It’s been a month of firsts for Nashville soccer fans. Its first professional match came against defending USL champions and regional rival Louisville City. That debut didn’t go the way the team would have liked (2-0 to Louisville). But Nashville SC didn’t embarrass itself against one of the best teams in the league, and while on wretched pitch conditions, the team looked cohesive. Fast forward a week later to last Saturday’s home opener at Nissan Stadium, the ground for the NFL’s Tennessee Titians, Nashville put in a much improved performance earning the first point in team history grinding out a scoreless draw against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
On the heels of their home opener, rumors swirled a 2019 start date had been set for the organization to join Major League Soccer. While nothing is official, Nashville SC isn’t currently slated to compete in MLS come 2019. For many, the smart money is on a 2020 arrival paralleling stadium construction along a path similar to Minnesota United’s. Playing in Nissan Stadium was definitely a test for the club and its fan base. A poor showing along the lines of the standard ‘crowd’ that attends New England Revolution matches would have raised serious concerns not just locally but throughout the soccer pyramid. There is a small but vocal contingent of local politicians obstructing Nashville SC’s rise, but fortunately, they are drowned out by supporters. Specifically, they were drowned out by 18,922 supporters on a warm, wet evening. Nashville SC looked like a team truly at home with a bright future.
It is painfully early in the season, yet teams across all leagues are beginning to see the narratives they’ll have to overcome to succeed. For Nashville SC, the issue going forward is where are the goals? Manager Gary Smith prefers to employ a 5-3-2 formation morphing as needed into a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3. Similarly, Pittsburgh rolled out a back five anchored by the towering centerback Joe Greenspan, formerly of MLS’s Minnesota United, with striker Romeo Parkes as the tip of the spear. In front of the near recording setting crowd (the highest attendance of the weekend across the USL and MLS), Nashville rolled out a standard 4-4-2 but it soon fell back into Smith’s standard tactic with a creative dangerman (Lebo Moloto) slotted behind two strikers. Over the first half-hour it became clear we would be treated to a war of attrition between two squads with no real teeth in the final third.
For Nashville, the left side generated the most determined and successful attack as left centerback/left wingback Justin Davis (another former Minnesota United player) clearly had an excellent understanding with wingback/wide midfielder Ryan James who then routinely played off Moloto for the most pleasing soccer of the evening. However, Nashville’s strikers Robin Shroot and the hulking Tucker Hume too often failed to be forward enough or in a channel where they could unleash a shot. In fact, both made the mistake of coming too far into the midfield leaving Nashville’s attack without a head.
Fortunately, Pittsburgh had an equally limp attack this one focused on counterattack. The approach meant the Riverhounds ended up with more shots than Nashville even though they were inferior in possession, winning 50/50 balls, and generally controlling the pace of the match. Smith’s sides tend to prize possession and patience, so Nashville supporters ought to start to cultivate a similar viewpoint. Goals will come for Nashville, but patience will be the key. What would perhaps speed up the process would be a striker pairing with more pace and eagerness to shoot. During the pre-season, striker Ropapa Mensah scored Nashville SC’s first ever goal, and it would make sense to see him as a leading candidate to do so for the team in official play. When Mensah came off the bench in the second half, he was a stark infusion of energy and intent. It may make sense to hand Mensah a start this coming week alongside Shroot and in front of playmaker Moloto. This trio would perhaps turn an anemic attack into one as flush and certain as the defensive line and central midfield have been.
Whatever happens, Nashville SC looks like a team comfortable playing in the USL and not at all like your standard image of an expansion side. All year there will be firsts for this team and its supporters promising to make nearly every match special. With a point earned, the Villains now eye not only their first goal but also their first win. This weekend away against Bethlehem Steel will be a challenge, but if Nashville SC can achieve at least one first then I believe they will certainly attain the other.
It’s difficult not be impressed with this nascent team. The supporters are doing their utmost to embrace and follow the paths trod before them by other fans while still creating their own unique voice. Any supporter group handing out Tom Waits lyrics as a potential chant earns my respect (in the 13th minute the supporters sing Waits’ Picture In A Frame to honor the founding of the club). This is the time when supporters perhaps have the most influence dictating the tone and flavor of a team. By the looks of it The Assembly (@TheAssemblyNash) and The Roadies (@NSCRoadies) are well on their way towards making one of the best fan experiences in USL.