Friends, it’s time.
After months of anticipation, speculation, and even a little chanting and singing inside a downtown ballroom, a soccer team finally takes the pitch in Music City Saturday.
And Nashville SC won’t be playing Nondescript Midsize-City FC in its inaugural match. Instead, it rolls out the welcome sod for the second most dangerous offense in the MLS, which just tacked on a league-record transfer.
Here’s everything you need to know about Saturday’s friendly in our first Golden Goal match preview of the 2018 campaign.
Nashville SC v. Atlanta United
Saturday, 3 p.m. CST
First Tennessee Park, Nashville
How to Watch
TV: WUXP-30 (MyTV Nashville)
- Comcast: Channel 1030
- DirecTV: Channel 30
- Dish: Channel 30
Why it Matters for Nashville
It’s the first-ever match for the new franchise, which will ascend to the MLS in 2019 or 2020. It’s also the first chance for the Boys in Gold to test themselves against a future top-flight opponent — one of three preseason matches against MLS teams (the others are against Chicago and Orlando).
The team will learn a lot about itself during this first match. How will Nashville’s defensive-minded formation balance protecting in the final third with attacking on Atlanta’s side of the field? We’re interested to see how aggressive coach Gary Smith chooses to be with a side that will have played together for less than two weeks.
One Burning Question for Nashville
How organized will the Boys in Gold be in their first-ever match? Gary Smith’s collection of newcomers must jell quickly to have a shot against a team that led the MLS in assists and finished second in goals during its inaugural season. Smith will employ a five-man back line featuring as many as three MLS veterans, along with keeper Matt Pickens. They will need to milk every ounce of that experience to stay disciplined against a quick-strike ATL attack that scored four-plus goals eight times in 2017.
Why it Matters for Atlanta
The Five Stripes are incorporating an incisive midfielder into their already formidable attack, and Saturday is the first chance to test out that attacking chemistry. Ezequiel Barco is only 18, but he made 57 appearances for Independiente in his native Argentina and even scored the goal that won the Copa Sudamericana. That his squad trusted such a young player to take such a vital penalty speaks to the level of expectation the soccer world holds for this young starling.
One Burning Question for Atlanta
Who will win the early fight for playing time? While stars such as Barco, Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron will likely get a runout against Nashville, the real chance comes for players vying to make the roster.
“For some of the players on the fringe, it’s a huge opportunity to make their case for playing time with the first team in 2018,” says Atlanta soccer analyst Jason Longshore (@longshoe on Twitter — he’s excellent, give him a follow).
Longshore points to the battle between Romario Williams and Brandon Vazquez for the backup striker spot as a key competition to watch. He’ll also be watching how left back Jose Hernandez contributes along the back line.
Nashville fans should keep tabs on the players who lose those battles. They’ll likely suit up for ATL2 during the reserve side’s first season in the USL.
Three Fun Things to Watch
- What color will the team wear? A recent Twitter video indicates the Boys in Gold may wear blue for this match, but the team held a vote between white and gold jerseys, and at some point we’ll find out what that second kit will look like. That answer could come as soon as Saturday, although we expect the team to wait until closer to the regular season.
- How many Atlanta supporters will make the trip? United’s impressively rabid fans bought up their fair share of tickets and should represent the club well Saturday. Some fans estimate thousands of supporters to drive three hours north. The match is sold out, so either way it promises to be a vibrant atmosphere.
- It’s the first professional appearance for Nashville’s supporters’ groups. The players aren’t the only ones making their Music City USL debut. Here’s a guide to some of the chants and songs you’ll hear Saturday, courtesy of The Roadies.
How We Expect Nashville to Line Up
While lineups for preseason friendlies are notoriously challenging to forecast, we’ll take our best educated guess based on what we saw in practice last Thursday.
Goalie: We expect MLS and USL veteran Matt Pickens to get the start over promising youngster C.J. Cochran. Pickens tied for fourth in the USL in clean sheets last season and won an MLS Cup with Smith in 2010. While Smith recently called both keepers “first-choice” options, we think he’ll make Pickens his first first choice.
Defense: There isn’t much question about Davis, Woodberry or Kimura. All three have played in the MLS — Davis and Woodberry as recently as last year — and each showed solid leadership during substantial playing time in training. Taylor Washington featured on the left side 30 times for Pittsburgh last year and was active there in training last Thursday. Doyle is battling Bradley Bourgeois for the center back job. Doyle scored two goals in 18 matches at that spot for Swope Park last year, while Bourgeois was a 32-game workhorse for Tulsa in 2017. Either would be a superb choice, but we’ll give the job to Doyle since he spent lots of time there at last week’s training session.
Midfield: Things seem straightforward here. Matt LaGrassa and Michael Reed have played thousands of second-tier minutes, and both should be relied upon to eat up time and opponent attacks this season. Moloto has already been announced as the team’s No. 10 in a tweet by the squad. He started up top for Swope Park in the USL Cup final last year, capping a season in which he scored seven goals for the Rangers. Moloto should be very involved in the attack — Smith won’t be afraid to send him forward to exploit gaps in an Atlanta defense that surrendered the third-fewest goals in the league in ’17.
Forward: Ropapa Mensah is only 20, but he carries the weight of the team’s attacking hopes on his shoulders. The Ghanaian poured in seven goals in 19 games for Harrisburg City last year – four in his final three matches. Smith hopes he’ll ride that hot streak to the Volunteer State. We’ll slot Robin Shroot alongside Mensah. Shroot has the trust of his coach — he scored nine goals and added three assists under Smith’s tutelage in Stevenage. Most recently, he notched 38 goals in 74 matches in Norway’s third tier.
Final Score Prediction
This one’s a total crapshoot, as the focus is more on individual evaluation than the final tally. We’ll give Atlanta the respect it deserves and acknowledge the Five Stripes will be hard to keep off the score sheet. We also think Nashville is still finding itself and may struggle to generate incisive activity against a respected back line.
It’ll be a contentious affair, and the Boys in Gold won’t be pushovers. But we think ATL’s talent and depth will carry the day.
Atlanta United 2, Nashville SC 0