NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Impressive as Wednesday night's U.S. Open Cup upset win over the Colorado Rapids was for Nashville SC, it was only the latest milestone for a soccer city that continues to take significant steps forward.
It's been quite a run over the last several months for Music City, which until this year did not even have a fully professional soccer team.
Last December, MLS announced Nashville would be awarded an expansion team. The team recently hired former Liverpool chief executive officer Ian Ayre as its new CEO. Nashville's USL team first hit the field in March, and is currently in the midst of a nine-game unbeaten streak (6-0-3) that's seen it climb up the league standings.
The squad has been buoyed at home by one of the USL's biggest fan bases after selling over 6,000 season tickets.
“There's been so much that's happened,” Nashville SC coach Gary Smith said moments after his team had knocked off the Rapids at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“I'm not sure I've ever been involved in an organization where it almost felt like weekly, there were big announcements, whether that was season tickets, whether that was MLS – which is obviously one of the bigger announcements – staff coming on board, players coming. I mean, it was just non-stop.”
One of just three USL teams to reach the USOC Round of 16, Nashville will continue tournament play against league counterparts Louisville City FC.
But the team's success already this year – on the field and in the stands – can only bode well for the future of MLS in Nashville.
“This is big for the club, and it's big for the fans to see what we can do up against an MLS side,” Nashville SC goalie Matt Pickens said after beating the Rapids. “Hopefully that’s a good sign of things to come with this organization.”
Speaking of things to come, the July 7 matchup between Nashville SC and FC Cincinnati – which will be held at NFL venue Nissan Stadium – will serve as a preview of sorts for what could be a lively MLS rivalry in the future.
MLS announced last week that Cincinnati will begin MLS play in 2019, while Nashville's entry date is yet to be officially announced; the Queen City and Music City are separated by a drive of about 4.5 hours.
“I would think as both clubs work their way and mature into the MLS start date – I would think given such a strong organization as Cincinnati are and, of course, I know what a wonderful organization this one is – I would think there would be a tremendous rivalry created,” Smith said. “I will have to say, given the news on both clubs, and the timing of it all, that the July 7 game we play against Cincy will have a very different connotation to it.”
FC Cincinnati currently sit atop the USL's Eastern Conference standings, but Nashville SC are just four points back with a game in hand. The July 7 contest is expected to be the highest-drawing game of the season for the hosts.
“Cincinnati are tremendously well-supported and we had a wonderful crowd against Pittsburgh for our opening game,” Smith said. “Given form and league position, and you dovetail that with the future of both clubs, and you could find quite a different element to the home game at Nissan Stadium.”