It's only 250 miles of highway driving from the Music City to The A. And even though Saturday night's meeting at Nissan Stadium (8 pm ET | FOX, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) will be the only one of the season between teams in separate conferences for the 2020 season, there’s going to be an intense feeling nonetheless.
"It's huge, it's huge,” said Nashville center back Walker Zimmerman. “Rivalry games are developed, and usually something crazy has to happen: some last-minute heroics, some crazy interactions between the teams. So I'm expecting fireworks, expecting everything to take place on the field. Ready for it, excited for it, and I think the rest of the group is, as well."
In many ways, Nashville will want to model itself after its fellow southern squad, who in three seasons have amassed an MLS Cup, a U.S. Open Cup, and a Campeones Cup on their trophy shelf. And Nashville SC coach Gary Smith believes playing a regional foe will just be another reason to motivate an Atlanta team that is used to success.
“They'll want to try and stamp their authority on the rivalry, and we'll certainly want to get off to a very good start if we possibly can,” Smith said. “A lot of that comes down to our preparations.”
Even in Nashville's previous USL era, the sides only met once during a 2018 preseason friendly, and an organic rivalry takes time. Still, there’s a lot to like about their early days, including an expected crowd of over 50,000 for the first-ever MLS game in Nashville. As NSC midfielder Dax McCarty enters his 15th MLS season, even he admits there's potential to make emotional memories.
"If we win, it'll be one of the best moments, to be honest,” he admitted. “I haven't given a lot of thought to that. I've had a lot of really memorable moments in my career. Never once have I been part of an expansion team that's going to open a season with 40-, 50-thousand people in the stands. So that's something that, as I look at it and talk about it right now, I already get butterflies in my stomach. It doesn't matter how long you play, you always feel a little bit nervous. But you live for those games, and you live for those moments.”
As for Zimmerman, playing Atlanta takes on a personal edge having grown up in the area. He's also made two starts in MLS matches there as part of defenses that allowed a combined eight goals.
"It has a little extra meaning for me, for sure, because there's a lot of friends back in Atlanta that are Atlanta United fans, and I haven't had the best track record in Atlanta,” he said with a chuckle. "So now coming to Nashville, I know some friends are coming up for the game, and it's going to be good to kind of quiet them a little bit. Really looking forward to that opportunity.”