Early Pressure on Defense Earns Nashville a Spot to WPSL Championship Weekend After Defeating AHFC Royals
Published Jul 17, 2022
Written By:  Thomas Costello
             Central Region Contributor

On Saturday, the four teams in the WPSL’s South Region Playoffs combined for 13 goals across two matches. Sunday, when Nashville Rhythm and AHFC Royals met, there was a feeling that the goal scoring would continue. Instead, both sides went head-to-head in a match where defense was the theme, with Nashville Rhythm besting AHFC 2-0 to move into the WPSL Championship.


Nashville made its presence almost immediately. In the second minute, the Albion Hurricanes Football Club passed in its defensive end, but pressure from the Nashville forwards caused a rushed clearance that was intercepted by midfielder Yuki Watari. The Brazilian, who plays collegiately at the University of Tennessee Southern, dribbled to the left and past the final Royals defender and shot across the face of goalkeeper Atlee Olofson, slotting in the first goal inside the right post.


With Nashville up, it still had 88 minutes to defend the lead and hopefully add to it. The saying goes that playing defense is more tiring than offense and Nashville had the disadvantage of only having one extra field player on the trip to Miami, making substitutions difficult compared to an Albion side with five players with fresher legs on the bench.


From that goal, AHFC didn’t immediately increase pressure against the proven goal-scoring group on the field that averaged 2.5 goals in the 12 matches that proceeded the South Region’s final. The first 10 minutes featured more Albion possession with two shots that didn’t challenge goalkeeper Maddie Elbro.


Nashville kept going to what worked in the second minute and pressured the right side of AHFC’s backline. Ten minutes in, Nashville’s No. 10 Watari almost had a carbon copy goal from the match’s start by intercepting a pass, but this time running to the right side of the penalty area. The Royals defense held strong by forcing the ball out for a goal kick.


In the 18th minute, Nashville created another chance through strong pressing. This time, forward Raegan Kelley intercepted a poorly placed Albion pass on the backline, but to the defense’s credit, it forced a poor shot that soared above the crossbar.


Entering the first hydration break, Nashville weathered the Albion storm with a strong backline. The break ended quickly for the Rhythm though and after coming out of the moment to regroup, Albion found space down the left sideline and attacked goal.


AHFC had one defender to beat, but defensive midfielder Rebecca Campbell charged the attacker and cleared the ball away with force to take away what looked like a chance to put the match level.


In the final five minutes of the half, AHFC began winning free kicks in dangerous areas. In the 42’ and 44’ minutes, AHFC won free kicks within 10 yards of the penalty area, and both came close to challenging but Nashville stayed in good defensive rhythm entering halftime.


Nashville and AHFC returned for the second half and continued a back-and-forth match through two strong midfields. The Royals found spaces, especially through midfielder Leah Klenke who moved many of the Royals attacks forward, but the end result was always a Nashville player in the way.


After 15 minutes, AHFC already multiple opportunities including two corners. Then, in the 62’ minute, AHFC looked like it had a goal that would get called back for a foul. Albion took a free kick near midfield that forward Selene Brooker leapt to attack. At the same time, Elbro came out to get the ball and the two collided as Elbro got the brunt of the challenge. After the goalkeeper went to ground, the ball went into the net but not before the refereeing crew whistled the play dead for the foul.


It wasn’t only AHFC with the chances. Olofson continued stellar play that put AHFC in this position with Nashville creating chances on the counter by making three saves – the biggest came in the 73minute.


Nashville went on a two-player break with both AHFC defenders focusing on the player with the ball. Forward Molly Grant ended up with the ball and shot on goal that forced an Olofson save.


Less than 10 minutes later, Olofson followed it up with another save but this time on the goal scorer Watari who attempted to shoot towards the left post. From that save, Albion had a chance to score off a long pass.


The ball landed and bounced above Elbro and a Nashville defender with forward Jaide Prejean closing in on the ball. Prejean got behind the defense, but the ball had too much bounce and went out for a goal kick with AHFC wanting a penalty kick.


After Prejean broke free, Elbro’s movement to stop the initial pass led to a tackle on Prejean. The referee decided that the ball was too far away and not something Prejean could save from going out. With no penalty called, AHFC had 20 minutes left to find an equalizer.


That equalizer almost came in the 85’ minute through Klenke. After playing much of the weekend in the defensive half of the field, and helping build attacks, the future Notre Dame player moved into the attack and with five minutes remaining got through a tough Nashville defense to take a shot. Unfortunately for Albion, the attempt went left of the post to hold the lead for Nashville.


At this point, with five minutes left of its season, AHFC threw everything it had at sending the match into extra time. Prejean had another chance in the 88’ minute that went wide and the Royals even brought Olofson into the attack on a 90-minute corner kick.


In the final two minutes, with Olofson and all of AHFC playing further up, Ramona Kennedy took advantage of a shot from eight yards outside of the penalty area that went over the outstretched arms of Olofson, who was also tracking back towards the goal line to give Nashville its second goal.


That goal sealed the deal, making Nashville the first team to secure a spot in the WPSL Championship next weekend in Stillwater, Okla. Nashville Rhythm plays the winner of the West Region’s Miss Kick FC or California Storm, who play Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PDT.