Nashville SC played in their first-ever Major League Soccer match on Saturday night when they hosted Atlanta United. The event illustrated the growth of MLS and the blossoming success of the league.
Major League Soccer was never meant to get to Nashville. In fact, soccer more generally was never meant to reach Music City. And yet, in the depths of South America, here we are, watching another MLS expansion team take flight in a remarkable setting.
Over 50,000 attended Nashville SC’s home opener against Atlanta United on Saturday night. From the country version of the national anthem to the guitar solo to open the game; from the bays of supporters splaying yellows scarves across the canvass to the man dressed as Moses asking for a goal, this was wild.
If you take a step back to think about it all, it wasn’t wild at all. In fact, it is exactly what you would expect when you put together Nashville and soccer. And, in MLS’ curiously unique way, it was quite wonderful.
On the pitch, Nashville did not enjoy the same success. Walker Zimmerman may have scored their first-ever goal, emphatically hammering home a loose ball from a set-piece as if to plant his flag and mark his territory as the new hero of Nashville, but overally, Atlanta were in full control of the match.
Their second goal was controversial, admitedly, Emerson Hyndman producing a lovely finish after the Nashville SC player temporarily stopped playing because the linesman put his flag up only to then thrust it back between his legs, a little like the humiliated tail that followed, but Ezequiel Barco produced the one true moment of quality in the match and Atlanta were largely the superior team.
But this night was about more than kicking a football around. For Nashville, this was the start of a new era, one of hope, growth, new beginnings, an anticipation for the future, a thought and dream of what could be and what is to come. And for MLS more generally, it was an illustration of just how far the league has come.
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It was not too long ago that the league was teetering on the edge of extinction. Don Garber rescued the league and now brings it into this new, blossoming era. A flurry of expansions in the late-2000s and early-2010s steadied the league and provided the foundation for growth, and now a new swathe of expansion teams is taking the sport to a new level of popularity and pandamonium. And the commercial success is coming too.
In 2007, Toronto FC paid just $10 million to join the league. Nashville SC, along with Inter Miami, paid 15-times that amount. Adidas paid over $700 million to be the exclusive kit sponsors over a six-year period.
MLS is more lucrative than it has ever been, there are more teams in the league than there has ever been, — and more will be added — there are more fans attending games than there has ever been, and the quality of football is higher than it has ever been. For all of the faults with the league and how it is managed, and there are many, it is flourishing, and that cannot be denied.
More than ever before, MLS is a thriving league ready to bloom into something more. And the sea of yellow in Nashville was the perfect illustration of that.