If the offseason felt like it lasted decades…well…it kinda did.
But Saturday, for the first time since 2001, Nashville will put a second-division professional soccer team on the field for a match. And that match won’t be against just anybody — it’ll be against arguably the most explosive team in the MLS, Atlanta United, which is turning the ignition for its second season.
First Tennessee Park will be a spectacle Saturday, and there will be plenty to take in. But here’s what we’ll be watching especially closely.
That 2001 Nashville Metros team went 14-10-2 in the USL A-League and actually played an MLS team, too. Miserably, the pride of Music City lost 5-0 to L.A. Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup. The Galaxy went on to win the cup, and Nashville dropped to the fourth division at the end of the year and never emerged.
Seventeen years later, the tenor of the Middle Tennessee soccer conversation has changed drastically. The Boys in Gold are on their way to the MLS in 2019 or 2020, and Saturday represents the first chance to celebrate that milestone on the pitch. More than anything we see on the converted baseball diamond, we’ll be relishing the party surrounding it. A resurgent sport in an ascendant city — that’s a story we’re excited to tell.
But that’s enough existential talk. Let’s return to the field. Who will play Saturday?
Who Will Man the Back Line?
Nashville SC Gary Smith told us last week he plays to employ a five-man defense — three center backs and two aggressive wings. Based on how they lined up in practice, we can expect Taylor Washington [here’s a story about him] and Kosuke Kimura to see time along the left and right flanks, respectively. Justin Davis should line up at left center back, and we’ll be shocked if London Woodberry isn’t on the right side of the central defense.
Who will hold down the center of that back line? Bradley Bourgeois saw time there during the media portion of Thursday’s practice. Liam Doyle is also a candidate; he started 18 games there last year for Swope Park.
We’re very interested to see how Smith mixes and matches in his own final third. We expect him to try a few different combinations during the preseason, with Kimura, Davis and Woodberry prominently featured.
How will Nashville integrate Ropapa Mensah into the lineup? The 20-year-old talisman from Ghana is expected to ultimately lead the team up top, but his arrival into the country was delayed by bureaucratic issues. Since he’s missed the start of camp, will Smith choose to introduce him to the lineup cautiously or throw him right in against an MLS side? We’re eager to see.
If Mensah sees limited time (or none at all), look for Robin Shroot and Michael Cox to take advantage. Cox has 13 second-division goals in his last two seasons but didn’t see ideal playing time with Orlando City B last year and is surely seeking to regain a starting role.
Shroot would be a comfortable choice for Smith, as he played with the manager for a couple years at Stevenage. How do his 12 goals in Norway’s third tier last year translate to the USL? Your gjetning (that’s Norwegian for “guess”) is as good as ours, but we bet he’ll compete for a forward spot.
Let’s not forget Tucker Hume, of course. He possesses USL chops — he played 23 games and contributed three goals for Ottawa last year. At a towering 6-foot-5, he’ll also be able to provide a reliable weather forecast, useful information for a grounds crew managing new sod atop the baseball infield.
Fielding a new squad
Speaking of that pitch…one of the most intriguing things we’ll be looking for on the field will be the field. How will the new sod hold up atop baseball dirt? How might a potential “prolonged period of intermittent rain” starting Saturday — per our friends at Nashville Severe Weather — affect footing on the young grass? We’re very interested to see how the grass supports Nashville’s greenest roster.
It will also be interesting to take a look at the sight lines. We’ll have one person in the press box and the other in the stands and will be sure to take plenty of pictures from our vantage points. We’re sure you’ll do the same. We’re curious to witness the field presentation from a variety of angles.
How Will Atlanta Rotate its Squad?
Hundreds of Atlanta United fans will journey north to watch their side kick off 2018. Meanwhile, #BarcoWatch will reach Nashville after a recent trip from the Southern Hemisphere.
Eighteen-year-old phenom Ezequiel Barco threatens to light up MLS defenses after coming to Atlanta via a record-setting transfer. Will he and his fellow projected starters see significant time against Nashville? We explored that question in greater detail here.
Forward Josef Martinez booted 19 goals last year and finished fourth in the MLS. Will he set off fireworks at First Tennessee? MLS Newcomer of the Year Miguel Almiron will provide a stiff test to Nashville’s five-man defense if he plays. The Paraguayan led the team with 14 assists in ’17.
Meanwhile, fellow gunslinger Hector Villalba, who notched 13 goals and 11 assists in 2017, is likely to miss the match, since he’s been indefinitely held hostage with an injury to his abductor muscle.
What Are You Guys Watching For?
What are you looking out for in Saturday’s friendly? We asked. You told us.
Regardless of who takes the field or how that field holds up, we can’t wait to soak in some Saturday soccer. We know you feel the same way. It’ll all be very spennende.
That’s Norwegian for “exciting.”