Back in Black
With the opening match of the 2023 season, Nashville SC, in their Man in Black kits honoring legendary singer Johnny Cash, took on 2021 MLS Cup champs NYCFC at Geodis Park. The tifo showed 2022 MVP and Golden Boot winner Hany Mukhtar and had the caption: Man N Black. The fans were told to "Blackout Geodis", and most understood the assignment even down to the black smoke from the capo stands instead of the traditional gold. The team also understood the assignment, and like the black cover of night smothered the Bronx Blues on the way to a 2-0 victory with goals from Walker Zimmerman and Jacob Shaffelburg.
Costa Rican Randall Leal started in Mukhtar's CAM spot and did well stealing balls and distributing to his three attacking partners Jacob Shaffelburg, Fafa Picault, and Teal Bunbury. Leal set Shaffelburg up for a chance in the sixth minute only to have it saved by NYCFC goalkeeper Luis Barraza. Leal's skill level was enough to force defenders to give him space and free up the winger inside the box.
The partnership between Shaq Moore and Picault on the right side was very effective with the two overlapping fluidly. It truly looked dangerous and had Braian Cufre and Maxime Chanot nervous committing several fouls and earning both men yellow cards by the end of the match.
Bunbury played 82 minutes before being subbed off for Ethan Zubak and had a close call in the 31st minute with a shot from the top of the box that deflected off a defender and dipped sharply down but into the arms of Barraza. It was Barraza's last save on the afternoon.
Bunbury also drew a foul three minutes later on the left side of the middle third that gave Leal a set-piece opportunity. The Costa Rican sent the ball into the middle of the box for a half-clearance from Chanot to Picault. The Gazelle headed it back into the box to the feet of Zimmerman who took the half-volley from point-blank range. Barraza initially made the save, but the ball spilled through his hands and bounced over the line. Anibal Godoy made sure it went in, but it had already crossed the line for the opening goal for the league going to the two-time MLS Defender of the Year. It was Zimmerman's 23rd career goal and his 11th for NSC. Picault registered his first assist for Nashville, but it was the 21st of his career.
If you look at the cold stats, NYCFC had the lion's share of the ball with 62% possession to NSC's 38%, but being at the match showed that this possession was mainly a meaningless horizontal passing with very little penetration. Nashville held their shape well and kept weapons Keaton Parks, Mattias Pelligrini, and Talles Magno to minimal effectiveness with respective ratings of 6.60, 5.66, and 5.93 on the match and five shots that all missed the target. NYC's only two shots on target came from left back Cufre from the top of the box and late sub Kevin O'Toole from outside the box.
The most dangerous moment from NYCFC came in the 48th minute when Thiago Andrade took a great slicing ball from Cufre into the box that drew out Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis. Thiago, instead of shooting, passed centrally for Pelligrini at the penalty spot only to see the Argentinian sky the ball over the crossbar.
In the 75th minute, the stadium erupted in chants of "MVP" as Mukhtar made his appearance subbing on for Leal. The German made an almost immediate impact as Bunbury made a steal and sent Mukhtar on a long run forward. Out of fear of the Golden Boot-winner's skill, both center backs moved to stop Mukhtar which left Shaffelburg all alone in the box with time to take a control touch and easily slot the ball into the side netting past Barraza. It was Shaffelburg's third goal for Nashville in only nine starts, and it made Mukhtar's assist tally move to 21 for the Boys in Gold (Black).
After seven minutes of stoppage, the final whistle blew, and the game ended. Willis earned his 50th career clean sheet with 32 coming with Nashville. The Boys (perhaps) in Gold travel to New Jersey
next week to take on the OTHER New York team in Red Bulls. Nashville has never beaten RBNY having played twice in 2021, losing 0-2, and drawing 1-1. Red Bulls lost their opening match 0-1 to Orlando City SC. Follow @MLSNowPodcast on Twitter and Instagram for more league news and @ComingUpGolden on Twitter for more on Nashville SC.
(Photos courtesy of Nashville SC)