In 16 days, Nashville SC will kick off their 2023 campaign. And for the first time in club history, it’s a season that’s set to simply be normal.
Nashville SC’s entire existence has been filled with firsts. Since beginning play as a professional club in 2018, each year has had a unique selling point to build excitement and draw attention to the team, a team still competing for real estate in a crowded sports market.
For all their on-field success (and it bears repeating that Nashville have been a historically successful expansion team), their play on the field hasn’t been the only, or even the primary, attraction. They’ve put together a strong three seasons, but they’ve always had another carrot to dangle in front of potential fans, to draw in the curious but not convinced.
Even at the USL level, Nashville could count on off-field excitement to draw fans in. 2018 was the first year as a professional club after years as a fan-owned amateur side. 2019 was the last season in USL, giving fans a chance to watch two players already signed to MLS contracts while the rest of the squad fought to earn their place at the highest level of soccer in the United States.
2020’s selling point was simply the newness of an MLS franchise. Despite low expectations for Nashville’s expansion roster, the sheer excitement of top-flight soccer in Tennessee was enough to draw 59,069 fans to Nissan Stadium for the club’s inaugural MLS match.
It was short-lived, with the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down the season just two weeks later. Several months later, fans were allowed to return to Nissan in limited numbers, and despite a postseason run to the Eastern Conference semifinals, Covid significantly limited Nashville’s off-field growth.
2021 brought the excitement of a playoff team and a season finally (mostly) free from the restrictions of Covid-19. For many fans, it was the first chance to watch Nashville in person after Covid kept them away in the expansion season. Despite opening the season to restricted capacity crowds, Nashville averaged 19,732 fans a game en route to another playoff appearance and another trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
2022 saw Nashville SC finally open a home of their own. After eight matches on the road to start the year, the Coyotes opened Geodis Park on May 1, 2022 in front of a capacity crowd of 30,109. Fans flocked to the new venue all season, eager to check out the latest thing in an “it city” with ever increasing options for entertainment.
Despite a rocky home record, winning just six of their 17 matches at Geodis Park, the new stadium averaged 27,485 fans per match, the fourth-highest in the league.
2023 is another first for Nashville. For the first time, the team on the field is the main attraction. Sure, newcomers will still check out Geodis Park for the first time. And the team on the field has drawn in fans before. But in 2023 more than any other season, Nashville’s team has to carry the load. There’s not another first on the horizon to bank on.
Hany Mukhtar will look to defend his title as league MVP. Walker Zimmerman remains arguably the best defender in MLS, fresh off a starring role for the United States at the FIFA World Cup. The core of the team is still intact. But competing in an Eastern Conference that has seen plenty of teams take big swings in the offseason, Nashville are banking on a largely unchanged team, a team that is getting older, to not just maintain their form, but take a step forward. It’s a big ask. It’s the type of challenge they’ve risen to meet before, but it’s still a big challenge for what is essentially the same roster that played last year.
In past years, off-field topics have dominated fan discourse in the offseason, at times overshadowing the discussion of the actual team. Whether it’s the excitement of simply having top-tier soccer in their backyard, being able to go to Nissan Stadium without fear of Covid, or finally opening their own stadium, there’s always been a foundational milestone to look forward to. But now the foundation is in place.
Heading into 2023, Nashville’s roster construction has seen more focused attention from fans. With infrastructure and foundations already in place, fans are no longer just happy to be here. They’re demanding the club’s promised ambition to be reflected in their roster. This isn’t an anomaly; it’s a taste of reality. Without significant off-field milestones in the near future, the focus and the pressure is rightfully on the actual team. Results matter more than ever.
For the first time in club history, Nashville are entering a typical regular season. They’re fully in the trenches of everyday life in MLS. Success won’t be measured by comparison to other expansion teams, attendance or a new stadium. The results on the field are the sole measuring stick of success. Nashville’s performance will be what brings new fans in the gates, drives attendance, and continues to carve out a slice of real estate in a crowded and competitive sports market.
In a lot of ways, it’s the first taste of real life in Major League Soccer.