Heartbreak in Cincinnati, but a bright future for Nashville SC

File photo by Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country

When Justin Davis stepped to the penalty spot, the stakes were clear: if he missed, FC Cincinnati would have a very strong chance to advance in the USL playoffs. Davis missed, Cincy’s Kenney Walker didn’t, Nashville SC season over.

“All five of our penalties were amazing,” said Nashville coach Gary Smith. “Then we were down to guys that were not our first choice. Then [Cincinnati] squeaked it. I wanted so badly to win. If you don’t win, then conduct yourself with the utmost professionalism. We deserved more with the effort our guys gave tonight.”

It’s certainly a heartbreaking final result in Nippert Stadium, but it’s not a feeling of depression that arises, but one of gratitude and even hope. The Boys in Gold didn’t lose to Cincinnati in 90 preseason minutes. They didn’t lose to Cincinnati in 270 regular-season minutes. They didn’t even lose in 120 postseason minutes. In 480 minutes (390 of them competitive) against the best team in USL history, a scrappy bunch from Music City would not be beaten.

Go down 1-0 in the fifth minute of extra time? Leave it to fan favorite (and oft snake-bitten when it came to finishing this year) centerback Bradley Bourgeois to find the equalizer with 115 minutes played.

Whether you want to consider the game a draw with Cincinnati advancing on penalties, or a loss for Nashville, the end result is the same: the season is over for NSC, and it’s not for FCC. There’s a bit of regret that it came to a first-round matchup between these teams in the first place. Dropped points in a road game against Ottawa that almost certainly should have been a 1-0 win, or against Toronto at home in one that should have been a 2-1 win at worst, or any number of results that Nashville let slip through their hands… any one point would have meant avoiding MLS-bound FCC in the first round of the playoffs.

For all the bittersweet feelings about the way the season ended, though, it was one hell of a ride. That’s what fans will always remember.

“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 midfielder Matt 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.”

Whether that fan is one who feels a loss of ownership in the team (in both a literal and emotional sense) as it finishes the first professional year of a transition from fully supporter-owned to an MLS side in just a four-year run-up, or somebody who discovered the squad Friday afternoon, nobody was ready for this season to end. But it provided memories that will last a lifetime. For one last time in 2018, with a look both to the season past and the future, Come on, you boys in Gold.


If you were looking for a more traditional “here is what happened in the game, here is analysis of going to the 3-5-2” game story, sorry. Start your own website and write away.

Starting lineups


Match events

  • 45’+2 – Half time
  • 68′ CIN Substitution – On 6 Kenney Walker, off 27 Fatai Alashe
  • 74′ NSH Substitution – On 32 Brandon Allen, off 12 Tucker Hume
  • 85′ CIN Substitution – On 20 Jimmy McLaughlin, off 5 Nazmi Albadawi
  • 90’+4 – Full time
  • 95′ CIN GOAL – 19 Corben Bone (right foot), assisted by 6 Kenney Walker
  • 98′ NSH Substitution – On 11 Ish Jome, off 27 Kosuke Kimura
  • 100′ CIN Substitution – On 16 Richie Ryan, off 4 Tyler Gibson
  • 104′ CIN Yellow card – 23 Blake Smith (foul)
  • 105’+1 – Half extra time
  • 106′ NSH Substitution – On 26 Kris Tyrpak, off 23 Taylor Washington
  • 110′ NSH Yellow Card – 2 Justin Davis (foul)
  • 110′ NSH Substitution – On 4 Ramone Howell, off 30 Bolu Akinyode
  • 111′ CIN Yellow card – 45 Emmanuel Ledesma (foul)
  • 115′ NSH GOAL – 22 Bradley Bourgeois (left footed), assisted by 26 Kris Tyrpak
  • 116′ NSH Yelllow card – 22 Bradley Bourgeois (too much swag)
  • 120’+1 CIN Substitution – On 10 Emery Welshman, off 45 Emmanuel Ledesma
  • 120’+2 Full extra time
  • PK SHOOTOUT: NSH 5 Liam Doyle, 32 Brandon Allen, 19 Alan Winn, 20 Matt LaGrassa, 26 Kris Tyrpak SCORE. CIN 9 Fanendo Adi, 20 Jimmy McLaughlin, 23 Blake Smith, 32 Justin Hoyte, 3 Forrest Lasso SCORE.
  • PK SHOOTOUT Sudden death: NSH 2 Justin Davis MISS, CIN 6 Kenney Walker SCORE
  • Full time



USL playoffs preview: Nashville SC @ FC Cincinnati

Four games, four draws. The deadlock will end in the USL Playoffs. Will it be Nashville or FC Cincinnati taking home the first win in the series?

