What have the Nashville Metros done to opponents this weekend in winning two matches and creating the season's first three-game winning streak?
The answer is simple. They gave the other teams the Fenger. (That's Jakob Fenger, by the way, so that no one is offended by the thought that Nashville players might be rudely raising a dirty digit to opposing sides. This is a family sport, after all.)
The veteran Danish forward showed why coach Brett Mosen called him "the spark that ignites our offense" earlier this year as he scored five goals in victories over the Long Island Rough Riders on Friday and the Cincinnati Riverhawks yesterday. He now has thirteen during the 2001 campaign.
"I wanted to get back to scoring goals. We did a lot of shooting in practice this past week, and it looks like that paid off," Fenger said in what may be the understatement of the season so far.
A hat trick by Fenger along with single goals from fellow forwards Jeff Houser and Gabe Valencia gave Nashville a 5-2 triumph over Cincy on Sunday. It was the first time all year that the Metros (9-7-2, 42 points) had scored five goals in a contest.
"I've always said if we could get our game together, we could compete with anybody, and tonight is proof of that. It was a quality performance from all concerned," Mosen said following the contest before 1,138 spectators.
Riverhawks captain Shawn Rockey had opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a free kick near the top of the arc following a handball call on defender Chris Morman. With the exception of an excellent passing shot for goal by R.J. Kaszuba in the 73rd minute, though, that was all she wrote for Cincinnati (4-13, 18 points).
Fenger's first goal came a minute after Rockey's score on an assist from Andreas Maier. "On the first goal, Andreas was right in the middle. I made a crossing run and the pass was perfect. I was trying to shoot it past the keeper on the far post and it went in," Fenger said.
Houser's goal came five minutes later off a Jaymi Bailey assist, one of three the midfielder had during the contest. Fenger managed a goal just before halftime with Bailey once again setting the score up before getting his hat trick with a 53rd minute goal off a Houser assist.
"On the third goal, Houser made a great ball to me and I just had to slip it in," Fenger said. "The keeper was beaten already, I just had to put it in."
Valencia closed the tally for Nashville with a rocket shot off an assist from Bailey in the 69th minute. "The ball just bounced up perfectly. I didn't blast it, but just played it where it needed to be. It was one of my nicer goals," said Valencia with a smile.
Fenger could have done even more damage. He had three other shots on goal during the match, including a second-half one-on-one with Cincinnati goalie Brian O'Leary that nearly went in. "I should have had the fourth when I was alone with the keeper," he said.
"We were very good with finishing today. I thought we all played well tonight."
Friday's match before 1,460 spectators followed a 2001 Metros formula in reverse - a strong first half followed by a weaker second half, instead of the other way around as in recent contests. More important than the tale of two halves was the result, though, as Nashville held on for a 2-1 win over Long Island (now 3-11-3 with 19 points following a 5-2 loss the next night to the Atlanta Silverbacks).
"That's the best I've seen us play in the first half. We deserved our 2-nil lead," Mosen said. "Again, in the second half, a completely different team comes out. They forced us to get back into the game. They got a early goal, which was what they needed to do, and suddenly their heads were up and our heads were down.
"But, it was great that we hung in there. We had a little luck at times, but a great first half performance saw us through."
First among equals in the great performance department that first half was Fenger. He scored his ninth and tenth goals of the year to stake Nashville to a lead it would never relinquish.
The Metros rang one up in the game's third minute when Houser broke through the middle of Long Island's defense. Houser was brought down in the penalty area by Rough Riders defender Mike McDermott. Fenger blasted the penalty kick into the top of the goal past keeper Oscar Mejia for a 1-0 Nashville advantage.
"When I was taken down, Fenger came in for the PK and nailed it. He's been taking those kicks for us all season, and he showed why with that one," Houser said.
Nashville's second goal was created in the 40th minute when Bailey took a pass on the left side from Fenger and seemed surprised to find no defenders in front of him. He launched a weak shot that Mejia grabbed and tried to clear to a defender, but Houser stepped in front of the pass and knocked it to Fenger on the left side. The veteran striker then put it by the Rough Riders goalie for a 2-0 Metros advantage.
"I gave a ball to Jaymi, and he missed it. They cleared it out, and it ended at Jeff Houser's feet. He made a great pass to me right between two defenders. The keeper wasn't really covering his near post, so I slid it in there," Fenger said.
Long Island's only goal came in the 47th minute of play. A foul just outside the penalty box allowed forward Fernando Fernandes to take a free kick that screamed past Nashville goalkeeper Cole Burgman from 25 yards out.
"We've giving up too many goals around the penalty spot, and you can't do that in this league because so many players can make the free kicks," Fenger said.
The rest of the match mostly involved Long Island's efforts to equalize and Nashville's efforts to keep that from happening. Unlike late ties or losses in recent games, though, the Metros held through the remaining 43 minutes of regulation play and three minutes of stoppage time.
"Sometimes we get a lead and try to sit on it. We're also allowing people to counterattack," Houser said. "One of these days, we'll learn to get and keep possession of the ball longer."
The game was a rather nasty one at times, with referees calling 46 fouls and six cautions. Fenger was banged up several times, including one first-half incident where it initially appeared he might have to come out of the contest.
Appearances were definitely deceiving, however. "Jakob took a nasty knock in the first half, and we iced him down at halftime," Mosen said.
"We didn't want to take him out after scoring the two goals, so we left him in there, but I think you'd actually have to break the boy's legs before you got him to come off.
"He had a great game tonight. His work rate was tremendous and it was nice to see him back on the score sheet."
"I got banged up, but I'll be alright. It's all part of the game," Fenger said matter-of-factly after Friday's match.
Now the Metros prepare to host the Atlanta Silverbacks starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Ezell. The Silverbacks (10-7-1) are just three points ahead of Nashville in the Central Conference standings and a win would give the Metros a stronger shot at making the A-League playoffs in September. The second-place Charleston Battery will then visit the Music City for a 7 p.m. Saturday clash with the fourth-place Metros.
"We've fumbled some opportunities earlier in the season, and now it's time to get back into the swing of things. I think we're doing that and we have a good chance to keep the wins coming," said Valencia, who returned to play Friday night from a recent ankle injury.
"I hope this weekend is a sign of things to come," Bailey said.
"Hopefully we can keep winning, including our game Wednesday, and take it on to the playoffs. We'll take it game by game, but obviously our confidence is up."
"It's a very important game Wednesday," Fenger said. "They're on a roll with six wins. We've really got to play well. Everybody's got to be up to speed in that game. They've been scoring a lot of goals and we've been scoring a lot of goals, so I look forward to it."
"That's going to be the decider for us," Houser said. "We need to win that game to get into the playoffs.
"If we lose, that may cost us our best chance."
Webcasts or Info: www.nashvillemetros.com
Metros vs. Atlanta
Wednesday, 7:00 p.m.