By John Nekrasov.
Soccer is growing in Music City. Nearly 60,000 fans packed Nissan Stadium for Nashville SCs inaugural game, the city has plans for a new soccer-specific stadium that will become the biggest in the USA, and amateur side Nashville United even played their way into this years U.S. Open Cup before COVID-19 got in the way.
But 23 years ago, Nashville was hardly a soccer town. In fact, the only presence even close to a professional team was the Nashville Metros, an amateur/semi-professional team dividing their time between various national indoor and outdoor leagues. Today`s reality was just a dream. An empty field and a dream.
When Bulgarian defender Kalin Bankov stepped out of the car and looked around Ezell Park, he thought it was all a joke. A professional soccer player with international caps for his country and years of experience for the largest clubs in Bulgaria, he had been promised a place in an exciting new American project with a brand-new stadium when he signed for the Nashville Metros in 1998.
Metros Coach Greg Petersen had just driven him to the site of the purported stadium, the mark of new owner Steven Parkers determination to transform the Metros into a fully professional enterprise. Only it wasn’t a stadium; it was a field of withering, yellow grass next to a prison.
“When I arrived and Greg Petersen took me to the field where we would play, I told him, `Dude, you take me back to the car and take me back to the airport – I am going back to Bulgaria,” Bankov said in a video interview.
But as the field quickly came together under Parkers oversight and plans were drawn up for a new permanent soccer stadium, Bankov saw the vision for something new and exciting and he stayed.
Though finances brought the Metros project to a crashing halt, the story of their 1998 Open Cup run (the first in Nashvilles history) is in many ways the story of Parkers Metros: exciting, historic and short-lived. In fact, when the Metros defeated the Kansas City Wizards to extend their Open Cup run in front of a small Nashville crowd, it was not just the citys first competitive win against an MLS side it landed Nashville in the Open Cup quarterfinals for the first and only time so far in the citys history.
The story of that cup run and the sad demise of the Metros began, incidentally, with a game against another Wizards team: the Delaware Wizards. Parker, a businessman who had made his money in the healthcare industry, took over the Metros from their previous owners a year earlier, who ran the team as a semi-professional team playing a mixture of indoor and outdoor soccer.
Parker had a vision for something more. When he decided to buy the team in 1997, he began working with his new coach, Petersen, to build a team from the ground up for the A-League (Americas second division at the time).
That (the new beginning is) one of the beauties and the challenges of that environment, Petersen said in a Zoom interview. You come into a place, I think of even the new MLS team, theyre brand new and they have to start from scratch… I had to take the roster and the budget and maximize it.
As Petersen put a team together packed full of international talent, the Metros soon began to find their groove, placing second in their division in the 1997 season and reaching the divisional semifinals of the A-League. At that time, MLS was relatively new (founded in 1993), and John Smith, an English forward and one of the key players within the team, believes that reality gave the Metros a chance at finding more experienced players at a bargain.
You saw a lot of talented players forgoing the opportunity to play in the MLS and actually playing in the A-League because you could make a good living, Smith said in a virtual interview.
It showed on the pitch. When the Delaware Wizards, a Developmental 3 league team (essentially a third-division league at the time) arrived in Nashville June 24, 1998, for the Metros Open Cup debut, Petersens players were ready. Forward Chris McDonald spoke to The Tennessean before the game.
This gives us a chance to step out of the A-League and show what we can do, McDonald said. We will not be overconfident or (look) past this game because we want to get a chance to play at the next level. Theres too much at stake.
They made good on their word, thumping seven goals past the Wizards in a rousing 7-1 win that cemented their place in the next round of the Open Cup. Aged 32 and with experience in European competition, Bankov chipped in with two goals, finding himself quickly settling into his role as the elder statesman in a young team.
I felt like I was the father of that team, Bankov said.
With the expertise of players like Bankov and Dutch forward Martin Reynders (signed from FC Zwolle in the Netherlands), the team believed they had a side balanced enough to make a deep run in the tournament. However, their next opponents, the Kansas City Wizards (todays Sporting Kansas City) would prove a sterner challenge.
With well-known players like Mo Johnston and Preki on the Wizards roster who had played for teams like Celtic and Everton, the stage was set for a July 8 showdown at the Metros home field at Columbia/HCA Park (renamed thanks to a sponsorship deal Parker had negotiated). The stakes? A place in the Open Cup quarterfinals and a spot in the Nashville record books.
When the Wizards arrived at Columbia/HCA Park that day, however, Smith recalls their frustration with the state of the pitch a pitch that the Metros players themselves had laid because the team could not afford to hire extra workers. Though it was a small field that could host only a few thousand fans, it had come a long way from the yellow grass behind a prison that Bankov had first seen and Parker had done his best to make Metros games at Ezell Park a community experience, connecting with the city for $300,000 worth of lighting and working with entertainers to engage the Nashville crowds that showed up.
