Nashville SC may be a newcomer, but it does not lack for regional rivals. Music City make their MLS debut Saturday night versus Atlanta United.
Saturday night marks the end of a process that formally began in January 2017 when the city supported bringing Major League Soccer to Nashville. Two months later John Ingram bought a majority stake in DMD Soccer, which is the ownership group of Nashville SC. The Wilfs, who own the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL but had their bid to own an MLS team rebuffed as Minnesota United came into existence, joined the ownership group that summer.
The group was awarded an expansion franchise in December 2017, named Mike Jacobs general manager in October 2018, and announced it would go by Nashville SC - which was in use by the USL club. Music City will play their first two seasons at Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, before moving into a soccer-specific stadium at the Nashville Fairgrounds in 2022 after reaching an agreement with the city to fund 100 percent of the costs earlier this month.
"I'm so glad we've reached a better deal for Nashville. I'm grateful to Nashville Soccer Holdings and John Ingram for understanding our city's financial realities and agreeing to pay up to $54 million in additional costs," Nashville mayor John Cooper said in a statement at the time of the agreement. "This deal saves the taxpayers money and provides a better site plan for the Fairgrounds. Today is an exciting step forward for sports in Nashville and I'm ready for the first Nashville SC game on February 29th."
There have already been over 50,000 tickets sold for the season opener, with the club expected to open the upper tier of the stadium for their inaugural match.
The Music City side that will be on the pitch will be markedly different from the USL side, though there is a hope they can carry the defense to the top tier after conceding just 26 goals in 34 matches last year. Coach Gary Smith will be counting on Walker Zimmerman, formerly of LAFC, to anchor the backline along with U.S. international Dan Lovitz and Jalil Anibaba.
Nashville SC also landed an experienced keeper in Joe Willis, who was Houston's No. 1 the last three seasons and recorded a career-high 10 victories in 2019. In attack, midfielder Hany Mukhtar is the team's only Designated Player after being signed from Danish side Brondby IF and will be flanked by Randall Leal and David Accam. Dax McCarty brings veteran leadership as the 32-year-old joins his fifth MLS club after three seasons with the Chicago Fire.
"We have a manager who's very stingy defensively - his teams just don't concede goals," Jacobs told Soccer Speedway. "We want players who are ok with being uncomfortable, who can deal with being under pressure. The likes of playing somewhere like Atlanta in front of 70,000 fans... We want them to be comfortable being uncomfortable, but also able to make other teams uncomfortable, in a high-pressing team on both sides of the ball."
Atlanta United has made most every MLS team uncomfortable in their three seasons since entering the league in 2017. While the Five Stripes did not successfully defend their MLS Cup title last year, they did win the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup and have finished no worse than fourth overall since their debut.
Josef Martinez again will lead the line, coming off another productive season in which he totaled 33 goals in 39 matches and bettered his own MLS record with a goal-scoring streak of 15 games - tied for the third-longest in world soccer. The Venezuela international has racked up 88 goals in 102 matches in all competitions and scored in both legs of Atlanta's 4-1 aggregate victory over Honduran side Motagua in the CONCACAF Champions round of 16 tie.
Pity Martinez scored the other two goals - both set up by Josef Martinez - as he bagged a brace in Tuesday night's 3-0 second-leg victory as keeper Brad Guzan did not need to make a save for the clean sheet in his 100th match with Atlanta.
"I think he showed some high-quality play last season, but maybe was a little bit inconsistent," United manager Ronald de Boer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Pity Martinez. "He knows that, everybody knows that. When he came in this preseason, he was really determined to show himself. He wants to be a leader for the team and he has the quality to do that. Right now, I'm really pleased with how he's involved with everything. He's really fun to watch inside and outside the pitch."