Call it an upset, to be sure. But a shocker? Maybe not.
While Nashville SC’s 1-0 extra-time win over Toronto FC wasn’t what the oddsmakers or most Bracket Challengers predicted, it was a result the expansion side’s performance eminently deserved as they refuse to act their age in their maiden Audi MLS Cup Playoffs voyage. And they know it.
“We take one good victory at a time,” said head coach Gary Smith as he lavished praise on his side in his postgame press conference. “This has been a fabulous night for the team, for the organization, for the fans. And I don't believe that we have anything, not only to lose, but there’s an awful lot to be gained through this experience as well.
“As you can see, the fellas are going about their business and they believe in what they're doing. And I thought we thoroughly deserved to win the game tonight. Terrific overall performance.”
Highlights: Toronto FC 0, Nashville SC 1 (AET)
An uneducated observer might well have mistaken who was the No. 2 seed and who was No. 7, as Toronto enjoyed most of the possession but failed to reliably convert it into goal danger aside from some threatening moments in the early going, Nashville bending at times but never breaking against their talented foes.
“If you look at the stats on the game, I think in the end we had 21 efforts at goal, which is not a bad stat for a team that are coming away from home against such talented, star-studded group,” said Smith. “I think they had 12 and four on target in 120 minutes. I certainly as a coach, and I know the group, will be very, very pleased with that stat. We've kept two clean sheets now in our two games, but in all fairness I don't think in any of the games, unless somebody is going to sell it wrong, that we've not been a goal threat.
“There have been moments where we were under pressure, I think you'd expect that away from home against this team, a fabulously talented team,” added the Englishman, taking aim at the perception that “we’re just a one-dimensional group that want to defend and counterattack” after their second postseason win in five days. “And there were moments where we sensed there was a little bit more for us to go for in the game, and we built some pressure and we created some moments, we actually had the ball in the back of the net three times before we scored.”
The roles were truly reversed as officiating decisions – all of them made correctly, it appeared – waved off three would-be Nashville goals down the stretch, leaving TFC hanging on and Nashville fearing they’d missed their chances. In the end, that multiplied their elation when substitute Daniel Rios dispatched the game-winner into an empty net on the rebound of a saved Hany Mukhtar effort.
“Yeah, it’s better when we have an ending like that,” said Rios postgame. “Because we suffered in small moments in the first half, the team did great not conceding goals and I mean, I did my part, my job as a sub in the second half, trying to give the team energy, good choices, good decisions. And at the end I think I got rewarded and the team got rewarded, because it was a great team game.”
The Boys in Gold finished the regular season on 4-1-2 run and have extended that form into the playoffs, slowly but surely adding a layer of attacking sparkle atop their well-established defensive foundation.
“We finished the season on a really good note, winning in Orlando [on Decision Day], coming from behind, showing ourselves that we could do it on the road and in a tough game against a good team,” linchpin midfielder Dax McCarty told FS1 in a postgame interview. “Toronto, all the respect in the world for them, and what they've accomplished these last four or five years, but I think once we settled into the game a little bit, and once that second half got started, we really felt like we were going to win the game. There was just a confidence about our group – chance after chance after chance and we just kept going. We knew we'd get one eventually.”
Nashville are one of only two expansion teams in MLS history to advance this deep in the playoffs – the other being the Chicago Fire of 1998, who went on to win MLS Cup. Could Nashville pull off such a feat, too?
“We need a little bit of fortune and you need your players to stay healthy and available, certainly your better ones,” said Smith, himself a 2010 MLS Cup winner with Colorado. “But everyone in that locker room believes we can. Absolutely. There's not a single player in there that doesn't believe that we can get to the final and go on and win it.”