What the first playoff media availability in NSC history would have looked like if anyone other than Gary Smith and your humble photographer were there. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

The essentials

Opponent: FC Cincinnati (23-3-8 USL) • 72 GF, 34 GA in 2018 • 1st in USL East, 1st in USL East Power Ratings and 1st in combined-table Pure Power
Recent form: TOR (D-D-W-W-W) NSH (D-D-W-D-W)
The Line: FC Cincinnati -244, Draw +353, Nashville SC +455
Time, Location: Saturday, Oct. 20 4:00 p.m. CDT  • Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
Event: USL Playoffs first round
Weather: 58ºF, 24% chance of rain, 55% humidity, 20 MPH Westerly winds
Tickets: Here. Use code “NASH18” to be seated with Nashville fans (and wear Gold).
Watch: Locally on MyTV30, or stream on ESPN+. See the list of soccer bars in Nashville if you want to watch in a game atmosphere. The club is hosting a watch party at Bavarian Brewhaus.
Listen: Locally on 94.9 Game2 in English, 96.7 El Jefe FM en Español.
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @ClubCountryUSA, USL gametracker page, #CINvNSH
Etc.: Game story from last week. I appeared on Cincy Soccer Talk’s March to Matchday podcast. My look at how the shape of the rivalry over the past seven months can give us insight about the final 2018 entry.
Elsewhere: USL preview… Orange & Blue Press playoff predictions and match program… USA Today Network Tennessee preview-type substance… Cincinnati Enquirer video preview. And Nashville can’t even get the local paper to show up to an eight minute and thirty-four second press conference! … Cincinnati Soccer Talk five things to watch.

FC Cincinnati

This is basically the same team we saw Saturday, with a couple notable exceptions: defensive midfielder Richie Ryan made his debut after a couple months on the shelf Saturday, and is probably ready for a full appearance (he played about 20 minutes) if necessary.

The usual suspects are the usual suspects: Emmanuel Ledesma should be the USL player of the year after a campaign with 16 goals and 16 assists from a midfield position. Striker Fanendi Adi is an MLS-caliber player who, uh, was in MLS for most of this year.

The defense is the question mark (as much as this team has one), and it was still tied for third-best in the Eastern Conference. There’s a bit of a sample deal here: their three-plays were good teams, but three of those good teams – Nashville, Indy, and Pittsburgh – were not offensive powerhouses in the slightest. Uh, “their defense only looks good because they’ve played Nashville a bunch” is hardly comforting when we’re previewing them from the standpoint of [checks notes] Nashville.

FCC is probably better man-for-man across the board, aside from most likely keeper and another spot or two. They also will be playing in front of 20,000-plus home partisans. Of course, that number shouldn’t impact NSC’s play on the field, according to defender Bradley Bourgeois.

“To be honest, I’m not really expecting much impact] because it’s just on the field,” he said. “It’s 11 v 11. They can bring out 40,000 fans, they can bring out four. It’s win or go home so that’s all it is.”

Regardless, this is a tough test.

It is also an opportunity for this FCC organization to win its first-ever playoff game. Sure, this year is not 2016, nor is it 2017. The failures of those seasons don’t directly impact what this team is capable of (Cincy wasn’t even a shadow of this team in either of those seasons, either). But you bet your ass the Orange & Blue have been asked about it incessantly this week, and inserting just the shadow of a doubt into their mentality…

“The Cincinnati group is expected to win and not just win tomorrow, they are expected to win the championship,” Nashville coach Gary Smith said. “That is the pressure they are under. They have a fabulous group and a tremendous amount of depth as well as being ready for the next step in their franchises’ history, which is into MLS. That in and of itself brings pressure and Alan (Koch) will know that, their players will know that, 20,000 to 25,000 people in the grounds will know that and expect them to win.”

Popping the balloon and sending Cincinnati off to the next step in their franchise without ever having won a playoff game would be hilarious and great. It’s also a difficult ask.

The Boys in Gold

Lebo Moloto and Michael Reed are both listed on Nashville’s injury report as questionable, though when I asked Gary Smith directly about Captain Reed’s status, he was a little more optimistic than that.

