Nashville SC seeks new heights against its coach’s old team

Gary Smith raised his arms and exulted, teeming with joy as his MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids flooded the pitch on a frosty Toronto night in November 2010.

Keeper Matt Pickens and key defender Kosuke Kimura, both starters in the match, were sandwiched amidst the mob.

But less than a year later, Smith found himself out of a job.

“When I took the job, I was told I would have the final say,” Smith told ESPN following his dismissal from the club in 2011. “But over time that required more confrontation, more energy, and I was sick and tired of the backbiting.”

Almost eight years after he left the Rocky Mountains, Smith has a chance for vengeance against the club that booted him less than a year after he provided its only title.

But he doesn’t really seem to care about his own personal stakes.

“I’m always going to have a fond place in my heart for Colorado because of the success I had there. It was a wonderful four years,” Smith told Rapids website Burgundy Wave. “It could be any MLS team. I would want to win against anyone.”

Apart from Pickens and Kimura being mainstays on his roster once again, there don’t seem to be many echoes of the past. Instead, Smith is downplaying the personal angle and focusing on the opportunity his streaking side has to knock off a top-flight squad.

“They will be frothing at the mouth to play in this game,” Smith said. “They’ll be delighted to play against an MLS side. I could literally throw out the shirts and say, ‘go and play.'”

Wednesday night, the magic of America’s oldest soccer competition descends on Music City. The USL’s Nashville SC, unbeaten in eight matches, hosts the Rapids — losers of their last seven — in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup at Vanderbilt Stadium.

Nashville has to like its chances. The Boys in Gold are 5-0-1 on their home turf this season in all competitions and hung tough against three MLS sides in preseason play [for what that’s worth], going 1-1-1 and beating Orlando City 3-1. Colorado hasn’t won since April 14.

“They’ll be excited to be in front of our home fans again,” Smith said. “A home draw in a cup competition is always a good draw.”

There’s one problem: Smith will be prepping his squad for its fifth match in 14 days. Even recent reinforcements Brandon Allen [the USL’s reigning player of the week] and Ish Jome and the return of London Woodberry and Alan Winn from injury don’t eliminate the strenuous toll such a grind can take on the team’s depth.

Still, Smith seems confident his squad will be eager to kick things off Wednesday.

“We’ll prepare in the right fashion,” Smith said. “I’ll have them ready to go, and they will be ready.”

Who will Smith prepare to join his starting XI Wednesday? Here’s what we predict.

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Goalie: Don’t discount the chance Gary Smith will insert C.J. Cochran here, as the backup keeper has been the first choice in net during Nashville’s cup play to date. However, we chose to insert Pickens given the gravity of the match, not to mention his prior significance to the Rapids.

Defender: Woodberry rested against Penn FC last weekend and figures to rotate in for Bradley Bourgeois at center back. Doyle was effective Saturday and deserves to get another runout provided he has the legs to do so. Davis has been a mainstay on the left flank, and we like James to enter for Kimura on the right, just as he did last Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

Midfielder: After the energy and incisiveness Ish Jome displayed against Penn FC, why not trot him out on the flank again? As one of Nashville’s most athletic players, he presents a threat to Colorado and gives Taylor Washington a well-earned break. Alan Winn has his own show-me opportunity Wednesday: Colorado drafted him this year but didn’t sign him. Winn entered as a reserve Saturday and appears healthy after a brief absence. Akinyode entered in the second half against Penn FC, but we suspect his exclusion from last weekend’s starting XI came with an eye toward cup play. Michael Reed will suit up nearly every time Nashville takes the pitch.

Forward: Let’s give Lebo Moloto a rest, shall we? After being nominated for USL Goal of the Week with a Goaloto [pun intended] against Penn, Moloto should finally be able to rest his legs for the majority of this match. After all, Smith intended to give him a breather against Pittsburgh until Lebo had to come on for a sick Ropapa Mensah in the 34th minute. Brandon Allen has scored in three of his four matches since joining the squad, so he isn’t going anywhere unless his legs aren’t working. Let’s put Ropapa alongside him; the Ghanaian recovered from illness in time to make the bench and came on for Allen in the second half Saturday. That dynamic combo up top could give Colorado fits: the Rapids have been outscored 11-2 away from home this year and 8-0 in their last three road matches.

Reserves [projected subs in bold]: C.J. Cochran, Bradley Bourgeois, Kosuke Kimura, Taylor Washington, Matt LaGrassa, Lebo Moloto, Tucker Hume

Prediction

If Nashville SC could have picked an MLS side to face, Colorado would be the choice. First of all, there’s the Rapids’ team-record losing streak. Couple that with the Tri-Stars’ top-tier form, mix in a little homepitch advantage and you’ve got promising upset potential.

And then, of course, there’s that Gary Smith storyline. He may be downplaying it like the classy gentleman that he portrays himself to be, but it gives the match some extra juice, at the very least from a perception standpoint.

Oh, and did we mention Colorado has given up multiple goals in six of its last seven? That’ll make the in-form Boys in Gold, who just notched their first three-goal match against one of the USL’s best defenses, salivate.

So, how does this all play out on the pitch Wednesday?

Penalty kicks.

You heard us.

Things will be tight at Vanderbilt Stadium. The artificial turf will create springy bounces, both sides will struggle to establish early rhythm, and a weird mistake will cause a goal for one team.

Within a few minutes’ time, the other team will strike back and even the score.

Then, it’ll be anybody’s guess all the way through extra time.

That’s when Lebo Moloto, subbed into the match in the waning moments, will convert the game-winning penalty kick, send Nashville SC to the fifth round and give Gary Smith the sweet vengeance he tells us he doesn’t crave.

Final Score: Nashville SC 1, Colorado Rapids 1 [Nashville advances on penalty kicks]

 

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