Pregame each one of the players upon introduction would throw a miniature soccer ball, and at the end of the game, they would sign it for you, Parker said. The players would stay out on the field after the game, win or lose, and greet our fans. It was a very interactive (set-up).
With a small but dedicated Nashville crowd cheering his players on, Petersen had confidence his players would be up to the task. But on the night, as The Tennessean reported, Kansas City needed only 24 minutes to take the lead, with Paul Rideout converting to put the visitors ahead. Nashville needed a response.
We had a team who could hold their own, and against Kansas City I dont think we had any fear going in there. I think the first 10, 20 minutes going into that match the boys were a little nervous, but once they calmed down, we were in control of that game, Petersen said.
As the Metros found their rhythm, the Wizards started to feel the pressure. McDonald equalized in the 62nd minute, and 17 minutes later Reynders gave Nashville the lead with a scrappy finish from a corner, sending the fans into raptures.
When Smith blasted in one last goal in the 89th minute after a rapid counterattack, the game was all but over and the Metros had taken the scalp of an MLS side for the first time in history.
It was an exciting game, Smith said. You had Mo Johnston, you had Preki, and those guys were frustrated because of how the game was panning out. It was fun, but nobody could walk off the field and say the better team lost. We were the better team that day and deserved the win.
For Brentwood local Steve Klein, a 23-year-old midfielder at the time who had come home from the New England Revolution to play for the Metros, watching the team succeed was a dream come true.
“That’s why I was excited to come back and play in Nashville, Klein said in a phone interview. I enjoyed seeing it come from amateur to pro.”
The Metros had earned a place in the quarterfinals, but their next opponents would bring them crashing back to earth.
Up next was the Dallas Burn (the predecessor of todays FC Dallas). Petersen remembers Nashvilles confidence traveling to that July 22 quarterfinal in the Cotton Bowl but the Burn would prove too much for the Metros.
The first 20, 30 minutes of that game we could have been ahead by a couple of goals. I think we caught them off guard with the way we played football, Petersen said. But we didnt convert.
The score was 1-0 for Dallas at halftime, but four goals later, the Metros knew they were well-beaten. As The Tennessean reported, they flew home to Nashville 5-1 losers, unable to handle the Dallas Burn or the 100-degree temperatures.
Nashvilles adventure in the Open Cup was over and two months later they crashed out of the first round of the A-League playoffs in a penalty shootout. Sadly, the teams playoff collapse foreshadowed their sudden demise before the 1999 season could even begin.
Much of the teams success in growing its profile had come thanks to sponsorships worked out with companies like Columbia/HCA that Parker had negotiated through his healthcare contacts, and that Columbia/HCA sponsorship was key to Parkers stadium plans. But simultaneous with the teams success was another narrative taking place within Columbia/HCA that would permanently derail Parkers ambitions.
As USA Today reported in 2002, the company had been embroiled in lawsuits and corruption investigations since 1993, and when its sponsorship deal with the Metros fell through, Parker did not believe he could sustain the team as a financially viable organization, he said. For Parker, the stadium was key to the teams future, and without that sponsorship money, he quickly pulled out of the teams ownership in 1999, selling his shares back to the previous owners.
Just as quickly as the Metros had come together, they had fallen apart and players and coach alike were left in the lurch. Bankov found himself in a new country with no job, very little knowledge of English, and a family to provide for and only a contract offer from the Minnesota Thunder saved him from having to pack up his bags and return to Bulgaria.
I was in shock, Bankov said.
Petersens group of players dispersed after that fateful year, moving on to various teams and coaching opportunities as the years went by. Petersen currently works in scouting, Smith coaches at Cornell, and after a stint in the MLS, Bankov eventually came to collaborate with teammate Steve Klein at Pennsylvania Classics, a youth program that discovered one Christian Pulisic.
But the Metros themselves lived on in various forms until 2013, when the organization finally came to an end. Professional soccer was over in Nashville but it would return.
Today, the field that Bankov arrived at has become a few soccer fields managed by the city. The Metros have become a largely forgotten chapter in Nashville history. But for the players who made Parkers dream a brief reality, that field serves as a reminder of the memories they made with the Metros, and of the Open Cup run that lives on in their memories.
Soccer in Nashville looks very different 22 years later, but though many of them never expected Nashville to turn into the soccer city it is becoming, Smith saw it coming.
Nashville felt like a home. You could feel something was happening, Smith said. And thats why we were all so surprised and devastated when it stopped. Because it was obvious something had begun in that town, and the people wanted soccer to be in the city. Obviously the city has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and theres been an influx of people from all over here. Its become a melting pot, really. But I think the seeds of this had begun some 20 years ago its not surprising to me at all.
Special thanks to Clay Trainum, whose research for Nashville Soccer Archive proved invaluable and who also graciously provided all the Tennessean clippings for this story.