As he tip-toed toward the net, Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman timed it perfectly.
Gingerly leaping into the air, Zimmerman’s head met a Hany Mukhtar free kick, redirecting the ball just past the right foot of backpedaling CF Montreal keeper James Pantemis.
Zimmerman’s glancing header was the only goal of the match, but it was all Nashville needed to dispense of Montreal 1-0 at Stade Saputo, earning its third straight win and second consecutive road win.
“His presence alone — I’ve mentioned it on multiple occasion — lifts others around him,” Nashville coach Gary Smith said of Zimmerman. “He’s an organizer, a leader. The example he sets is such a high one. He looked composed on the ball, he looked a threat in the air and he was physically dominant.”
The 28-year-old Zimmerman returned to the NSC lineup for the first time since Aug. 28 after three matches of World Cup Qualifying with the U.S. Men’s National team. He added two interceptions and a block, but his best play in the defensive end came in the 74th minute.
As Montreal forward Sunusi Ibrahim darted in for a rebound attempt, Zimmerman sold out as he slid in front of NSC keeper Joe Willis on a goal-line clearance that saved a would-be Montreal goal. It was one of five clearances for Zimmerman.
“[The goal and goal-line clearance] epitomized his performance today,” Smith added. “Let’s keep in mind, like a lot of guys who have traveled with their country, his preparation time has been limited. So, to come in today and play 90 minutes at the level he has, and in fairness, win the game, has been monumental for us and again just underlines his importance to the group.”
The win moved Nashville into sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference, but more importantly, it may have moved Nashville into the elite tier of MLS teams.
That’s not a hyperbolic statement either, as the numbers back it up.
Through 23 matches, only two MLS teams have scored more goals than Nashville’s 38, just one team has allowed fewer goals than Nashville’s 21, and only one team has a better goal differential than Nashville’s +17.
Similarly, only four teams have more points than Nashville’s 41. And the club’s two losses are the fewest in the league — two fewer than New England, Seattle and Colorado (three of the four teams with more points than NSC).
Nashville is equally dominant in both ends as well. The club leads MLS in shots on target (132) and shooting percentage (40 percent), ranks sixth in shots (336), is tied for the second-most headed goals (nine) and the second-most team assists (39), and is tied for fourth-most goals inside the 18-yard box (32).
Of Nashville’s 11 remaining matches, eight of them are on the road. The club appears to be peaking at just the right time.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_