Welcome to 3 Questions, where tap into the vast SB Nation network of MLS communities to get insight on Atlanta United’s opponents. This week, Atlanta opens its 4th season in MLS with a trip to debutants Nashville SC at Nissan Stadium, where they’re expecting the largest crowd in the state’s history for a soccer match - easily eclipsing the Gold Cup group stage doubleheader in July 2017 that drew 47,662.
Normally we’d get in touch with one of our fellow SBN blogs, but since there’s not one for Nashville SC, we turned to Speedway Soccer, who’s been covering the club since its inagural season in the USL Championship in 2018. I caught up with site editor and founding member Ben Wright to pick his brain about the mood around town leading up to the 29th, who might stand out for Nashville, and what his expectations are for the club’s first season in MLS.
Obviously February 29 is a date Nashville soccer fans have had circled on their calendar for a while. You’re getting a better feel of the atmosphere as a Nashville resident, so can you touch on how the community is rallying to the club ahead of its MLS debut?
The buzz around the team seems like it’s at an all-time high right now. Nashville played two seasons in the USL Championship, with relatively average attendance numbers in a minor league baseball stadium. You’ll remember the report from the Athletic late in 2019, stating that Nashville had only sold around 5,000 season tickets. Since then, the season ticket number has shot up to around 13,000. As of last week, they have sold over 43,000 tickets for their debut match.
Nashville’s historically a slow market for sports teams, with fans often taking a while to get fully on board with new teams. Selling this many tickets for their debut is an encouraging sign. In reality, sales were probably helped by the recent stadium controversy. The team got much more media coverage because of that than they had previously, and it seemingly swayed public opinion from apathy to support. In hindsight, the recent stadium debate may end up helping the club.
How will things look from a personnel and tactical standpoint under Gary Smith? Of course, Nashville have Dax McCarty and Walker Zimmerman who possess a great deal of experience at both the professional and international level, and a former double-digit goal scorer in David Accam. Who else who we should be keeping an eye on?
Smith has gone with a 4-2-3-1 all preseason, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. I expect they’ll set up in a pretty compact mid block with specific pressing triggers in Atlanta’s half to try and force turnovers high up the pitch and transition quickly.
Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty are the core of the team in midfield, setting up in front of a Dave Romney / Walker Zimmerman center back pairing. Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar are the two biggest names in attack, and both should start. The other spot in that “3 line” seems up for grabs. David Accam could get the nod, but he’s had minor injury issues in preseason and may not be fully ready to start. Alan Winn or Abu Danladi have both played there as well, but seem better suited for roles as impact subs. The most interesting option would be to play Derrick Jones as a 10, with Mukhtar and Leal wide. Smith opted for that in the last preseason match against DC United, and has been pretty outspoken in his praise of Jones in training camp. Don’t bet against Jones getting the start on the 29th.
The biggest question is striker. Dom Badji and Abu Danladi have both played in MLS, but neither has been a consistent double digit goal threat. Daniel Ríos is a really intriguing option. A serial goal scorer at the USL level, he may be the best finisher of the three, and is definitely the best option for linking play. I’m really interested to see what Smith chooses to do up top.
Finally, we saw the growing pains FC Cincinnati had with their own move from the USL Championship to MLS. In your view, what are your overall expectations of Nashville in its first year in top-flight soccer?
I don’t think Nashville will be nearly as bad as Cincinnati (that would be kind of hard to beat, honestly). While Nashville brought up several players from USL, it doesn’t look like they’re counting on those guys to play as prominent roles as Cincinnati did. They’ve signed a lot of MLS veterans, and on paper their defense looks like one of the best an expansion side has fielded from day one.
The real question going into the season is goal scoring. Nashville should be defensively solid, but their ability to consistently finish chances to will determine how they do this season. I think their floor is significantly higher than Cincinnati or Minnesota’s expansion season performances, and if they can figure out a way to get consistent production from their no. 9 and high-profile attacking midfielders, they could stay relevant in the playoff race until late in the season.