The "better team"? Nashville rue Leagues Cup miss vs. Messi & Miami


NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Losing in a final is never fun. For Nashville SC, falling in the 11th round of the Leagues Cup title-deciding penalty shootout was a gut punch – finishing second-best to Lionel Messi's Inter Miami CF after a hard-fought 1-1 draw in front of a sold-out GEODIS Park crowd.

It's a difficult pill for Nashville to swallow, especially given how impressive they were Saturday night. The Coyotes limited Miami's high-flying attack to just a single goal. The Herons had scored two or more in all six matches since Messi made his debut in late July.

Yet the match came down to the one half-chance Nashville did allow, when Messi pounced on a broken play just outside the box, skipped past Walker Zimmerman and unleashed a shot beyond Elliot Panicco that no goalkeeper on the planet would save.

"I'm delighted in particular with how we denied [Messi] space," Nashville manager Gary Smith told reporters after the match. "What I would take away from it is this: There are moments in the game where he's just unplayable. There are windows where it's almost impossible to deal with what he is wanting to do."

The head coach added, speaking with MLS Season Pass' Katie Witham: "I would honestly say my first emotions are that we were the better team tonight. We created the better chances. And to be perfectly honest, if it wasn't for the man of the moment in their group, we would have won tonight. The goal that he scored is just incredible, out of nothing, and with his only other shot on goal he hits the post."

Silver linings

Messi's goal aside, Nashville weren't overwhelmed by the moment. Especially in the second half, they took the game to the Herons, nearly taking the lead on a trademark Hany Mukhtar counterattack. While Nashville certainly feel hard done by not capturing their first-ever trophy, their Leagues Cup campaign has been the high point of their season, and arguably of their time in MLS.

"The positives to come out of this, I think we can underline again the caliber of some of the players in the group. Certainly the ability to adapt and to compete against multiple opponents, not just tonight, but against some exceptionally good opponents," said Smith, referencing Nashville's Leagues Cup wins over FC Cincinnati (Round of 32), Club América (Round of 16) and CF Monterrey (semifinal).

"Slowly but surely, over the course of this tournament, we've got ourselves back into a more positive groove, and I'm hoping, of course, we can take that into our league play now."

Looking ahead

Nashville's attention now shifts to their MLS campaign. With 10 regular-season games left, they're in the middle of a tightly-packed Eastern Conference (fourth place). It's almost hard to remember that before they kicked off their Leagues Cup run, they had lost five of six matches, including losses to Cincinnati and Philadelphia Union in which they finished with nine men.

Nashville were struggling. Now they've notched memorable wins, made it to a final, clinched 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup soccer and acclimated new Designated Player striker Sam Surridge into the group. As much as the loss stings, it's not all doom and gloom.

"It's difficult to think about the future right now when it's so fresh and it's such a frustrating, difficult loss," veteran midfielder Dax McCarty told in the mixed zone, Messi jersey clutched tightly in hand. "I think the message in the locker room after the game from, not only the boss Gary but from the entire group, was that we played well.

"I think we went toe-to-toe with one of the hottest, best teams in the league right now. Not only that, but we defended them so well... It's really frustrating to lose, but I think I'm more so than anything, what I'll take is that I'm really proud of this group."

When Nashville return next Saturday at Atlanta United's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they'll have to put this Leagues Cup loss behind them. The season isn't over; there's still an MLS Cup trophy to play for. And they've gained experience over the last month, experience that is invaluable for a still-young club in its fourth year.

"This group is going to be more confident than ever going into the playoff run," said McCarty. "And when we get to the playoffs we're going to use these experiences to our benefit."