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VOL. 44 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 6, 2020

Nashville fans make big impression in MLS debut

By Mike Hopey

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The first night of Nashville SC soccer was never going to be about what happened on the field. The evening of Feb. 29 in Nissan Stadium was going to always be about history. It was going to be about this unlikely place for a professional soccer team showing Major League Soccer and its fans that it belonged in the big leagues.

“The result of the game was incredibly disappointing,” veteran midfielder Dax McCarty tweeted, “but last night was one of the most memorable moments of my career. Can’t say enough about the fans and atmosphere in the stadium, fantastic. Lots of positives to build off of.”

McCarty has played in 359 games during a 13-year career that spans five MLS clubs.

Three years ago, when the Nashville SC began its journey, it was one of 12 teams vying for a couple of spots in MLS. Given American football’s stranglehold on the Southeastern United States and a lack of a deep soccer history, Nashville was considered by many to have the longest odds at earning an MLS franchise.

What owner John Ingram’s group showed MLS officials was that Nashville was exactly what they were looking for: A diverse city on the rise.

It took just one half for MLS commissioner Don Garber to proclaim Nashville had “overdelivered.” The league had expected 30,000-40,000 tickets sold for the inaugural match against Atlanta United FC. Nashville fans, with a little help from visiting Atlanta, packed 59,069 fans into the 69,000 home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. For 90 minutes, the entire lower bowl was standing. People had paid for the seat but weren’t using it.

“I’ve had a couple of new team openings in the last 20 years, and this one ranks as at least for me one of the most exciting,” Garber said. “I literally got chills in pregame ceremony. The crowd overdelivered, as well.”

Given the pomp and circumstance – and having a collection of players trying to come together as a team – head coach Gary Smith was high on his team’s performance. He said it should have earned at least a tie and a point in the standings, but was pleased with how his team rose to the moment.

“As far as the occasion goes, I don’t think we could’ve asked much more of the fans that turned up, supported us,” Smith added. “The atmosphere that was created, the opportunity for the players to perform in front of such a great environment and crowds, I felt as though they rose to.”

New 'traditions' felt right

Soccer is a game of tradition. Nashville jumped right in on night one, unveiling three of its own.

The innovatiion the club brought to their pregame ceremony was the Gibson Guitar Riff performed by musician Lizzy Hale, who played a solo on a Nashville SC branded guitar. It was a moment that could have felt like shoehorning Nashville’s music history into the festivities but instead felt organic. It also accomplished its goal of whipping the Nissan crowd into a frenzy.

NSC also unveiled its official team anthem, or song, played by local indie band Judah and the Lion. ‘Never Give Up on You’ isn’t an adrenaline thumping song but instead sends the message that the club is part of the community. Fans held their team branded scarves over their heads and sang along as the words were put on screens at both ends of the stadium.

The last new “tradition” for Nashville SC matches was the award for “man of the match.” In soccer, both teams name a man of the match, the best performer for that game. In Portland, for example, a chainsaw-wielding supporter cuts a slice off a large log and presents it to the player.

Nashville’s spin on the honor was to give a gold record, a nod to the city’s musical heritage.

One for the record books

Standout U.S. National Team player Walker Zimmerman was a late addition to NSC, coming over in a trade with Los Angeles Football Club on Feb. 11. Now, the talented defender holds the distinction of scoring the first goal in franchise history.

Zimmerman found the back of the net after Nashville converted on a free kick following an Atlanta foul. Zimmerman was named man of the match and received the first gold record.

The crowd of 59,069 set a record for attendance at a soccer game in the state of Tennessee. The previous record was set in 2017 when English clubs Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City played in front of 56,000 fans at Nissan Stadium.

Hello, I’m Johnny Cash

Soccer supporters around the world have a pregame tradition that involves the unveiling of a tifo, a large banner that can cover several rows and be hoisted like a flag. A tifo usually is a creative way for fans to show support by making reference to the team or the local culture.

Fans in The Backline made their tifo debut by unraveling a large banner that featured the iconic two-tone photo of Johnny Cash taken at San Quentin Prison that features the Man in Black giving the photographer the middle finger. The obscene gesture was cleverly covered up with Nashville SC’s logo.

It was a message to all the other fans in the league that Nashville had arrived with some attitude.

Actual soccer takeaways

NSC is a club that faces an uphill climb to success in its first campaign. That it is still learning to play together was evident against Atlanta.

The former-MLS cup champions capitalized on an early miscue to use their blazing speed to score the first goal of the season. Atlanta scored again later in the second half after Nashville defenders let their guards down when an official signaled a play was offside but then waved that off and allowed play to continue.

One of the biggest concerns for Nashville this season will be how much can it score. The lone goal came from a defender who was only down near the goal because it was a set play. Nashville did, however, have more shots on goal.

Soccer fields are wider than an NFL field, so two new strips of turf were placed on each sideline at Nissan. They stick out as recent additions, and players from both teams lost their footing on the strips.

Much of offense is generated from the wings in soccer, so it will be worth watching how the pitch plays in subsequent games.

Lastly, the biggest news to come out of the match was the injury to Atlanta star Josef Martinez. Martinez is one of MLS’s best scorers, having won the Golden Boot (leading scorer) in 2018.

Martinez went down in the first half with an apparent knee injury and had to be taken off on a stretcher.

The team announced Sunday that Martinez sustained a torn ACL and will undergo surgery.

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