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VOL. 42 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 29, 2018

10 goals, 14 games: SC’s success is no secret

By John Glennon

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Outside back Justin Davis in the May 13 win against Louisville. Nashville SC’s rock-solid defense is helping the first-year club climb the USL standings.

-- Photograph By John Wilkinson Iii Courtesy Of Nashville Sc

Only four months ago, Nashville SC was still little more than a concept. Music City's first fully professional soccer team consisted only of players in training at that point, players who were just learning one another's names – let alone new strategies and tactics.

But as the United Soccer League season moves closer to the midpoint, Nashville SC is in the midst of crafting quite an expansion campaign.

The club's success filling the stands has been impressive enough on its own, as Nashville SC earlier this month set a USL inaugural-season ticket record with over 6,110 season-ticket members.

But that mark shouldn't overshadow what the team has done on the field.

Even after losing Tuesday against Indy Eleven, Nashville SC has produced a 7-2-4 record in its previous 13 contests, losing just once at home since April 14. Nashville SC has marched up the USL's Eastern Conference standings, sitting fifth among 16 teams – in far better position than the league's two other 2018 expansion teams.

“I'm just delighted in how quickly it's all come together,” Nashville SC coach Gary Smith said. “There have been a bundle of things that we've actually tried to make normal for a brand new organization.

“Guys have moved into town from all different corners of the U.S., and in some cases, the globe, and we've asked the best part of 24 or 25 players to become one unit. They've done a fabulous job.”

Rock-solid defense

There's little doubt as to the biggest reason for Nashville SC's immediate USL success.

The team has carved out an identity in the form of a rock-solid defense, one that has produced seven shut-outs – and surrendered just 10 goals – in the team's first 14 league games.

Credit for construction of the defense goes first to the team's front office and coaching staff, which targeted and signed some high-quality players.

Included in that group were a pair of veterans who'd won a Major League Soccer championship in 2010 under Smith, goalie Matt Pickens and outside back Kosuke Kimura. Then there are two more outside backs, Justin Davis and London Woodberry, who both played on the MLS level last season.

Throw in a pair of complementary center backs – the versatile, mobile Bradley Bourgeois and the 6-4, 195-pound Liam Doyle – and it's easy to see why Nashville SC has given opponents fits when it comes to scoring goals.

Center back Bradley Bourgeois

-- Photograph By John Wilkinson Iii Courtesy Of Nashville Sc

“I think coming in, (Nashville SC) obviously recruited good combinations,” Doyle said. “I'd say it's a balanced group. We have the speed, athleticism, we have the guys who (are good) on the ball, have more composure. I think any team game is about balance and I think we have good balance back there.”

Still, even the most talented defensive players must develop chemistry if the unit is to play well as a whole. That process began in January's training camp, but likely accelerated in late February, when Nashville SC spent a week living and working together in Florida – playing a pair of exhibition games in the Sunshine state as well.

“I think it all started in the preseason, really,” Bourgeois said. “Gary (Smith) did a really good job of setting the tone early for us from the very beginning. Especially when we went to Florida for that preseason trip, we just really made (defense) a priority of this team. Collectively, we've really bought into the system and knowing each others' roles.”

Smith believes the defenders' abilities to quickly forge bonds has played a big role in the group's success.

“The back four defenders in general have knitted together some good friendships already,” Smith said. “When you're in difficult moments in a game and you're under pressure, I've always felt that you get more out of players when there's a tighter connection than if they're just teammates and they go their separate ways at the end of a session and have no interaction socially.”

Setting quite a standard

Through Nashville SC's first 14 games, the team ranks tied for fourth in the USL with seven shutouts and is one of just two league teams that have allowed 10 or fewer goals through the entire season.

The blue-and-gold wall has been especially impregnable at home, where – even after giving up two goals in Tuesday's loss – Nashville SC has surrendered just three goals in six league games. Before Tuesday, Penn FC had been the only team to score at Nashville SC in regular-season play, tallying once in a 3-1 loss to Music City's squad.

“The funny kind of thing is we're actually a little disappointed about that – giving up a goal to Penn at home,” Bourgeois said prior to Tuesday's loss. “Whenever we give up a goal, we know it shouldn't have happened or we could have done better.

“We're really trying to set a standard for ourselves. Even though we're really doing well right now, in our heads, we feel we can do a lot better.”

One of the defense's home highlights included a 2-0 white-washing of last year's USL champions, Louisville City FC. There was also the 2-0 blanking of the MLS' Colorado Rapids in a U.S. Open Cup game, a contest in which Nashville SC didn't allow the favored Rapids a single shot on goal.

“We've been pretty stingy, and I think just trying to limit opportunities against us is the key part,” Davis said. “Our game against Colorado really showed it. That's a high-quality opponent and they didn't have a shot on goal, so that's all you can really ask for.”

The bottom line is that Nashville SC has been the class of the USL's three 2018 expansion teams to date, the club's 6-3-5 record and 23 points out-distancing Fresno FC (4-7-7 record) and Las Vegas Lights FC (4-6-4).

More good news?

Nashville SC's offense is starting to come around as well, even if it's not quite yet on par with the backbone in the back.

“Early on, we just told ourselves, `If we keep a clean sheet, we give ourselves a chance to win,'” Bourgeois said of the defense. “As long as we're not giving up goals, we're right in it. That type of mindset from the very beginning has really helped us.”

  Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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