NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When the Nashville Metros died in 2012, they died without an obituary.
According to local soccer historian Clay Trainum, the team’s few fans found out the only soccer team in Nashville’s existence had ceased when the fourth-tier Premier Development League schedule featured plenty of games but none featuring a team from Nashville.
Eight years later, nearly 60,000 fans showed up for a soccer-themed party bigger than any other the state of Tennessee had ever seen. It stands to reason then that Nashville SC’s first MLS game deserves...whatever the opposite of an obituary is.
It’s not a birth announcement. The club began seven years ago and made a stunning climb to the top. Maybe then it’s a celebration of life? A birthday recap? Whatever you call it, it only portends great things for the city’s soccer culture.
There were fireworks and vinyl records and guitar riffs and an equalizing goal from the biggest signing in club history and, umm, a guy dressed as Moses holding a sign reading “Let My People Goal” to represent leading the people of Nashville to the soccer promised land. Or, I don’t know, maybe just to get on TV.
And that’s only part of what went into a special night on the edge of the Cumberland River.
For people like Trainum...Well, actually, scratch that. There’s probably no one like Trainum. Trainum says he traveled almost 16,000 miles last year following Nashville SC to all but four road games. That’s the USL version of Nashville SC, mind you. Trainum has likely been to as many Nashville SC games as anyone not employed by the team, but tonight, in front of an official crowd of 59,069, things felt a little bit different.
“It’s something that I think exceeded all of our expectations. I'm going to say I think a lot of us thought more highly of our potential in this sort of setup than we got a lot of credit for nationally,” Trainum said. “But man, for the first game. I mean that was just amazing.”
Like any amazing sporting event, things built up throughout the day.
The tourist hotspots on Broadway became littered with Atlanta United fans early in the day while the local fans set up in a grass lot next to Nissan Stadium. That was when it was still a grass lot and not a patch of dirt worn down by people drinking, playing soccer tennis and trying to ignore any nerves about introducing themselves on a national stage.
Beyond just worrying about the result of the game you had people worrying about the tifo, worrying whether anyone would be able to make out the chants, and just worrying in general. But, as far as introductions go, most would agree Nashville made a good impression.
Music City is here. 👏 pic.twitter.com/JKKodXts5n— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 1, 2020
Opening matches are inherently tough. You have people learning new songs, new traditions and maybe a new sport entirely. There are going to be awkward moments. But those moments make the successful ones feel earned.
As the match went on, the chants got louder and the boos had more southern spite to them. Complain about refereeing decisions and perceived time-wasting all you want—and I know you will, but I’m not in charge of those things so don’t @ me—but there’s something to be said about bonding over a common cause. As Nashville SC began to make a final push for an equalizer, an "N-S-C" chant broke out and Nissan Stadium began to feel outright intimidating.
The players noticed, head coach Gary Smith noticed, even the MLS commissioner noticed.
“I’ve been to a few I’ve these opening games,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told media. “For me, this is one of the most exciting. I literally got chills during the pregame ceremony.”
That ceremony included a pregame concert from Nashville’s Judah and The Lion and it featured the new Nashville SC anthem, an excellently country rendition of the national anthem and an “opening guitar riff” from Lzzy Hale that even earned praise from visiting fans.
It was a show and the fans showed out in return.
“Amazing atmosphere from them,” Nashville SC center back and first goal-scorer in team history, Walker Zimmerman said.” It was fun watching the anthem as we were sitting in a tunnel and just watching the crowd singing that and getting involved and that’s only going to grow.
"I just hope that through our efforts, through our energy, through the excitement of the game, that they're gonna feel like this is a product and a team that they can really get behind them and feel proud to be a part of this club.”
As that anthem went along, more and more fans began to sing, more and more fans began to hold up scarves and the effect began to veer into something impactful. It didn’t quite get there. It would have been too easy for it to get there the first time. But it set the framework in place for more voices to join in the next time. And largely that’s how the night felt. Like a community slowly learning how to take something new and make it bigger than themselves.
When it clicked, it felt genuine. And that’s the kind of thing that brings people back. If others felt the same then it’s hard to see the night (excluding the scoreline) as anything but a tremendous success for soccer in the south and for Nashville.
So congrats to the city and to the people that made the first MLS night a reality. Whatever that obituary for the Metros would have said about soccer’s future in Nashville would have been wholly and completely wrong.
EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Sam Jones is a soccer writer and columnist and regular contributor to DirtySouthSoccer.com. You can listen to him stumble through discussions about Atlanta United on the Dirty South Soccer podcast network and follow him @J_SamJones if you don’t mind occasional ALL CAPS YELLING about American Football and Pitchfork reviews.