Feb 10, 2018; Nashville, TN, USA; Members of Terminus Legion with the Atlanta United team parade outside First Tennessee Park before the friendly against the Nashville SC. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
NASHVILLE – It rained, rained and rained some more on Saturday, but a sloppy field and chilly temperatures didn’t slow down the parade for Nashville SC’s inaugural United Soccer League season. And it didn’t cause any hiccups for the most lethal offense in Major League Soccer.
In the first meeting of pro soccer teams between these southern cities since 2001, Atlanta United FC scored three goals in the second half at First Tennessee Park to notch a 3-1 victory over Nashville in a preseason friendly. A sellout crowd of 9,059 fans saw Tata Martino’s squad prevail over Gary Smith’s side.
“The opponent was intense today when they pressed us high,” Martino said. “So, we weren’t able to do everything that we wanted to, but they forced us to play a high-level game with high tempo. And we also got to see how some of the newer players are working together.”
The Five Stripes had a handful of chances in the first half, but shots sailed short or wide. Ezequiel Barco — the 18-year-old, $15-million man making his MLS debut — displayed immediate chemistry with his new teammates, but none of his passes or plays led to a score.
Still, Martino and others were impressed with his debut. Barco started on the left wing and played all of the first half. He handled some duties on corner kicks, while Miguel Almirón stepped up for free kicks. Barco had one run that was halted by the referee being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The two collided and Barco lost the ball.
“[Darlington Nagbe and Barco] are very dynamic players who add to our attack,” Martino said. “They’re very good in one-on-one situations. So, everything that we lost [in Yamil Asad and Carlos Carmona] on the holding and defensive side, we get more help in the attack… I thought it was good to see those guys playing together for the first game.”
Nagbe, who before December spent his entire seven-year MLS career with the Portland Timbers, started in the defensive midfield and played 78 minutes. Just before exiting the game, Nagbe broke the 1-1 tie with exceptional footwork and passing abilities.
Nagbe, a 27-year-old midfielder from Liberia, received a pass near the center of the field, danced through puddles with a defender and laid the ball off to his right, where Brandon Vasquez scored on a strike from just inside the box.
The waterlogged field slowed down several passes and caused a few players to slip and fall. Atlanta captain Jeff Larentowicz took a bath in a puddle near the left side of the field when he slipped going after the ball in the first half.
But the flooded turf also played a key role in Atlanta’s first goal. In the 58th minute, Nashville defender Liam Doyle, a former SuperDraft pick by D.C. United, attempted to play a ball back to the keeper, but it was halted by a puddle. Josef Martinez pounced on the opportunity and met the ball at the top of the box, scoring with a shot off his right foot.
“The type of football we like to play, the conditions didn’t help us. But at the same time, I don’t think we were at our best in terms of our quality on the ball, our passes, our decision making — that can all be sharper,” Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan said.
Martino wished his defense had been sharper in the 65th minute, when a long pass led to a quick goal for the Six Strings.
Because the teams played in the nation’s capital of country music, Martino told reporters after the match that he’s a fan of Kenny Rogers. That makes sense, because the Argentinian coach gambled a bit in the second half of this preseason game by playing just three defenders on the back line. The Five Stripes typically play four.
“Last year we played a formation that was able to get us some pretty good results, but we’re working on adding some new things this season,” Martino said. “That’s one we’ve been working on a lot in the preseason, so I thought it was a good opportunity to try that for 25-30 minutes.”
In that time, Nashville notched its lone goal of the game when Alan Winn, a 2018 SuperDraft selection by Colorado, hauled in a long ball and sprinted down the left sideline with it. He then played a ball almost perfectly to 20-year-old Ropapa Mensah, who beat Atlanta’s Alec Kann with a chip.
Flipping formations on a dime remains a work in progress for Atlanta.
For the Five Stripes, this game also marked the debuts of Jose Hernandez, Chris Goslin and Romario Williams.
Williams, a native of Jamaica, scored Atlanta’s third goal in the 78th minute when a ball crossed in by Vasquez deflected off Nashville’s goalkeeper landed his feet. With a hard and quick strike, Williams put the ball in the lower right corner of the net.
“I was able to slide in to the right place at the right time,” Williams said.
Hector Villalba, Michael Parkhurst and Franco Escobar sat out this game due to what Martino called “precautionary reasons.”
Nashville and Atlanta fans packed the stadium and kept it buzzing all afternoon despite the gloomy conditions.
With Nashville SC likely becoming an MLS side within the next two years, and because the Five Stripes and Six Strings are just a few hours apart, many pegged this game as the beginning of the next American soccer rivalry.
“When [MLS] does come here eventually, I think it’s going to be a hit,” Guzan said. “Gary Smith is an organized manager who will get the most out of his players… I think this will be a big soccer market and a big soccer city, and we’re excited just being down the road. When they do come into the league, it’ll be good.”