30 minutes into Nashville SC's US Open Cup debut, things weren't going to plan.
The historic domestic cup competition has returned this season following a two-year hiatus during the Coronavirus pandemic, meaning Nashville are only now getting a taste of the tournament.
Fittingly, their first Open Cup match was at their brand new GEODIS Park home against southern rivals and holders from 2019, Atlanta United. But within 30 minutes on Wednesday, the hosts found themselves 2-0 down thanks to goals from Thiago Almada and Luiz Araujo.
However, from there, Nashville put in what head coach Gary Smith described as a 'monumental effort' to turn the game around, with Hany Mukhtar pulling one back from the spot in the 50th minute, CJ Sapong leveling deep into second-half stoppage time, and Ethan Zubak finishing the job right at the start of extra-time.
“It took a monumental effort to turn around a difficult start, but in the end, I think we showed all the characteristics of a team that has so much spirit, so much fight, so much character," Smith said after the match.
Despite their lackluster first-half showing, Smith was thrilled with the 'passion, belief, and determination' his players showed after the break - all qualities needed to win trophies in soccer.
“Cup games are all about passion and belief and determination,” added Smith, who won MLS Cup as head coach of the Colorado Rapids in 2010. “If you want to win a cup, a cup competition, a knockout competition, you’ve got to leave it all out there. There’s no draws, there’s no we get a point for that and well done. There has to be a very different attitude to it. And the second half we saw that, unfortunately in the first half we didn’t.”
Goalkeeper Joe Willis put Nashville's second-half recovery down to the number of 'leaders' in the locker room, with the Tennessee club boasting immense experience in the likes of Walker Zimmerman, Sean Davis and Dax McCarty.
“When we go down early, there’s a lot of leaders in the locker room and it’s unacceptable to pretty much everyone,” he said. “There’s some voices raised and a little bit of yelling, and that’s completely necessary and I think it sparked us. Like I said we have a lot of leaders in the locker room, and when you go down 2-0 you need guys to step up.”
Nashville host Atlanta United again on Saturday, May 21, in MLS play but before then, they travel to the Houston Dynamo and face CF Montreal at home.