NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Emerson Hyndman scored in the 37th minute in Atlanta United’s 2-1 victory over Nashville, spoiling the expansion team’s MLS debut Saturday night.
Ezequiel Barco also scored in the ninth minute for Atlanta, the 2018 MLS Cup winners who won both the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup last season.
Walker Zimmerman scored the first goal for Nashville off a set piece in the 28th minute, giving the biggest crowd ever to see a soccer game in the state of Tennessee something to celebrate. A handful of NFL players also were on hand, including Titans Pro Bowl punter Brett Kern and teammate Cory Davis along with San Francisco tight end George Kittle.
The 30,000 fans who filled the lower bowl at Nissan Stadium stood from start to finish.
“I’ve had a couple of new team openings in the last 20 years, and this one ranks as at least for me one of the most exciting,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. ”I literally got chills in pregame ceremony … The crowd over-delivered as well.”
Nashville acquired Zimmerman from Los Angeles FC on Feb. 11, adding the veteran with five goals in 51 MLS games to a roster featuring 14 making their league debut this season. Zimmerman headed the ball, then scored with his right foot kicking the ball past keeper Brad Guzan.
That only lasted until Hyndman scored into the right corner for the lead.
The win was costly for Atlanta. Josef Martinez, the 2018 MLS Golden Boot winner who had 27 goals last year, was taken off the field on a stretcher in the 68th minute after going down for the second time in a few minutes with an apparent right knee injury.
Nashville had chances at a tie. Randall Leal hit the left post in the 78th minute, and the team also had a free kick on the edge of the box in the 80th. Abu Danladi had a shot from outside the box smothered by Guzan in the 90th before four minutes of stoppage time.
This game capped a long process where Nashville went from being an after-thought for a possible expansion franchise to being awarded an expansion club on Dec. 20, 2017, as the league’s 24th team. Nashville has had some delays getting construction started on its 30,000-seat stadium and finally got Music City’s third mayor since 2017 to sign off on a revised deal now costing $335 million.
Issues over the future stadium did not slow down Nashville’s preparations for this debut.
Nashville hired former Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre as its first CEO to build the franchise from the ground up in May 2018, and he hired Gary Smith in March 2019 as the coach for this inaugural season hoping to tap his experience guiding the Colorado Rapids to the 2010 MLS Cup title. Smith led Nashville to a 20-7-7 record last season in the USL Championship.
With its MLS debut finally at hand, Nashville threw a very big party with 59,069 on hand at Nissan Stadium, home to the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and to this team until its 30,000-seat stadium opens. That topped the 50,232 in this stadium in 2017 when Tottenham and Manchester City played.
This being Music City, alternative band Judah & the Lion performed the expansion team’s new anthem “Never Give Up On You” before the start. Lzzy Hale of the group Halestorm played a Gibson guitar decked out in Nashville’s blue and gold team colors, and Charles Esten, who starred on the TV show “Nashville” sang the national anthem.
Johnny Cash even made an appearance on a big flag with the Nashville logo covering up a famous picture of the late singer making a gesture with his middle finger.