Nashville SC opened GEODIS Park with a heavyweight fight between two clubs with serious silverware aspirations. Like the first 90 minutes of last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Philadelphia Union and Nashville SC played to a 1-1 draw.
Before the match, I promised myself that I would keep this article strictly about the soccer played on the field. But the atmosphere and significance of opening up GEODIS Park are just too great to ignore. So, I will start with the soccer before moving on to the stadium experience.
We finally saw the true 3-4-3 with Loba, Mukhtar, and Sapong
Going back to the preseason, there was a buzz that Gary Smith had begun experimenting with a true 3-4-3 formation with an interchanging attacking trio of Aké Loba, Hany Mukhtar, and CJ Sapong. While the preseason matches were not broadcast, the club put out just enough 5-second match clips to make one salivate for more.
We finally got the full taste for the last 20 minutes of this weekend’s match.
At times this season, Nashville’s formation has been nominally labeled as a 3-4-3. In practice, the standard formation functions much more akin to a 3-4-1-2. It is semantics, but Randall Leal’s positioning has never been as high up the pitch as Mukhtar and Sapong. Instead, Leal largely operates in between Nashville’s lines as a connector between the deep-lying midfield pair and the forwards up top.
On Sunday, trailing by a goal and needing an offensive spark, Smith replaced Sean Davis with Loba, pushing the Coyotes’ formation into the 3-4-3 that Smith experimented with in the build-up to this season.
It was an absolutely fascinating substitution. Not only did Smith adjust the formation by introducing another attacker, but he also dropped Leal into the holding midfield role next to Dax McCarty. From a deeper position, Leal operated as a regista connecting the defense and the attacking trio operating ahead of him.
Ahead of Leal, the Loba-Mukhtar-Sapong trio flashed moments of brilliance, although they weren’t always quite on the same page.
Here, Loba’s deadly turn gives him acres of space and an advanced platform to run at Philadelphia’s disorganized backline. As pointed out, Sapong could have dragged his defender out wide to give Mukhtar enough space to control Loba’s pass. It’s a great example of needing to adjust the spacing when attacking with three forwards versus a two-man counterattack.
Part of the issue is just that these three have not been on the field together at the same time.
Here, Loba plays the correct pass but puts a bit too much pace on the ball for Mukhtar.
Another dangerous moment came when Loba received a slipped-in through ball from Mukhtar that resulted in a side netting shot. There are two things here to note below.
First, Loba needs to understand where Sapong is running and play the square ball for the tap-in goal.
Second, the linesman flagged Loba offside after the play concluded. It is an example of that millisecond of better understanding that Mukhtar and Loba need to develop together.
The chemistry will develop over time. But it was absolutely fascinating to see an extended run of Nashville’s most talented forwards on the field together.
GEODIS Park holds in noise like a true soccer stadium
Sunday was my first opportunity to step into GEODIS Park. Living in Knoxville means I miss out on almost all of the mid-week media and season ticket holder events. Everyone who went to the open practice raved about how well the stadium holds in noise. They were not exaggerating.
I have been to a lot of different sports stadiums in my life. NFL, college football, MLS, MLB, NBA, college basketball, and so on. Pound for pound, GEODIS Park is the loudest venue I have ever been to.
This is not some homer opinion. GEODIS Park’s architecture is designed, top to bottom, to hold in every decibel of crowd noise possible. It is a compact stadium design that puts fans right on top of the action and keeps crowd noise trapped within its confines.
I entered GEODIS Park on the heels of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to England. Just one week ago, I experienced Old Trafford, one of the most iconic venues in world football, firsthand as Cristiano Ronaldo notched a hat trick to score a victory for Manchester United. Two days later, I visited Coventry Building Society Arena, home to EFL Championship side Coventry City. The Sky Blues were chasing the playoffs in front of their largest crowd since the pandemic began.
Those stadiums were loud. GEODIS Park was louder.
Maybe the first-match energy contributed, but the way the stadium holds in noise immediately smacks you as soon as you step out from the concourses into the seating area. GEODIS Park just sounds different and louder than any sports venue I have ever been to.
It is not yet perfect, but it is home
The GEODIS Park opening was by no means perfect. There are issues that desperately need to be addressed from parking, neighborhood train traffic, concourse flow, concession stand sourcing, ingress/egress, and a million other little things that will take time and concerted effort by the club to address. Yet, the first match still felt perfect.
Those little things matter. But on the first matchday, they absolutely took a back seat to the context of the occasion. Nashville SC, their staff, players, and most importantly the supporters now have a permanent place to call home.
This day does not happen without the tireless work and sacrifice of so many grassroots supporters of this club. As a non-Nashvillian, I will probably never fully understand the contributions that each person made to steer Nashville SC from point A to point Z. I will eagerly await the day that Clay Trainum writes the book that details that history. But it is impossible to not be amazed at how quickly this club progressed from a small supporter-owned team to an MLS contender with a shiny new castle on a hill.
Throughout the club’s first decade, Nashville could have been nicknamed the Rovers as they bounced around from stadium to stadium where it was always playing second fiddle to the primary tenant. Rovers no more, Nashville SC now has a place of their own.
While it is perfectly acceptable to request and demand the front office and ownership make changes for a better fan experience, do not lose sight of the larger joy that should accompany the opening of GEODIS Park. It is by no means perfect, but it is our home.