CINCINNATI – Having played even with FC Cincinnati in each of the first three meetings of the year, No. 8-seed Nashville SC knew it would have a chance to spring an upset when it visited the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed to open the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs on Saturday night if it could match the energy it knew the hosts would bring in front of another big crowd at Nippert Stadium.
After 120 minutes, that possibility of an upset remained alive well into the penalty shootout until Justin Davis’ miss to open the sixth round for the visitors opened the door for FC Cincinnati to pass into the next round. Kenney Walker’s penalty kick for FCC to the bottom-right corner sealed NSC’s fate, ending the sort of enthralling contest the single-elimination format of the USL Cup Playoffs always seems to provide.
As tough as it was for Nashville and its travelling support to see its first professional season end that way, though, the side was proud of the determination it showed in going toe-to-toe with the 2018 USL Regular Season champions throughout.
“I think the first step to any playoff game is matching the intensity of your opponent and competing, and we did that all night,” said NSC midfielder Matt LaGrassa. “We talked about it a lot, and we knew that was the DNA of the team, and we were going to grind and compete for however long it took, and we have a lot to be proud of tonight.”
In fact, the biggest frustration that could be expressed by the visitors was that it was unable to put away chances that would have led Cincinnati to become the first Eastern Conference No. 1-seed to fall in its opening game of the postseason since the USL went to a two-conference structure in 2015. While the visitors had to withstand an early flurry of pressure by FCC, it came the closer to scoring over the opening 90 minutes.
The second half in particular offered moments that Nashville was left to rue later as FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Spencer Richey held the visitors at bay with two outstanding saves on Alan Winn and Ropapa Mensah, while Mensah also rattled the crossbar with 17 minutes to go on a shot that had beaten Richey all ends up. Those chances are the ones that could stay with the side for a while as it regroups this offseason.
“We had guys that were determined and up for the fight,” said Nashville Head Coach Gary Smith. “I thought the guys performed wonderfully against their offense on defense. Not only did we achieve that, but we then created some really good chances on offense. In Cup football, as in any, if you are going to win a game you have to convert. When you look back, I think we could have done better.”
Indeed, instead of making its hosts battle back after going behind it was Nashville that had to produce a response in extra time after a beautifully-taken chance by FCC’s Corben Bone put the hosts ahead in the 95th minute. That the reply for the visitors came from the unlikely source of Bradley Bourgeois – who had scored only once in the regular season – summed up the group effort that made the matches between Nashville and Cincinnati so tightly-fought throughout the year.
“You know what, I think I blacked out there for a second,” said Bourgeois of his finish. “Just to hear the crowd go completely silent and to see the rivalry and the matchup that we’ve gone through all year, it shows the heart. We just don’t give up, especially against this group. To get that goal, I felt like it was well deserved out of our whole group to get something out of it.”
But after one final chance for NSC second-half substitute Brandon Allen was again brilliantly denied by Richey to send the game to a shootout, fortune wouldn’t smile on the visitors as its season came to an end in the hardest manner imaginable.
“All five of our penalties were amazing,” said Smith. “Then we were down to guys that were not our first choice. Then [Cincinnati] squeaked it. I wanted so badly to win.”
With what is on the horizon in 2019 and beyond for the club, however, Nashville is certainly determined to be stronger after its experience this year.
“I think it’s been really fun to watch the team and the identity of this team to grow into itself and for the fans to really come behind us,” said LaGrassa. “We had a great group traveling and supporting us today and the way that it has all unfolded, there is just so much to look forward to in this city.”