Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith hailed debutant Brian Anunga and the rest of his team's new-look midfield as they secured the club's first-ever home win with a 1-0 victory over Inter Miami on Sunday night.
Playing their third game in eight days and after back-to-back defeats on the road, Smith opted to switch things up in the center of the pitch, starting captain Dax McCarty and Designated Player Hany Mukhtar on the bench, as Anunga and new signing Alex Muyl came in for their first starts and Randall Leal moved to a central attacking midfield role.
The changes paid dividends. Anunga and Anibal Godoy helped Nashville control the middle of the field for much of the encounter with their fellow 2020 expansion team, with Godoy also scoring the game's only goal through an unstoppable strike early in the second half.
It was Anunga, a 24-year-old Cameroonian who spent the previous three seasons with USL side Charleston Battery, who Smith was quick to shower with praise after the final whistle.
"Let's look at Brian Anunga, his very first start in MLS, his full debut, he plays 90 minutes and he was absolutely outstanding in midfield," Smith said in his post-match press conference. "It was exactly what the team needed, more bite, more energy. The guys that have played in there were certainly needing a rest and it enabled me to rotate that a little bit more. To that degree I'm so pleased for the lad, he's an incredibly genuine person."
Both McCarty and Mukhtar came on in the second half and made a positive impact, even if Mukhtar missed a penalty with a chance to make Nashville's lead a more comfortable one. And Smith was delighted with how his changes panned out.
"I felt we lost that battle against Orlando," Smith said of his team's 3-1 defeat on Wednesday night. "We needed a bit more energy in there, a change for Randall, a bit of a change of perspective and focus. He gives us a different edge and he's a different type of player to Hany. And it gave Hany an opportunity for a bit of respite and come on and inject something into the game. And I've gotta be honest I thought he was a real catalyst when he came on, earns the penalty, gives us an opportunity. And all-in-all that area of the field was certainly one we looked more accomplished in."
The icing on the cake for Nashville might have come had Muyl marked his first start since moving from New York Red Bulls by getting on the scoresheet, but the winger's header that found the net in the first half was ruled out for a push on Miami defender Andres Reyes. Still, Smith was pleased with what he saw from his new signing.
"He's shown he's an intelligent soccer player as well as a determined one," Smith said. "And I think there were occasions tonight where he showed both sides of his abilities. He's a really really good team player when we haven't got the ball and when the opportunity came along he's in the goal-scoring zones, he's in an area where he's attacking the ball — and I'm still yet to be convinced that it's not a goal. He's ticking all the right boxes at the moment and he's got another hour under his belt after a really competitive display tonight."