National Writer: Charles Boehm

Leagues Cup chaos: Nashville SC outlast Club América in match for the ages


What happened in Nashville SC’s delirious Leagues Cup Round-of-16 2-2 upset PK win over mighty Club América?

Perhaps it would be quicker to talk about what didn't happen at GEODIS Park on Tuesday, as the transcendent mingled freely with the absurd.

This was a truly wild match, marked by sharply contrasting styles, multiple lead changes, a stunning 99th-minute equalizer by Nashville’s debutant Designated Player Sam Surridge, and a Nashville goalkeeping substitution (to bring in the 6-foot-5, rugby-helmeted Elliot Panicco) for a seven-round penalty-kick shootout in which the apparent winning save by América’s Luis Malagón on Jack Maher was waved off via Video Review because the América 'keeper left his line early – a massive refereeing decision which ultimately changed the game’s outcome, and took several minutes to be relayed as multiple pitch invaders wreaked havoc and a security official appeared to suffer a significant injury that required medical attention.

All of this unfolded before a large, feverishly spirited crowd from which quite a few beverages flew onto the pitch in the late going, prompting NSC head coach Gary Smith to pump his fists triumphantly like a pro wrestler as he walked towards the locker rooms.

"It's a sensational evening,” Smith said in the postgame press conference. “It's something very, very different. I wonder if, when this whole idea of Leagues Cup was created, that they envisaged what was going to go on tonight.”

Surridge shows star power

Surridge, the English striker who arrived in the Music City a matter of days ago after a transfer from Nottingham Forest involving a fee somewhere north of $6 million, could hardly have experienced a weirder competitive introduction to North American soccer. And he himself contributed to the insanity, coming off the bench to link up with his new attacking partner Hany Mukhtar for a vital headed equalizer deep into injury time, then coolly chipping a panenka PK past Malagón when his turn came in the shootout.

“It's obviously a surreal feeling,” said Surridge. “For that to be my first game is crazy.”

Added Smith, with evident pride: “Sam comes onto the field and makes an impact and a difference immediately, that equalizing goal, literally on the stroke of the final whistle, was incredible. And it created, of course, all of the excitement and feeling in going through to the last kick.”

Maher redemption

No one wandered deeper into the twilight zone than Maher, though. The 23-year-old defender looked doomed to be the goat – the bad kind of sports goat, mind you – when Malagón threw himself in front of Maher’s low spot kick in the first sudden-death round of the shootout. That sparked wild celebrations among América’s players, who soon found themselves accompanied by several euphoric fans who’d raced onto the field to join their heroes.

“I thought the fans were just besotted by the Club América players,” said Smith. “I don’t think they were looking like they were going to cause any problems. However, we do know in this current age and world that we live in, that just is never any assurances of what some silly individual might do. So all the security did a very good job.”

Amid the chaos, Honduran referee Selvin Brown and his crew were conferring with VAR official Erick Yair Miranda Galindo about the matter of Malagón straying off his line too early as he denied Maher. It was Brown's second major decision of the night, having already made a huge call to award Las Aguilas a penalty at the end of regulation time that livewire Julián Quiñones converted to push the Liga MX giants in front.

The decision to allow Nashville to retake the PK was made, the pitch was cleared and the Coyotes' seemingly flatlined prospects were resurrected, suddenly delivering Maher from despair to hope. NSC’s first-ever MLS SuperDraft selection did not waste that second chance, slotting his attempt home to send the shootout to a seventh round.

“Yeah, I mean, whenever you miss a PK like that, you're absolutely gutted for not only yourself but all of our team, because you have that feeling as if you'd let the team down,” said Maher. “And then being able to, whether it's God's will or whatnot, being able to have that second chance to take it, I think Sam said it best: It was just meant to be. It's meant to happen. It was meant to unfold in this manner. I'm just very fortunate that the guys and character that we have in this locker room, that we were able to battle through difficulties like that and get the result.”

When former LA Galaxy star Jona dos Santos clanged his take off the crossbar, the door opened for Daniel Lovitz to claim a famous victory for the Coyotes with his firm strike into the top right corner. It’s NSC’s second straight shootout win following their Round-of-32 duel with MLS-leading FC Cincinnati, and with two triumphs like that already under their belts, Nashville – who entered this tournament in a frustrating rut – can justifiably carry a sense of destiny into their quarterfinal meeting with Minnesota United FC.

They’ve made it this far the hard way.

“The umbrella view of all of this, though,” said Smith, “is what a fantastic game. The excitement that the fans must have endured and witnessed there, it's quite remarkable.”