Nashville drops inaugural friendly to Atlanta United but shows reason for optimism

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On a damp and dreary day in Nashville, Nashville Soccer Club concluded its inaugural match with a 3-1 loss to Atlanta United on a drenched field in front of 9,059 raucous, rain-soaked fans at First Tennessee Park.

Kickoff Picture

Kickoff at First Tennessee Park

Five Stripes forward Brandon Vazquez provided the game-winner on a Darlington Nagbe cross in an explosive second half that saw the teams score four combined goals. Romario Williams tacked on an insurance goal to secure the victory in both teams’ first friendly of the season.

Despite the result, Nashville SC Coach Gary Smith was pleased with his team’s initial effort, especially in the first 45 minutes.

“We managed very, very well in the first period,” Smith said. “The second period was about conditions and inexperience. The picture we had today was reinforcing the work we’ve made into the last 2 weeks as a new group.”

Atlanta opened the scoring in the 58th minute when star striker Josef Martinez gave Atlanta the lead courtesy of an errant Nashville back pass.

“The message to the group before going in there was no back passes, don’t do anything stupid,” said starting keeper Matt Pickens, who was not in the match when Nashville surrendered the goal. “Unfortunately we didn’t translate that and got punished by a good team.”

But six minutes later, striker Ropapa Mensah equalized for Nashville on a chip inside the penalty area for the club’s first-ever goal, after winger Alan Winn served up an assist.

“I thought that was the best period of linked play,” said Smith. “Lovely choice by Alan to work it across, and the finish was very well taken. He had an awful lot to do that that point, and I thought he took it in really composed fashion.”

“I am happy because out of the whole Nashville SC team, I am the one who scored,” Mensah said. “I saw the keeper’s movement, that he was going down low, so I knew I had to chip it over him.”

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Alan Winn and Ropapa Mensah celebrate after connecting for the club’s first-ever goal / Nashville SC

Soon after, a team consisting mainly of United reserves stepped on the gas, applying pressure to Nashville’s second-choice back line and scoring twice in a four-minute span. Vazquez’s goal came after Nagbe led him perfectly into prime position on the right flank, where he only had Nashville’s scrambling backup keeper, C.J. Cochran, to beat.

Moments later, Williams slammed home a rebound after Cochran was unable to handle a screaming cross.

Atlanta dominated the shot count and generated the majority of scoring chances thanks to its world-class speed, but Nashville maintained a pressing defensive approach and aggressively countered when possible. That left the Boys in Gold vulnerable in the back and ultimately led to the team’s undoing.

“There’s plenty of talent, but not so much experience, and I thought that showed in the second period,” Smith said. “The second two goals I thought were very avoidable, and the one that got stuck in the puddle was something we really had not a lot of control over.”

Team officials would have reason to view the match as a success, despite the result against a deeper, more talented squad that nearly led the MLS in scoring last year. A sellout crowd welcomed the team into existence with full-throated support, no one was seriously injured and administration of the match went smoothly, with the exception of an obscene amount of standing water on the sod covering the baseball infield.

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The supporters’ section was packed and in full voice throughout the match

“There were moments, especially as we’ve only been together for two weeks, that we can look back on and be extremely pleased about defensively,” Smith said. “I would have liked to have been a bigger threat on their goal, but when all is said and done, when you look at the makeup of their group and the talent and experience they have there, we’ve given a pretty decent account of ourselves.”

Nashville began the second stanza with wholesale changes, inserting 11 reserves as it evaluated potential starters. Early in the half, the Boys in Gold looked bright. Ghanaian striker Ropapa Mensah sailed a shot just high, then Ramone Howell landed a speculative shot atop the net minutes later.

“There were some performances that really stuck out for me that I wasn’t expecting,” Smith said of the second-half play by his reserves, singling out Tucker Hume as a player who impressed him. “There were three or four other guys in that group that slowly but surely, if they continue the process, will get close to the starting 11.”

But the breakthrough came when a Nashville back pass landed in standing water in the heart of the penalty area, sitting on the right foot of Josef Martinez, who slotted a shot past reserve keeper C.J. Cochran to get United off the mark.

Nashville remained undaunted, however. Seven minutes later, Alan Winn slipped past his defender on the left flank and created a two-on-one situation, sliding a cross to Mensah, who delicately chipped the ball over Atlanta backup keeper Alec Kann.

At the outset of the match, the teams traded long balls as they grew acclimated to each other and the soaked field. Neither team mustered a shot until Darlington Nagbe clanged a screamer off the left post in the 14th minute after a clever cross from Ezequiel Barco.

Credit Nashville for not being intimidated by its top-tier opponent: The Boys in Gold implemented a pressing defense that made life challenging for the Five Stripes early in the contest. The approach put Nashville on the front foot for the first 20 minutes before Atlanta asserted itself.

At that point, though, the men in red began to show their MLS class. Nagbe nearly volleyed home a Miguel Almiron corner kick in the 30th minute, then Barco dragged a shot just wide of goal after an incisive run in the 31st.

Ultimately, though, there was only one shot on target in the initial stanza: A tough-angle effort by United striker Josef Martinez that bashed the chest of Matt Pickens.

Nashville’s biggest first-half threats came from a pair of free kicks in Atlanta’s final third. One was handled easily by Guzan before it found the head of a teammate, and the other deflected off the back of a Nashville head and left the danger area.

Before the match, the team’s reserves revealed gold home jerseys, the result of a vote by season ticket holders.

The match marked the first time the two cities met on a soccer pitch since 2001, when the Nashville Metros edged the Atlanta Silverbacks 1-0 in the last of four meetings during that campaign. Following the 2001 season, the Metros dropped to U.S. soccer’s fourth tier and never re-emerged.

Now, Music City has a team in the second division once again, with eyes toward the future and an MLS debut that will likely take place in 2020.

Next up for Nashville will be a trio of games in Florida, two of them against MLS teams. The Boys in Gold take on Chicago and Ottawa on Feb. 21 and 23, respectively, at IMG Academy in Bradenton. They conclude their Sunshine State tour with a date against Orlando City SC Feb. 25.

“I’m a firm believer that if you can make sure the group works hard and runs into real challenges, then when you get into the season they’re ready,” Smith said.

In all, Nashville will play seven preseason friendlies before opening the season at USL Cup holders Louisville SC on March 17.

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