Two wins last weekend have the Nashville Metros just where they want to be - within sight of the franchise's first playoff berth since 1998.
A win this weekend over the Indiana Blast would all but assure that spot and guarantee a winning regular season record for the Music City's A-League entry. The match at Koontz Memorial Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind., begins at 6:35 p.m. on Saturday and will be webcast live on the Metros web site (www.nashvillemetros.com).
Victories by 2-1 margins last Friday and Saturday over the Cincinnati Riverhawks and Indiana raised Nashville's record to 12-9-2 with 54 points. That's given the team a lift going into the match with the Blast, who beat the Metros 2-0 on June 29 in the teams' most recent meeting at Koontz.
"Things have looked really good. We've had some fun out there in practice this week. We took some of the pressure off of ourselves by winning those two last week," said midfielder and team captain Steve Kraemer. "But I'd like to win these next three, and see how many points we can get before the playoffs begin. We want to go into the playoffs on a good roll. You don't want to go in losing, say, two of your last three."
"I just think we need to keep playing the way we've been playing," midfielder Jaymi Bailey said. "They are tough at home. They proved that once before when we played them up there, but if we play like we did last weekend, I don't think we should have any problems."
"The last time we played at Indiana was at the end of a long road trip after we'd played (the Los Angeles Galaxy in a 5-0 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup loss)," forward Jeff Houser said. "We were all pretty tired, but this time we'll be fresher and ready to play. We know points are important for the playoffs, which makes us play that much harder."
Coach Brett Mosen's thinking is in line with his players regarding this weekend's match against the Blast (8-15, 35 points).
"I think it's different from the last time up there. Coming off the L.A. trip, our boys were tired and down after losing to the Galaxy," he said.
"Coming into this one, though, we're on a two-game winning streak and we have a lot to play for. We know that if we win this weekend, we have a place in the playoffs.
"The boys are on a real high right now. We're fairly healthy for this point in the season, we had a decent week's practice and we're going in a day early so travel won't be an obstacle for us. We're going in confident, but we know that (Koontz) is a difficult place to get a result.
"I've said throughout the season that Indiana was a decent side and tough to break down. In the game against them here (last Saturday) they played four in the back, five across the middle and one up front, and I would think it'll be fairly similar when we play there. We've just got to be patient, look for opportunities and try to break them down.
They've got (Brazilian forward Rodrigo) Costa available to them again this weekend, and that's a plus for Indiana any time he's in there."
Indiana has lost five straight and seven of its last eight. Without Costa in the lineup during the past three games, the Blast has managed a measly nine shots-per-game average. They have been outshot 56-27 in those three losses, including an 18-7 shot disparity in their defeat last Saturday at Ezell Park.
Costa, Indiana's leading scorer with 10 goals and two assists in 19 games played, was suspended by the A-League for the Blast's Aug. 10 game against the Charlotte Eagles because of yellow card points accumulation.
A news release on the Blast's official website said he would be returning to the line-up last weekend for road matches against the Atlanta Silverbacks and Nashville, but he did not travel with the team amid rumors of a dispute with team management, according to published reports.
Nashville comes into the game fairly healthy, although several players are nursing minor injuries. Forward Gabe Valencia won't be traveling with the squad this weekend because of ankle problems, while back spasms may keep Cole Burgman from manning the goal against Indiana and put Eric Sims in as keeper. Midfielder Brian Hinkey has knee problems as well, but must sit out anyway because of yellow card points accumulation.
Midfielder Pablo Pinzon has a quad pull and is off the lineup sheet for Saturday's match as well, according to Mosen.
Midfielder Jeff Dominguez, whose 90th minute goal beat Indiana last week, is listed as questionable because of tendonitis. Bailey has a slight knee pull but is expected to play.
Mosen hopes all will be healthy for the Sept. 1, 7 p.m. home finale against Charlotte , which presently has 54 points in the Central Conference standings like Nashville. Both are one point behind the third-place Silverbacks, who face a tough test this weekend. But he knows where his side's focus must remain.
"Our mission each time is to not look too far ahead," he said. "We know what's coming, but we have to stay focused on what's in front of us.
"There's a lot of games this weekend. Atlanta plays Richmond, Charlotte has a doubleheader against Portland and Seattle, so there are points to be dropped as well as won. We know that we can gain if those others drop points, so it puts us in a good position in the conference if we win.
"The ball's in our own court then against Charlotte. If we did well in the next two, we might be able to rest some folks against (the) Charleston (Battery at Blackbaud Stadium Sept. 8) and give others a chance to play against them. But it might come down to that game for a playoff spot, so it's too far ahead to know.
"That's why it's one game at a time."
"I think right now we're really looking at getting into third place, so it's not really as much about the playoffs going into this weekend's game," Houser said. "We still have a chance to get up there. We're only one point behind Atlanta and we've still got Charlotte to play, so we're looking to get some points and move up.
"We want to get our points now. We don't want to have to depend on our last game. We know Charleston's tough at home, so we want to play our game and get some points."
The top three teams in each of the three A-League conferences automatically earn a berth in the playoffs that begin on Sept. 12. Three other teams will be selected based on point totals or various tiebreakers. Nashville is currently eighth in overall point standings, although it holds the tiebreak over Charlotte because of its 2-0 record mover the Eagles thus far in 2001.
WILL THE IRON MAN RETURN
Ben Fisher, the defender known as "Iron Man" after playing every minute of the 1999 season, may be back from an eye injury before the season ends after all, according to Mosen.
"He got an okay from his doctor (on Wednesday) and if he gets another okay on Monday, he may be able to enter into full training," said the coach, who felt it was likely Fisher could suit up for the Charlotte game if he was cleared to play.
Fisher sustained the injury in an exhibition match against Bermuda in April.
DAZED AND CONFUSED
A car accident last Saturday night apparently totaled Houser's car. Thankfully, he and passengers Russell Cain, Bailey and Kraemer were unhurt, although understandably shaken up by the incident. The foursome were on their way to Ezell for their match against Indiana when the accident occurred.
"I think it was tough for all of us in the accident. I didn't get (to Ezell) until the game started and I was still a little fuzzy," said
Houser, who was dealing with accident reports while the others made their way to the park shortly before the contest began.
"I was a little dazed still when I got to the game. I don't think I was quite all there, especially in the first half. But I think I did better in the second," said Bailey, who had an assist on Brandon Wright's 55th-minute equalizing goal. "I don't think any of the guys in the wreck were playing the game of their lives."
MORE A-LEAGUE HONORS
Metros defender Chris Morman and Bailey were named to the A-League's Team of the Week this week. Morman was cited for his "stellar defensive performances" against Cincinnati and Indiana, while
Bailey was named after working to create scoring opportunities for his team in both games, including his assist against the Blast.
It is the first time for Morman on this year's list and the third for Bailey, tying him with defender James Wall for most appearances on the weekly honor roll. Bailey leads the league with 11 assists on the season. That equals the franchise record set in 1998 by former Metros stalwart John Smith.
Metros vs. Indiana
Saturday, 6:35 p.m.