crucial stop and Nashville converted all five attempts to advance past their rivals. 

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Here are my three thoughts on the match. 

Survive and advance

“Survive and advance.”  The Jim Valvano phrase coined in N.C. State’s 1983 March Madness title run rang true for Nashville SC on Friday night. 

Nashville entered the match knowing that FC Cincinnati were always going to be the aggressor and playing on the front foot. If the Coyotes were to advance, they needed to survive the pressure and find any means necessary to squeak through. For the most part, the match went according to Gary Smith’s plan. 

Nashville and not the hosts found the opening goal following sixty minutes featuring few clear-cut chances for either side. Gary Smith dropped the lines deep forcing Hany Mukhtar and Fafà Picault to operate on an island. It limited opportunities going forward, but it maintained defensive solidity – especially in the central areas of the pitch. 

After a late equalizer from Cincinnati via Brandon Vazquez, it was easy to wonder if Nashville had squandered their chance. However, the Coyotes took care of business in penalty kicks, nailing all five of their attempts. 

Survive and advance. Cup runs rarely result from smooth sailing straight to a final. There will be moments of adversity. It is all about surviving those moments and finding any means to advance. Nashville did just that against Cincinnati. 

Panicco plays the hero

Gary Smith is not known as much of a gambler. So when Elliot Panicco raced on to the match in the final seconds of regulation, it certainly came as a surprise. Smith pushed his chips all-in replacing the veteran Joe Willis with the relatively inexperienced Panicco. The bet paid off big for Smith and Nashville SC. 

Smith is by no means the first manager to bring on a “PK specialist” in the dying moments. It was surprising in that we have yet to see Smith take that approach. However, upon further examination, this is actually the first time that Gary Smith has had Panicco on the bench as an option in a penalty kick shootout. 

In the 2021 playoffs against the Philadelphia Union, Bryan Meredith sat on the bench behind Joe Willis as Panicco was absent due to injury. 

Last year, Nashville found itself in a penalty kick shootout twice. However, on both occasions, Panicco was already on the field as the starter – one came in a friendly win over Club América and the other against Orlando City in a U.S. Open Cup loss. 

Against Orlando, Panicco stonewalled Andrés Perea but it was not enough as Orlando buried their five other kicks. In the Leagues Cup Showcase against América, Panicco stopped one and saw another sail high into the stands. With two stops in two penalty kick shootouts, you can see why Gary Smith opted for Panicco. 

Perhaps more important has been Panicco’s development this year in MLS NEXT Pro. The reserve league pioneered the rule of having all regular season matches ending in a draw proceeding to penalty kicks. While picking up minutes with Huntsville, Panicco has participated in two shootouts this year including an April winner against FC Cincinnati’s reserve side.

“Elliot’s been fantastic in the past at penalties,” said Gary Smith after the match. “It really was about trying to find that finest of percentages that could tip us over the edge… I felt tonight it was a good call. I can’t take all the credit for that. [Goalkeeper coach] Matt Pickens was very strong on trying to seize something out of those penalties and maybe make a bit of difference with the swap, and I think he called it right there.”

By routinely participating in shootouts, it surely must help a goalkeeper’s psyche and nerves. Shootouts are no longer a rarity but a much more regular event that prepares players for when the stakes increase. 

Panicco came up big for Nashville SC when the team needed a lift. His shootout heroics have Nashville marching on to the Sweet 16.

What are we doing?!

While Nashville advanced over its rival and that is 100% cause for celebration, I would be remiss if I did not address this past week’s frustrating end to the Secondary Transfer Window. 

Nashville, seemingly content to sit on its hands, came out of the summer having made only one incoming signing, Sam Surridge. The English striker filled Nashville’s largest and most immediate need. However, other holes in the roster remain unfilled. 

At this point, I probably sound like a broken record, but it is absolutely flabbergasting that Mike Jacobs has not filled the U22 Initiative slot. It sends me into Taylor Twellman-esque fits of rage. 

For the oldest roster in the league, Nashville must be more proactive in preparing for the future and turning over a new leaf. If the club is transparent from the start, most supporters will be willing to accept that a U22 signing, especially in the midfield, is one more for the future rather than the present. Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy aren’t getting any younger. Allowing a young, talented midfielder to be eased in and learn from those two could be an invaluable apprenticeship. 

As to those who have been dismissive of U22 signings in general, because, like Rodrigo Piñeiro, there is no guarantee that they will pan out, I have to seriously question if they have lost the forest for the trees. 

Obviously, there is a degree of risk in signing young foreign players. On the other hand, that is the entire point of the U22 Initiative. MLS is incentivizing teams to invest in young players by largely removing the sporting risk involved in such transfers. A U22 player only counts as either $150,000 or $200,000 against the salary cap, regardless of the amount of transfer fee paid.

The primary risk remaining is just the fee itself, which clubs may not recover if the player does not develop as initially hoped. Owners willing to underwrite such risk generate a significant advantage as they can afford to sift through the silt to find the gold. 

The 2023 crop of U22 Initiative players include serval high-end starters and impact players. 

  • Álvaro Barreal
  • Jose Cifuentes (transferred) 
  • Dylan Borrero
  • Bongokuhle Hlongwane
  • Alexandru Matan
  • Santiago Moreno
  • Léo Chú
  • César Araújo
  • Andrés Reyes
  • Chris Durkin

You may not hit on an impact player every time, but it is a resource that should never be left idle for more than one transfer window. 

For all the complaints in recent weeks, post-Messi arrival, about MLS needing to allow teams to spend more money to improve the quality of play, it is largely just noise when owners and front offices continually refuse to even use the roster mechanisms available to them in the present. 

I rate Nashville’s summer window a minor success as Sam Surridge appears to be the ideal fit for the Coyotes’ largest position of need. However, failing to do more than the minimum has left me and loads of Nashville supporters frustrated with ownership and the front office.

Bonus thought

Nashville supporters should send flowers and messages of gratitude to my lovely wife for delivering a win. Like How I Met Your Mother’s “Blitz”, my wife’s presence and exiting of a room has once again proved to have an uncanny ability to summon goals. It has occurred so often this season that it has reached the point of becoming a running joke among our friends group. 

After watching for 63 minutes, she stood up and exited the room. Seconds later, BOOM! Godoy slams home the go-ahead goal. Later, she returned for the shootout, only to leave after Cincy’s first two successful penalty kicks. Seconds later, BOOM! Panicco makes a crucial save on Miazga’s penalty. 

So, maybe it’s fully explainable as a product of exiting during high-leverage moments such as a corner kick or a shootout. On the other hand, maybe there are unexplainable cosmic forces at play by the soccer gods. You just never know.

Author: Chris IveyChris is a senior writer covering Nashville SC. His writings focus on the team at large and often navigate the complexity of roster building around the myriad of MLS rules. Outside of Broadway Sports Media, Chris resides in Knoxville and is a licensed attorney. Beyond NSC, he is always willing to discuss Tennessee football and basketball, Coventry City, and USMNT. Follow Chris on Twitter

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