“I think he’s in good shape; he’s trained the last two days,” Smith said. “It’s now my choice and my decision whether Michael’s part of that group [as he’s received full clearance from the medical staff]. He looks like he’s ready and available.”

I would not, on the other hand, expect to see Moloto, despite the fact that he’s been working his way back from a knee injury suffered just over a month ago against Charleston Battery.

Despite the absence of the team’s best playmaker though, it’s clear the shift to a 4-3-3 has overcome much of what was lost there. Placing Ropapa Mensah on the wing, where he hadn’t previously played, has seemed particularly effective, and more so against Cincinnati last Saturday. While there’s a chance the FCC personnel gets a bit of a shakeup to overcome that, Mensah on the wing seems like it’ll last as long as the season does.

“At the very worst, [we place him in] a creative position and maybe give us a little more balance filling that #10 pocket with somebody else should it not go well. It has really evolved from there as he has grabbed that position by the scruff of the neck and he has really made a spot for himself. He looks like he has been playing the position for most of his career even though he is still very young, and he has been very effective.

“What I think it has done, is it has given him the opportunity to see the picture and see the game a little bit clearer without having bundles of bodies around him in that central role. When he gets isolated, he is able to show all the qualities he has; his pace, his invention, and I certainly think, as we move on, there is a lot more to come out of it.”

There has been a slight issue of the team giving up slightly more goals, which you might expect from a shift to an offense-heavy formation. Toronto FC II scored a pair, and FC Cincinnati became only the second side to put three goals on Nashville (the other was North Carolina FC) last weekend. Based on a review of the goals themselves, though, I’m fully in agreement with Bourgeois’s take on them:

“It the small things,” he said. It’s the momentum and the little mental turn offs and the little mental lapses in judgment. Now that it’s playoff time, it’s do or die, and it’s time to really lock in.

“I don’t think it’s anything individually, it’s collectively as a unit. It’s going all the way to the front to Pickens in the back. It’s going to be a group effort honestly to get the job done, and I think we can do it.”

It’s been more individual and team letdowns than a tactical choice that have led to the increased opposition scoring (with nobody, even Pickens, blameless), and if Nashville plays a clean mental game, they have the horses to get it done.

Projected lineups


I think we’ll mostly see the same from both teams with a couple changes: as alluded to above, Richie Ryan will probably be one of Cincinnati’s defensive midfielders. There’s also a decent chance they make a change at left back after Ropapa Mensah ate Blake Smith’s lunch all night last Saturday, but I don’t know who the replacement LB is.

For Nashville, I suspect the Davis/Kimura benchings Saturday were more of a “rest up because we’ll be seeing these guys soon” deal than anything performance-related. They make a bit more sense as the fullbacks with offensive-minded wingers than Washington and James do, in some ways.

I also think Bolu Akinyode will have to come off the bench after receiving 100% of Matt Pickens’s ire for the final Cincinnati goal (and Pickens was HEATED). While obviously nobody was perfect on that one, I’ll take Pickens’s reaction over my own lying eyes in terms of who deserves blame (even though my lying eyes saw something similar to what they have for much of the year – not enough effort to track back defensively from a player who’s otherwise very good). Kris Tyrpak starts as the offense-minded central midfielder with Matt LaGrassa sliding back into a pure defensive role.


Man, I really want to pick a Nashville win. Not sure I can though:

  • Cincinnati fans’ first discussion point is how few Nashville fans made the trip up, regardless of whether there are 15 or 15,000 of them.
  • Ropapa Mensah scores Nashville’s only goal.
  • Emmanuel Ledesma scores one and gets an assist (to Corben Bone, or perhaps a center back on a set piece) to get the winning margin for Cincinnati.
  • Nashville’s subs:Akinyode for Typrak (and LaGrassa pushes into that Tyrpak role) after the half. Washington for Winn as Nashville moves to more of a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 after the score is already 2-1. Allen for Hume late in the contest.

Cincinnati wins 2-1. I could absolutely see this being a tie game after regulation (at which point, as I said on the Cincy Soccer Talk podcast, I’d take Nashville either in extra time or a shootout), but I’m predicting a winner without more than 90 plus stoppage required, and that means the team with more talent wins out.

