Nashville SC is just 9 days away from its historic match against Atlanta United FC at First Tennessee Park. This preseason friendly represents a monumental moment for Nashville and the start of Atlanta’s second season.
Atlanta has already proved itself as a legitimate power in Major League Soccer after just one season. The Five Stripes set new attendance records and made the playoffs in their MLS debut. Nashville won’t move up from the USL to the MLS until 2020, giving the team time to set a foundation with its fan base and continue to build a top-level squad.
But Nashville’s fans, front office and players should all take a moment to look across the pitch on Feb. 10 and try to learn from Atlanta United’s breakout success.
If Nashville is able to pull off the upset, it will make a bold statement against a burgeoning MLS powerhouse that will one day be a regional rival.
Atlanta shatters MLS attendance records
Many soccer pundits were worried about finding enough soccer fans in the South where the NFL and college football reign supreme. Boy were they wrong.
Atlanta broke the MLS regular season attendance record averaging 48,200 fans per game between Bobby Dodd Stadium and Mercedes-Benz Stadium last season. Their fans also broke the single game attendance record twice. First on Sept. 16, 2017 with 70,425 fans watching a 3-3 tie against Orlando City SC and a month later with an attendance of 71,874 in a 2-2 tie against Toronto FC.
Atlanta’s average attendance wasn’t just good for the MLS, but for most sports teams in America beating out all other NBA, NHL and MLB franchises in 2017.
But how did Atlanta go from not having a team to selling more than 35,000 season tickets? Atlanta United’s president Darren Eales said he spent 2015 and 2016 meeting fans at local bars and hosting community events around English Premier League, U.S. Men’s Soccer and MLS soccer matches.
Nashville is looking to set its own attendance records in its first professional season in the USL. The team’s goal is 6,200 season tickets sold, which would break the USL record for most first-year season ticket sales. It’s not 48,200 fans a game, but it’s a start (First Tennessee Park’s max capacity is around 10,000).
Atlanta United brings the attack
Nashville SC’s roster was finalized last week and its first training session was only held Monday making it almost impossible to guess how head coach Gary Smith will set up his team against the Five Stripes. But one thing is for sure, this will be the toughest defensive challenges The Boys and Gold will face all season.
Atlanta’s head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino employs a high-octane attacking style of soccer which led to the second-most goals (70) and the second-largest goal difference (plus 30) in the MLS last season. The team scored three or more goals in 12 games and knocked in seven goals against the New England Revolution on Sept. 13, 2017.
Leading the attack for Atlanta are Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. Despite missing parts of the 2017 season with injuries, Josef scored 19 goals and finished fourth overall in the MLS. Almiron finished fifth overall for assists in the MLS with 14.
The Five Strips were knocked out of the first round of the MLS playoffs after finishing with 15-9-10 record in their inaugural season.
Martino favors youth and potential
Instead of recruiting aging players from Europe, Martino has brought in young up-and-coming talent from Latin America. Atlanta had the third youngest lineup in the MLS last season with an average player age of 25.17.
Lowering this average even more is the recent addition of 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco. Atlanta set a new MLS record with a $15 million transfer fee acquiring the attacking midfielder from Argentina’s Independiente on Jan. 19.
The youngest player on Nashville’s squad is Ropapa Mensah, a 20-year-old striker on loan from Inter Allies in Ghana. Nashville’s average player age is 25.48, which would tie the New York Red Bulls for the fourth youngest roster in MLS.
- Who: Nashville SC vs Atlanta United FC
- When: Saturday, Feb. 10 at 3 p.m.
- Where: First Tennessee Park
- Tickets: Nashville SC released more tickets for the match