When Atlanta United's Ezequiel Barco lashed home a curling goal just nine minutes into Nashville SC's inaugural MLS match at Nissan Stadium, it's doubtful anyone would have been surprised if the floodgates had opened from there.
Barco's strike had the feeling of the ultimate momentum killer. It sapped the juice out of an adrenaline-filled home crowd itching to erupt as they anticipated their team to get on the board. And with an opponent as talented as Atlanta, Nashville could have easily let the game get away from them before they ever really got into it.
Only, they didn't.
Instead, the MLS debutants struck back with a goal courtesy of Walker Zimmerman that was as crucial as it was historic. And although Emerson Hyndman's goal would ultimately send Nashville to a 2-1 home defeat, the expansion side was in the game and they did not look out of their depth against a formidable opponent. In fact, they nearly leveled the contest late in the second half, only to see a shot from Randall Leal bounce off the post.
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It's clearly not the result they wanted, but for Nashville SC, this opening match provided several insights into what can be expected moving forward:
It's not hard to see the reason behind Nashville's trade for Zimmerman that brought the center back in a couple weeks ago.
The MLS veteran was a building block for a recent expansion side in LAFC, when he was on Bob Bradley's inaugural squad back in 2018. He knows what it takes to help a new team build from the ground up and compete from the jump.
It was appropriate, then, that it was Zimmerman who provided the response to Barco's opener with his 28th-minute goal, which was a stellar individual effort that saw him nod down Hany Mukhtar's free kick to himself before cashing home the finish.
The 26-year-old is the type of proven commodity and calming influence for a back line that is vital to solidifying a group that is only beginning to jell as a team. Throw in longtime MLS stalwart Dax McCarty in the defensive midfield and you have a pair of faces that can be leaned on when times get tough in the marathon of the MLS season.
Home-field will matter
Seriously, what a scene at Nissan Stadium.
Nashville made history on Saturday, packing 59,069 fans inside the venue to set a Tennessee State state record for a soccer match. Five Stripes fans would probably point out that a number of those were Atlanta supporters who made the trip for a match in relatively close proximity. Still, this was a massive showing for Nashville. The pregame festivities, from the array of musical performances to the Johnny Cash tifo, were top-notch and the home supporters were lively and vocal throughout the match.
And the players absolutely fed off the crowd's energy. If the supporters can continue to bring the same enthusiasm throughout the season, home field should prove to be a decided advantage for Nashville, who need to count on points at home during an expansion year.
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Goal questions still linger
If there was one knock on Nashville's roster construction throughout the preseason, it was a perceived lack of attacking firepower. On paper, this team looks very much like it will be able to hold its own defensively, and that can keep you in a lot of games. But that can only take you so far when it comes to securing results.
After the opening match, the goal question is still left unanswered. Zimmerman's goal was nice, but he's a center back and can't be expected to be relied on to do that every game.
Can Dom Badji take on that responsibility and become a true carry-the-load No. 9? If he can't, is Daniel Rios up to the task? What about lively substitute Abu Danladi, who was once the No. 1 pick in the MLS SuperDraft, but never quite managed to take off at Minnesota United?
The good news is, there's talent there in the midfield that can help offset whatever uncertainty might exist with the forward group. Mukhtar was brought in as a Designated Player for a reason, and he showed his quality in flashes on Saturday, notably sending in the free kick that led to Zimmerman's goal.
Leal is a bit more of a wild card, but the Costa Rican had a nice preseason and was tantalizingly close to a late equalizer that could have nabbed Nashville a point if it had only gone in instead of hitting the woodwork. Going forward, though, head coach Gary Smith's task will be figuring out how to get his team looking goal-dangerous on a more consistent basis.
But there is hope. As is often the case with new teams, a flowing, goal-scoring attack is usually the last to come around. There's time for that. The important takeaway for Nashville fans is that the building blocks are in place.
So even in defeat, the city can take heart. You made history, Nashville fans. Bask in it.