Heading to penalty kicks against the Philadelphia Union in Sunday’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Nashville SC had to feel pretty good trotting out Hany Mukhtar, Anibal Godoy, Alex Muyl and Walker Zimmerman.
After all, one is an MVP frontrunner, and another is a reigning MLS Best XI selection and considered one of the club’s best players.
But Philly keeper Andre Blake made two strong saves on Mukhtar and Godoy while Muyl and Zimmerman fired errant shots off target as Nashville was eliminated from the MLS Cup Playoffs one match short of the conference final for the second straight year.
"There really is nothing to say [to the players]," Nashville SC coach Gary Smith said. "The guys go up there and I said it already — you put Hany at the penalty spot, 99 times out of 100 he'll score. The fatigue, the pressure, taking it first getting us off on a good footing, he's more than capable, we've seen it before. That moment shouldn't blemish what has been an absolutely incredible season, not just for Hany, but for the many, many other players.
"Walker's carrying so much weight on his shoulders, he's a man amongst men. He's been immense for us this year. I'm not going to criticize him for skying his penalty."
Added Zimmerman: “I guess the one silver lining is when you all of you miss it, you're kind of like, 'Wow, we all sucked together there. That was pretty bad.' It makes it a little bit easier to swallow, almost.”
After Nashville’s 3-1 quarterfinal win over Orlando City last week, NSC looked like a legit threat to compete for the MLS Cup. Up to that point, everything was coming up Nashville.
The club had who many consider to be the best player in the league this season (Mukhtar), a goalkeeper who was tied for the league-lead with 13 clean sheets, and a defense that allowed an MLS-leading 0.97 goals per game.
And with Mukhtar leading MLS in goals + assists, the emergence of C.J. Sapong up the middle, and the mid-season addition of Ake Loba, the offense wasn’t supposed to be the team’s Achilles heel anymore.
But two things did Nashville in on Sunday. The first was running into perhaps the only other keeper in MLS that’s currently hotter than Joe Willis. Nashville could do nothing about that one. But the second — the club’s inability to defend set pieces — has been an issue that’s plagued them all season.
“[It was a] cruel way to go out for sure,” Zimmerman said. “Locker room, as you can imagine, is pretty quiet, pretty disappointed, and I think that’s just because we know we have a really good team. We know we had a really good opportunity to move on. That was the expectation — to move on and to go another round further and keep pushing towards our first piece of silverware. And it’s always tough when your expectation is crumbled in and kind of flipped on its head.”
Of course, NSC shouldn’t beat itself up too much. The club has already shattered the ceiling on expectations for expansion clubs after becoming just the second team in MLS history to reach the conference semifinals in each of its first two seasons.
However, with many of the pieces of a true Cup contender already in place, the pressure is now on Smith to help NSC get past the second round of the postseason.
“There's a lot of good things to draw out of this, but in the pain, it should leave a scar that never heals, and you'll just learn, and you move on,” Smith continued. “We'll be here again. We'll be in this position again. And my hope is that a lot of these players are around again and we're better off for it. That's the only thing we can work towards."
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_