Nashville SC found the net three times as the Boys in Gold picked up a crucial win in the penultimate regular season match.
As Nashville heads toward Decision Day, here are my thoughts on the match and where the club is pointing as the playoffs quickly approach.
Shaking off the post-Leagues Cup malaise
Nashville SC shook off its post-Leagues Cup malaise as they ended a three-match scoreless drought with an emphatic attacking performance. The Coyotes peppered New England’s net with 10 shots on target and 23 total shots. They generated 3.09 xG (their second-highest of the season) and converted with three first-half goals.
The blistering early performance jolted Nashville out of a September and October malaise that witnessed five scoreless outings in eight matches.
September and October are always rough months on the MLS calendar. At this point, the regular season always seems to have dragged on a little too long. With schools returning from summer break, the beginning of football and hockey seasons, and the Supporters’ Shield race wrapping up early, it is too easy for teams and supporters alike to enter cruise control.
This season, with the addition of Leagues Cup, amplified those late summer / early fall doldrums. The Coyotes played an emotionally charged final at home in front of a star-studded audience. It is not easy to shift gears from that monumental match in NSC history right back into the regular season grind.
If you mentally checked out for the last month, all is forgiven. I did as well. It has not been easy for anyone to dive back in given the lack of attacking edge from Nashville since the Leagues Cup run. With three goals and a competent offensive performance, Nashville’s three goals will have awaken both the team and the supporters from their slumber.
Surrige provides the spark
For four years, Nashville cemented itself as a high-floor, low-ceiling team that needed a goal-scoring striker to raise its level to a legitimate title contender.
This summer, Sam Surridge arrived with much fanfare. With seemingly the right mix of size, speed, and technical ability to fit within Gary Smith’s philosophy, Surridge provided hope that Nashville’s long striker riddle had finally been solved.
The Englishman made a massive impact from Day 1. In his first match, Surridge saved Nashville from the brink of elimination with a towering header against Club América. Then, he found the net in his next two matches. At the time, it was fair to wonder if he would ever stop scoring. He was exactly what the doctor ordered for a fluttering attack that had struggled coming into the Leagues Cup break.
However, since then, Surridge, along with the rest of the attack, went cold. Until Saturday against the Revolution, Surridge had not scored in regular season play. With Hany Mukhtar struggling to regain his early-season form, getting the big man going certainly had to be near the top of the to-do list for Gary Smith before the playoffs begin.
Even with two goals, the day could have been even better for Surridge. He thought that he had the opening goal in the 13th minute after belting home a volleyed finish. It was a superb piece of technical expertise, although quickly disallowed due to offsides. A few minutes later, Surridge nearly scored again. He found a pocket of space in the six-yard box only for his header to bang off the post. Luckily for NSC, the ball fell to Dax McCarty who unleashed a thundering shot that opened the scoring for the home side.
Surridge’s work getting into good spots on the pitch eventually paid off. In the 30th minute, he doubled Nashville’s lead by again finding a soft spot between New England’s defense squarely in front of the net. New England’s defense deserves a lot of blame for allowing a target #9 multiple opportunities to leap unimpeded from point-blank range. However, kudos to Surridge for finding the space and converting when the chance came to him again.
Even if New England gift-wrapped Surridge’s first goal, Super Sam more than earned his brace.
He sparked the sequence with a clearance from Nashville’s own six-yard box. As Shaq Moore released Muktar down the pitch, the Coyotes were off to the races. As eyes focused on the reigning MVP, Surridge made the back-post run. A tidy, first-touch finish into the side netting extended the Nashville lead right before the break.
As we have known all along, Hany Mukhtar carries this team. But having a running mate capable of scoring multiple goals in his own right is the difference between Nashville as a plucky playoff team and a legitimate contender.
Plenty to play for on Decision Day
With the win over New England, Nashville ensured that they will still have stakes at play on Decision Day.
The Boys in Gold still sit 7th on the Eastern Conference table. However, they are within striking distance of both Atlanta (6th) and New England (5th).
A Nashville win and an Atlanta draw/loss will see NSC jump the Five Stripes into 6th place. If the Revs lose at home to the visiting Philadelphia Union, Nashville could jump as high as 5th, depending on the goal differential.
Despite the ability to climb the standings on Decision Day, some Nashville supporters have expressed a desire for the standings to remain as is. A seventh-place finish would confirm a first-round matchup with Orlando City. NSC has certainly had greater success at Exploria Stadium than Philadelphia’s Subaru Park.
While Orlando may present a more favorable first-round matchup, Nashville still needs to keep an eye on the other side of the bracket. If the ‘Yotes were to make a run to the MLS Cup Final, they could find themselves hosting the final.
A Nashville win coupled with a LAFC loss and Seattle loss/draw, would see Nashville gain MLS Cup Final hosting rights over every Western Conference team, aside from St. Louis.
With the ability to host a potential MLS Cup final, Nashville still has plenty to play for when they host the New York Red Bulls this coming Saturday.
Kudos to Valair for getting everyone an update on the health of Jacob Shaffelburg and Walker Zimmerman. Both were pulled early from the match.
If Nashville wants to make a serious postseason run, getting both Zimmerman and Shaffelburg back healthy will be key.