The good news for Nashville SC: The club keeps collecting points. The bad news, however, is NSC has let the Philadelphia Union creep back into the race for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
Philly has quietly collected 14 points in its last six matches, and thanks to four straight draws, Nashville has half the points in the same span, and just two points separate the two clubs in the standings.
While a 0-0 draw for NSC against D.C. United on Saturday wasn’t optimal, it did — at least for now — keep the club in the driver’s seat for the No. 2 seed.
“A fantastic point for us in a very difficult environment,” Nashville SC coach Gary Smith said. “It’s always difficult once you’ve had that spell of down time — two weeks without a game after having so many games in a short period of time — you can sometimes find that the players don’t get into gear quick enough.
“The only disappointment was that we were unable to carve out many clear opportunities, and, you know, when you look at the type of competition in front of us, as I’ve said, the point was terrific, and I’m just looking for the icing on the cake now.”
All things considered, Saturday’s match against D.C. United may have been one of the more challenging coaching situations of Smith’s career. He had to piece together a competitive lineup that didn’t have available Randall Leal, Alistair Johnston or Anibal Godoy, who were returning from international duty, and was without Daniel Lovtiz, who was out with a foot injury.
Smith slotted in Jack Maher and Dave Romney into the spots usually occupied by Lovitz and Johnston, and each performed admirably next to captain Walker Zimmerman, who was the only player returning from the international break to play on Saturday.
“First and foremost, the backline was without two starting fullbacks, wingbacks,” Smith said. “The fact that Walker has had a tough period away on international duty, I think speaks volumes to his character and capabilities. In general, I thought they did a very good job. The challenge was always to try and keep a very energetic and forceful team at bay, maybe ask them some questions they had not been asked in a little while, and not allow them to do a lot of things that they like doing. … I thought for the vast majority, we looked in control, capable and very difficult to play against.”
Added Maher: “Our team is just so deep. We have guys across the board from No. 1 to No. 30 that can come in and do the job whenever they are called upon. Being able to have the confidence, and whoever comes in and ends up starting just goes a long way — not only for me, but for the rest of the guys.”
Along with the strong performance from the back end, Nashville keeper Joe Willis kept D.C. United off the scoresheet with another strong outing. Nashville was outshot 14-6 and D.C. United had more shots on target (5-2) and controlled possession 53 percent to 47 percent, but they weren’t able to solve Willis.
The 33-year-old keeper held D.C. United without a goal for only the second time since July. It was also the first time D.C. had to settle for a draw at home this season. Of Willis’ MLS-leading 13 clean sheets, eight have come on the road.
His performance should come as no surprise as Nashville is the most difficult team in the Eastern Conference to score against, allowing just 26 goals through 28 matches.
“[They’re] a team that’s been exceptionally purposeful and positive here,” Smith said. “I believe their last four games here, four wins at home, 12 or 13 goals, I’ve been told. So, I’m delighted to take a point away from this difficult away fixture.”
Nashville returns to Nissan Stadium on Wednesday to face the Columbus Crew, which kicks off the final five-game stretch of the regular season. The club has three straight road matches after that before closing out the year with a home match against the New York Red Bulls on Nov. 7.
Two of NSC’s final five matches are against teams currently in playoff contention — Philadelphia (Oct. 23) and Orlando City (Oct. 31).
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_