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MLS commissioner Don Garber on Nashville SC, soccer in the south, NWSL

MLS commissioner Dong Garber was impressed with the crowd and atmosphere in Nashville, saying it ‘over-delivered.’

NASHVILLE — Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has attended a plethora of team unveilings, debuts and stadium openers in his two decades on the job.

But for him, there was something different about the vibe in the Music City Saturday night, where an announced crowd of 59,069 fans — the largest ever for a soccer match of any sort in the state of Tennessee — braved cold temperatures to stand and cheer as Nashville SC made its first MLS appearance, losing 2-1 to Atlanta United FC at Nissan Stadium.

“It was really spectacular. I’ve had a couple of team openings in the last 20 years and this one kind of ranks as – at least for me – one of the most exciting. I literally got chills in the pregame ceremony,” Garber said at halftime of the match. “It over-delivered. The crowd over-delivered as well.”

Nashville SC began its tenure in MLS with a bang. Tennessee-based band Judah & the Lion performed, singer and songwriter Lzzy Hale riffed on a guitar, and supporters unveiled their first tifo, dedicated to the club and legendary bad-boy musician Johnny Cash.

The match had an atmosphere around it that only Nashville could provide.

For Garber, Nashville is the latest southeastern success story for a league that didn’t have a club on the east coast south of Washington, D.C. as recently as 2014.

“There is a massive population that lives in the southeastern part of the United States and we had a great understanding of the soccer interest and soccer passion at the youth level,” Garber said. “There was not a professional soccer experience and history in many of these cities, but we were convinced that it would work and we’re glad that it has.”

A Nashville SC supporter raises his beer in celebration of the team’s first-ever MLS match on Feb. 29, 2020 at Nissan Stadium. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

The first goal in Nashville SC’s MLS history was scored by Walker Zimmerman, a center back who is a member of the U.S. national team. On a set piece, he muscled his way past Atlanta players and poked a ball past Brad Guzan in the 28th minute, sending the stadium into a frenzy.

Zimmerman, 26, grew up just outside of Atlanta in Lawrenceville, Georgia. For him, there was no local MLS team to root for back then, and to play in a match on Saturday between clubs from Nashville and Atlanta was a “bizarre” feeling.

“Growing up, I wasn’t watching MLS too much because there wasn’t any games to go to, so you’re just watching the Galaxy on TV because David Beckham’s there. The league has certainly changed,” Zimmerman said. “We’re getting a lot of star power coming into the league and the overall quality of the bottom of a roster player now is way higher than what it was 10 years ago. To have Nashville vs. Atlanta in 2020 getting 60,000 fans, that’s certainly an amazing accomplishment and achievement and something I’m happy to be part of.”

The MLS welcomes another new squad from the southeast to the league next year, and Garber will have another debut to attend. A team owned by David Tepper based in Charlotte, North Carolina will enter the league in 2021.

Including Nashville SC, Inter Miami and Charlotte, six new teams will have joined MLS between the 2020 and 2022 seasons. The others are Austin FC in 2021, and St. Louis and Sacramento in 2022.

“I think the Charlotte story is like the Nashville story,” Garber said. “Five years ago, there was never any though that we’d be expanding in Charlotte or in Nashville, and frankly, seven or eight years ago, we never thought we’d be in Atlanta.”

Charlotte’s club has made several hires already and has began work on renovations that will make Bank of America Stadium — home to the NFL’s Carolina Panthers — soccer-friendly. Last week, the expansion side hired Dan Lock away from the Seattle Sounders to be their academy manager.

“They’re over-delivering so far. They’ve got over 25,000 season ticket deposits,” Garber said of Charlotte. “There’s a lot of energy in our new markets and we’re excited about that.”

Garber also conveyed his excitement in getting to potentially work with the National Women’s Soccer League’s newest commissioner, Lisa Baird, whose hire was announced just last week.

“I know her very well. I’ve known Lisa a long time,” Garber said. “She’s a great hire. She’s smart, has a lot of experience and I think she’s going to be a great leader for them.”

Baird has a resume that includes working in the NFL, for the U.S. Olympic Committee and in public radio. The NWSL is looking to expand from nine to 14 teams in the coming seasons, and that could see more MLS owners invest in the women’s game. Currently, four MLS clubs also have NWSL sides.

“We remain very interested in women’s soccer,” Garber said. “There’s a lot of work that we all need to do to figure out how that’s activated beyond the four MLS teams that own (NWSL) teams. A lot of new teams have been interested in NWSL teams, but we’re going to take it very slow.”

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