After third draw with FC Cincinnati, round four will have a winner

Programming note: I’ll be on Cincinnati Soccer Talk’s March 2 Matchday podcast, recording this evening. Keep an eye out for it in the next day or so.

Time to get back to a football stadium, albeit a much smaller one this time around. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Nashville SC knows how to get a result from FC Cincinnati. The Boys in Gold drew FCC twice at home (at Nissan Stadium July 7, at First Tennessee Park Saturday), and once on the road. If you want to throw in a preseason friendly, the sides are 0-0-4 against each other.

These teams are familiar with each other. Or at least, with certain versions of each other. Both have been tactically flexible, in addition to shifting personnel over the course of the meetings. Nashville started the season in a 5-3-2, was playing a pure 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1) for most of the season, and has recently shifted to a 4-3-3 to spark the offense a bit. Cincinnati has gone with various lineups based out of an even backline, whether a flat midfield four, a diamond (which went over like a lead balloon in the first half of the game at Nissan), or the USL-standard 4-2-3-1.

Here are Nashville’s starting lineups in each of the games:

Date March 3 (friendly) July 7 Aug. 4 Oct. 13
Formation 5-3-2 4-4-1-1 4-4-2 4-3-3
Keeper Pickens Pickens Pickens Pickens
Defenders James, Davis, Doyle, Woodberry, Kimura Davis, Doyle, Bourgeois, Kimura Davis, Doyle, Woodberry, Kimura Washington, Doyle, Bourgeois, James
Midfield Reed, Moloto, LaGrassa Winn, Akinyode, Reed, Moloto Washington, Akinyode, Reed, LaGrassa LaGrassa, Akinyode, Reed*
Forward Hume, Cox LaGrassa, Hume Winn, Hume Winn, Hume, Mensah
Result 2-2 0-0 1-1 3-3
*Reed was an early substitution in the Oct. 13 game, enough so that it’d be fair to call Kris Tyrpak the starter in the conventional sense of “played the majority of the game and impacted the tactics.”

As you can see, Nashville went more offensive in the final game – as it did in the final few games of the season, all of them against worse competition than FCC, indicating that it’s just the current identity of this squad – and it paid off with three goals… but also three goals conceded. It may be fair to say the defensive performance would have been better if not for an injury to Reed, but the offense probably benefitted from having Tyrpak in there (though his primary contributions were a nice shot that was saved, and a missed read that could have been an open net for teammate Alan Winn).

But what have we learned?

For starters, it’s worth noting that FC Cincinnati got much better over the course of the year. They added MLS players in Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe, and returned Richie Ryan Saturday evening after the midfielder had been shelved with injury since June.

Although it’s fair to say that Nashville’s late-season form didn’t live up to their play in the early and middle portions of their inaugural year, the team managed to play Cincinnati equally tough all three times. Tactical adjustments? Personnel shifts? Simply playing up to the level of the competition? There may be something to that last one, with Nashville SC getting four points off Pittsburgh Riverhounds in two games, three off FC Cincinnati in three games, four off Louisville City in three games. At the same time, they got just one from cellar-dwelling Toronto FC II, one from Tampa Bay Rowdies, three in three games from non-playoff Charlotte Independence. It seems this Nashville SC team saves its best soccer for the best opposition.

There’s also been value (and downside) in playing a more offensive brand of soccer in the final month or so. Nashville drew the highest-powered FC Cincinnati team it faced this year by opening up the scheme and matching FCC goal-for-goal. It also gave up a late equalizer to TFCII by leaving the back a bit exposed – though that still required an individual error from the goalkeeper.

It seems Nashville SC has the ability to play multiple styles and still play FC Cincinnati pretty evenly. With strong goalie play from Matt Pickens, there’s limited downside defensively. Nashville’s issue all year has been putting the ball in the back of the net. They’ve stepped it up in the final few weeks of the season – frustrating inability to find a winner against 10-man Red Bulls II notwithstanding – perhaps slightly at the cost of leaving Pickens a little more exposed. If they get the scoring increase of the new attitude with a strong performance from the keeper (who has admittedly had his struggles late in a loooong season), an upset is possible.

