ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — No USL team had won a match at Al Lang Stadium since April 2017.
Nashville SC almost reversed that trend, then nearly dropped all three points to the Tampa Bay Rowdies Saturday night, settling for a 1-1 draw to extend its unbeaten streak to 10 matches in all competitions.
A late equalizer for Tampa (5-5-3, 9th place in the USL Eastern Conference) negated a first-half goal by Lebo Moloto, erasing a lead Nashville (5-2-5, 6th place) had fought tooth and nail to protect for more than 60 minutes.
And boy, did the Tri-Stars ever have to fight.
Tampa Bay outshot Gary Smith’s squad 25-7 and held 56 percent of possession, forcing 11 nail-biting corner kicks (compared to Nashville’s three) and sending in 40 crosses (to Nashville’s 10).
“That’s the biggest point that we have earned all season,” said Smith after the match. “They put us under a ton of pressure. There was a lot of character shown by the lads considering how many games we have had recently, and I think that showed a bit in their legs.”
Despite playing on the back foot for much of the match, Nashville struck first on a lightning-quick counter attack. After a Bolu Akinyode interception, Ropapa Mensah slotted a diagonal through ball from the middle of the pitch to Lebo Moloto, who was alone in the upper left corner of the box and calmly deflected a low left-footed shot off the arms of Tampa keeper Akira Fitzgerald and into the net.
“I was just a bit unlucky in the beginning of the season,” Moloto said. “I was doing everything right except put the ball in the back of the net. I am happy that I’ve at least been able to find the back of net and help the team with a point.”
Then, the Boys in Gold protected the lead with the intensity of Florida’s sultry summer sun, stymying a slew of Rowdies attacks with timely saves and clearances. London Woodberry cleared a shot off the line during a frenetic moment in the 27th minute, then Nashville keeper Matt Pickens rode an elevator to deny Michael Nanchoff of an equalizer in the 43rd.
“I thought he was phenomenal,” Smith said of Pickens’ performance. “At one point I didn’t think they were going to score with how he was playing.”
But Tampa eventually broke through. The onslaught continued in the second half and culminated in an 84th-minute equalizer by reserve Leon Taylor. Taylor, who hadn’t played in a match all season, capitalized on a deflection from a Jochen Graf shot and booted a rebound home before Pickens could track it.
Just a little while later, Tampa looked to have its winner. In-form forward Junior Flemmings found himself in on net with only Pickens to beat, but his chip tricked just wide of the far post and kept the score knotted.
With the draw, Nashville remains in 6th place in the USL’s Eastern Conference but is only three points out of second. Tampa slides to 9th place, back one spot.
- While it’s always disappointing to allow a late equalizer, Nashville should be grateful to escape with a point. The Boys in Gold were severely out-attacked and did almost all their work on the counter-attack. Tampa’s presence in the Tri-Stars’ final third resembled a hockey power play at times; the Rowdies patiently passed the ball in midfield and constantly looked for ways to pick apart Nashville’s back line. It’s a small miracle they were only able to do so once.
- But as Jason Isbell would say, “If everything’s a miracle, the saints are just a mob.” Gary Smith will surely thank the mob of saints patrolling Nashville’s back line — as well as Pickens, the team’s savior in his return to the place where he played the last four seasons. There were no miracles tonight; only strict organization when and where it mattered most. If we’re being honest, Tampa Bay should have won 3-1 tonight.
- The midfield gave Tampa’s attack so much space that one wonders if it was Nashville’s only choice, given how tired their legs were after Wednesday’s win over the Colorado Rapids. The passive approach placed extreme pressure on the back four and Pickens, and we wonder if Nashville would have been better served to press the Rowdies more intensely instead of committing so heavily to the counter-attack. But alas, perhaps the legs just weren’t there to adopt that strategy.
- Sure, Nashville found itself on the ropes. But let’s not forget this was the team’s third game in eight days. In fact, it ended a stretch of three straight weeks with midweek and weekend matches. Gary Smith deserves credit for effectively rotating his squad to find legs fresh enough to see this match through, even if Nashville didn’t have the energy to earn all three points.
- Ultimately, earning one point in Tampa is a big deal, especially with four straight home games lurking on the schedule. To boot, three of those matches are against teams Nashville leads in the standings. The summer of soccer is going to give Nashville a chance to surge in the standings.