Saturday afternoon at First Tennessee Park, USL club Nashville SC made their preseason debut against Atlanta United. With December's Nashville MLS expansion announcement, this likely marks but the first of many visits to the Music City, and more than 1,000 of Atlanta's 17s will be on hand to watch their Five Stripes kick off the 2018 Preseason presented by AdvoCare. Separated by a reasonable drive, these two cities appear primed for a rivalry – or could once the new neighbor shine wears off.
In the early days of professional sports in the Southeast, Atlanta became the focal point. With the NFL's Falcons, the NBA's Hawks and MLB's Braves all establishing roots in the mid-1960s, fans throughout the region would travel to Atlanta to attend. The Braves used Ted Turner's Superstation WTBS to first become the "Team of the South" before becoming "America's Team" and though Nashville lies within Braves Country, Music City has been developing a pro sports identity of its own following the late-'90s launch of both the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators. Thus far, due to conference alignments and the Atlanta Thrashers' Winnipeg exit, rivalries have yet to emerge. Even the college game is muted, given Vanderbilt's relatively low-key position within the powerhouse SEC.
During last season's inaugural campaign, Atlanta did develop a heated MLS rivalry with Orlando City SC. Three highly contested matches fueled the fire, and the teams are slated to face each other three times again in 2018. Despite the distance, those matches included large quantities of traveling supporters, numbers not likely to dissipate given the on-field action.
But Saturday's potential coming-out party in Nashville, a true chance to show off club and community support for this fledgling franchise, is providing a much more collegial atmosphere.
Atlanta United’s official radio partner, 92.9 The Game, will be broadcasting live from TailGate Brewery Music Row on Friday afternoon with supporters from both clubs expected to be in attendance. The Assembly, one of Nashville SC’s officially recognized supporters groups, is hosting a “Night Before Party” at the same location Friday night. That event will include a panel discussion covering the match and the upcoming season of soccer in Nashville. The Roadies, another official Nashville SC supporters group, have invited fans of both clubs to their prematch gatherings.
This is a long way away from matches between the lower-division Nashville Metros and the Atlanta Ruckus or the Atlanta Silverbacks; they lacked the frenzied supporter reaction visible today in both cities. Atlanta United's record crowds made for one of the stories of 2017, dominant in both sheer numbers and passion. A strong supporters' culture has been percolating in Nashville, and the match with Atlanta finally provides an opportunity to show up at scale.
At Nashville's MLS expansion announcement, lead investor John Ingram was complimentary of Atlanta United's success under Arthur Blank: "I think they showed that MLS soccer could be wildly popular in the South, and I think that materially helped us. … Everyone wants to win at game time, but otherwise, we're all in this together.”
And ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman pointed out that you can't pre-determine the rivalry.
"For all we know, it could be LAFC, or Sporting Kansas City - that's not too far away, either. And if [fellow expansion candidate] Cincinnati is the second team [selected] … there's a lot there.” With the NFL's Titans and Bengals facing off multiple times per year, the rivalry between the cities of Nashville and Cincinnati will be bolstered by the soccer competition this season in USL play.
If a rising tide lifts all boats, for soccer in the South, the first-year success of Atlanta United brought in high tide. It's Nashville's turn to ride the wave.