If we see a draw, are we confident in Nashville’s ability to finish in penalties? I, uh, am not. Here’s what we’ve seen this year:

  • March 7 @ FC Cincinnati (preseason) – Alan Winn (converted)
  • March 31 @ Bethlehem Steel – Michael Cox (converted)
  • July 21 @ Ottawa Fury – Alan Winn (missed)
  • Aug. 10 v. Ottawa Fury – Brandon Allen (converted)
  • Sept. 8 @ North Carolina FC – Brandon Allen (converted)
  • Sept. 8 @ North Carolina FC – Brandon Allen (converted)
  • Oct. 9 v. Toronto FC II – Matt LaGrassa (saved)

Meanwhile, Nashville SC’s defensive penalty record is

  • July 28 @ Toronto FC II* – Luca Uccello (goal)
  • Sept. 18 v. Tampa Bay Rowdies – Georgi Hristov (goal)
  • Sept. 29 v. New York Red Bulls II – Tom Barlow (saved)

*CJ Cochran in net, rather than Matt Pickens

Not a huge sample size there, but 4/6 in competitive games, 5/7 overall for, 2/3 (all in competitive games, 1/2 on-frame saved) against.

Here’s Cincinnati’s offense:

  • May 2 @ Indy Eleven – Kenney Walker (converted)
  • May 19 v. North Carolina FC – Emmanuel Ledesma (converted)
  • Aug. 25 @ Tampa Bay Rowdies – Emmanuel Ledesma (converted)
  • Aug. 25 @ Tampa Bay Rowdies – Emmanuel Ledesma (converted)

And defense:

  • March 31 @ Indy Eleven – Jack McInerney (saved)
  • May 2 @ Indy Eleven – Ayoze (goal)
  • June 2 @ New York Red Bulls II – Brian White (missed)
  • Sept. 1 v. Pittsburgh Riverhounds – Kay Banjo (missed)

Not a huge sample size for either there, but it’s worth noting that opponents straight-up missed the frame on two of four attempts. Probably fair to say that Cincinnati got fairly lucky on their defensive opportunities. Manu Ledesma ran up his goal totals offensively by taking three penalties on the year (much like Brandon Allen did for NSC, with a greater proportion of his final total).

There’s really not enough evidence here to give the edge to one side or the other if this game ends in a fifth draw between the sides (this one with extra time). It should certainly be exciting if it comes to that.

Nashville SC finds late equalizer to draw regular-season champion Cincinnati


NASHVILLE – In the most exciting Nashville SC game of the year, the Boys in Gold drew already-clinched regular-season champions FC Cincinnati in the friendly confines of First Tennessee Park – the third draw of the season between these two sides (fourth, counting a preseason friendly).

Nashville scored early – Tucker Hume headed home an Alan Winn cross in the fifth minute – and then late – Boilu Akinyode opened his Nashville SC account with a left-footed blast from outside the box as second-half stoppage time approached – to set the tone, then escape with a result when FC Cincinnati’s high-powered attack controlled the middle portions of the contest. In the end, a 3-3 result was fair.

Nashville ended with just 33.7% possession, but launched five shots on-target to Cincinnati’s eight, and made three goals stand up with the defensive performance.

Stay tuned for more to come from this game.



Match events

  • 5′ NSH GOAL – 12 Tucker Hume (head), assisted by 19 Alan Winn
  • 21′ NSH Substitution – On 26 Kris Tyrpak, off 17 Michael Reed (injury)
  • 39′ CIN Yellow card – 5 Nazmi Albadawi (foul)
  • 40′ NSH Yellow card – 20 Matt LaGrassa (argument)
  • 45’+2 Half time
  • 52′ CIN GOAL – 19 Corben Bone (right foot), assisted by 45 Emmanuel Ledesma
  • 63′ CIN GOAL – 5 Nazmi Albadawi (head, rebound)
  • 64′ NSH Substitution – On 32 Brandon Allen, off 12 Tucker Hume
  • 73′ NSH Substitution – On 4 Ramone Howell, off 19 Alan Winn (injury)
  • 74′ CIN Substitutions – On 16 Richie Ryan and 11 Danni Konig, off 13 Michael Lahoud and 9 Fanendo Adi
  • 75′ CIN Substitution – On 20 Jimmy McLaughlin, off 5 Nazmi Albadawi
  • 80′ NSH GOAL – 32 Brandon Allen (left foot), assisted by 3 Ropapa Mensah
  • 81′ CIN GOAL – 19 Corben Bone (right foot), assisted by 16 Richie Ryan
  • 90′ NSH GOAL – 30 Bolu Akinyode (left foot)
  • 90’+3 Full time