A real, organic rivalry

The word “rivalry” gets thrown around all the time in Major League Soccer circles. Expansion teams are proclaimed rivals before they ever set foot on a pitch, with geographic proximity often the only ingredient in the rivalry recipe. This isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions, like Los Angeles’s “El Traffico”, or Seattle and Portland’s Cascadia Cup. But for expansion teams, rivalries are more often superficial instead of substantive.

Real rivalries need more than just a pair of teams in the same region. They need history, hard fought matches, and bad blood. Nashville SC’s rivalry with Cincinnati has all of these things.

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Off the pitch, the rivalry was kick started with MLS’s decision to award Nashville the 24th MLS franchise. While both clubs officially submitted their MLS expansion bids in January 2017, Cincinnati’s had been in the works much longer. They had been one of 10 shortlisted teams in 2016, and had been setting attendance records in USL for a year. Nashville had yet to field a fully professional team.

Nashville was awarded an MLS franchise on December 20, 2017. Cincinnati got theirs 160 days later.

With MLS’s decision and perceived preference fresh in the minds of both fanbases, the two clubs squared up against each other three times in the 2018 USL season. Nashville was a fairly average budget expansion side, while Cincinnati were coming off of an impressive season. The year before they had made the USL playoff quarterfinals in front of a record crowd of 30,187. They had also gone on a historic run in the US Open Cup, beating MLS sides Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire in two thrilling contests, before losing 3-2 in extra time to New York Red Bulls in a thrilling contest.

Cincinnati were the more dynamic team on the field, and were playing in front of crowds nearly three times the size of Nashville’s. When they faced off, though, there was nothing between them. The clubs played three times in the regular season, and shared the points every time.

Their first meeting was a 0-0 draw at Nissan Stadium, with Gary Smith’s side surprising Cincinnati’s high-flying attack. Agains the leagues most free scoring side, Nashville held nothing back and outshot the Blue and Orange 20 to 12, dominating possession and finding themselves frustrated by eventual Golden Glove winner Evan Newton.

The two sides met again on August 4. Cincinnati seemed guaranteed a victory after Danny König scored just 27 seconds into the match, but the “defensive” Nashville side were dominant. The Boys In Gold outshot their opponents 19 to four, and seemed destined to be frustrated by a spectacular goalkeeping performance from eventual Golden Glove winner Evan Newton. Nashville salvaged a point in memorable fashion, though. Forward Tucker Hume banged in an 85th minute equalizer and promptly celebrated in front of the Bailey, flapping his wings to remind the fans of their “Big Bird” chants.

With bad blood building between the two sides, the real fireworks came in their final regular season match of the season. In front of 9,083 fans at First Tennessee Park, the goals flowed freely. The rivals combined for 34 shots and six goals in one of the more entertaining matches of the season. Although Cincinnati had bagged 30 more goals over the course of the season, Nashville went toe-to-toe with the Blue and Orange. In a back and forth match that featured three goals in the final 10 minutes, there was once again no separating the two sides.

Cincinnati looked sure to have won it, with Corben Bone’s second of the night beating Matt Pickens in the 81st minute. Nashville stormed back in the 90th minute, with defensive midfielder Bolu Akinyode sending an absolute rocket to the top corner in the 90th minute. Nashville play-by-play announcer John Freeman fittingly proclaimed it “bedlam at the death”.

The rivalry only intensified in the playoffs. Just seven days later the sides turned around to play each other in the first round of the playoffs. In front of 20,000 fans at Nippert Stadium, a deadlocked 90 minutes forced the sides into overtime. Cincinnati took the lead through Corben Bone once again, before a deflected strike from Bradley Bourgeois sent the sides to penalty kicks.

Again, there was nothing between them. With no misses in the first five rounds of penalty kicks, a winner was finally crowned with Justin Davis skying his attempt as the shootout went to sudden death.

Nashville went home to prepare for a second season in USL. Cincinnati fell to New York Red Bulls II in the conference semi-finals, leaving for MLS with a subtle reminder that they had “crushed this league”.

MLS was a stark reality check for Cincinnati. While the off-field support was something special, their on-field performance was anything but. They finished bottom of the league in 2019, conceding 75 goals to earn the distinction of MLS’s worst ever defense. It didn’t get better in 2020, with another last place finish topped only by a meager 12 goals scored in 24 matches.

The off field struggles were highly publicized, including manager Alan Koch fired after just 11 matches, Ron Jans fired after using a racial slur, baffling roster decisions, and underperformance so consistent it became league wide joke.

Nashville, on the other hand, had an impressive regular season in their final year in USL, adding goals to an elite defense, but crashing out of the playoffs to Indy Eleven without winning a trophy in the second division.

Heading into MLS, they took a lesson from Cincinnati’s struggles. General manager Mike Jacobs invested heavily in defense, and Nashville became just the sixth expansion side in MLS history to earn a playoff berth in their first year, thanks in large part to their top five backline. They would advance all the way to the Eastern conference semi-finals, bowing out to eventual champions Columbus Crew in extra time.

While their MLS trajectories could not have been different, 2021 promises to be different. Cincinnati appear to finally have managerial stability under Dutch legend Jaap Stam, and have spent heavily on their squad in the offseason. They brought in Brazilian phenomenon Brenner for a cool $13 million transfer fee, and paired him with 2018 Best XI playmaker Luciano Acosta.

Add in the construction of arguably the best soccer-specific stadium in the country, and there’s a lot to be excited about. After two years of floundering at the bottom, Queen City fans are quietly optimistic that their team could actually be good in 2021.

Nashville have returned the majority of their roster, adding in a couple key signings to improve their attack. With the stability that Cincinnati have failed to achieve, they seem poised for another strong performance.

Tonight, they meet for the first time in MLS after last season’s schedule kept them apart. While three years have passed since that penalty shoot out at Nippert Stadium, there will be no love lost between the two sides. With two Nashville players likely to be in the squad tonight who were on the pitch against Cincinnati in 2018, and with no love lost between the two fanbases, their first meeting in MLS won’t be a casual affair.

MLS is all about rivalries. The league tries to manufacture them under the slightest pretenses, looking for thin connections and sideways glances on the field. While there are the odd exceptions, real, organic rivalries are rare.

Nashville and Cincinnati have a real, organic rivalry. It’s rare. It’s special. And tonight, as the two sides face off for the first time in 910 days, it will be a match to remember.

Update

Nashville SC and FC Cincinnati’s first-ever MLS meeting ended in a 2-2 draw. Cincinnati scored two goals in the first 15 minutes before Nashville pulled back two of their own to end in yet another draw. Despite being outshot 31-7, Cincinnati held on for a point on the road.

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