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Nashville: Atlanta United’s unhateable rival

There will always be a battle for regional prestige, but Nashville and Orlando are vastly different foes.

MLS: MLS Press Conference Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

When Don Garber stood at the podium Wednesday at the Country Music Hall of Fame and said the words “Nashville will be Major League Soccer’s 24th team,” I won’t lie — I felt the feels. Hearing the fans chant and yell with unadulterated glee was nostalgic — bringing me back not only to the announcement Garber made for Atlanta back in 2014, but to my college days, when I lived in the Nashville area from 2009-2011.

These years living in Nashville was when I found my passion for soccer. I’d been a casual fan for many years prior, watching World Cups and racing home from high school to catch the big Champions League games. But I didn’t have a passion for the game like I do now. Nashville helped light that fire in me. Coincidentally, it was in Nashville where I developed a friend group that involved some collegiate players at the local university, which helped to pique my interest in soccer even further. But most importantly of all, Nashville gave me a field to play on. Actually, it was more than that — an entire soccer complex — and it wasn’t long after discovering the existence of this place that I’d find myself kicking the ball around between classes.

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Oftentimes I had no one to join me. It’s hard to find people who want to go kick around at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, so I’d go by myself. I had two balls, and I would literally just go and kick them around on one of the many empty fields. I’d try to hit the crossbar from midfield (the jogging was good exercise), I’d take penalties, I’d take free kicks, I’d shoot the ball off the dribble. I was basically playing FIFA arena mode IRL. And I loved it. I thought, “Wow, how am I able to have this much joy kicking the ball around by myself?”

But another part of me wondered why I was out here by myself. Well, me and the grounds crew, who were out there every day on tractors cutting the grass. Obviously a complex like this is meant for higher-level, formally organized tournaments and events, but I was perplexed and a little saddened by the isolation of it all (this park is located in Murfeesboro, Tenn., just outside of Nashville). Why does this place even exist here? Who is paying for all this upkeep? Why did it require me randomly driving by this place to even know it existed? It was hard for me to reconcile these thoughts considering how much joy these simple fields and nets were bringing to my life. But I knew then that there was a subliminal soccer culture nebula that just needed the right mix of particles to set it into action.

Nashville was where I attended my first USMNT game. It’s where I watched the 2010 World Cup. It’s the place where I took my first beer shower following a goal. And it’s one of the places I got to see my favorite Premier League club, Tottenham Hotspur, as recently as this summer. Having been back in Atlanta for more than a handful of years, the trip back to Nashville this past summer to watch Tottenham play Manchester City was a real eye-opener for me. The place where soccer was once a budding flower had now exploded. The streets downtown were overrun with people donning kits from Premier League giants to La Liga, to MLS, to beer league teams. It was an unbelievable sight and a perfect reference point, even if purely anecdotal, for how much the sport has grown in Nashville and in the south.

Maybe I’m just being biased, but it’s hard to hate a place like Nashville. Walking down Broadway — the city’s main strip full of flashing lights, southern sounds and watering holes — is a unique experience and almost impossible to dislike. Of course, Nashville will be a “rival” due purely to geographical factors, but it will be a much different rivalry to the one Atlanta has with Orlando City. While Orlando is impossible to love, Nashville is impossible to hate. It’s the perfect weekend to load your friends into the car on a Friday afternoon, shoot up I-75 and I-24 to Nashville, and have a great weekend while getting a chance to do something you’re passionate about. What could be better than that?