I’ve been writing for World Soccer Talk since May, 2014. As you may know, I mainly handle match previews of US Men’s National Team games, but I also write stories about attendances and TV ratings. This past Tuesday, I was afforded the opportunity of being able to go to Nashville to cover the USA-Mexico game in person for World Soccer Talk. It was a fantastic experience and I certainly hope to be able to do it again in the future.
Here’s a not so brief rundown of the sights and sounds of being on the ground to cover the match.
Several weeks ago I was able to drive up to Nashville to cover the press conference that US Soccer was having to promote this USA-Mexico game. The speakers were USMNT coach Dave Sarachan and the Mayor of Nashville, David Briley. They each said their bit and then opened the floor up for questions. Aside from myself, the only media members there were a local radio guy, a local TV station reporter, an Associated Press reporter and a presenter for Univision. Also present were three or four front office guys from Nashville’s USL team.
I got the opportunity to ask Sarachan a very direct question about Michael Bradley’s inclusion in the team going forward, and was pleasantly surprised to get a very direct answer to that question. After the official press conference was over, Sarachan pulled me aside to confirm that Christian Pulisic would be part of the roster for the two September friendlies (though he was later ruled out with injury). One thing that struck me about Sarachan is that he’s very personable and easy to talk to. We stood there for 15 or 20 minutes just chatting about a variety of things like the 2019 Gold Cup and reminiscing about how miserably hot it was at the Gold Cup in Nashville in 2017. By the time we left, it felt like we’d known each other for 20 years. I don’t know if he would be the right guy for the full-time position of US coach, but as a person, he’s first class.
On matchday, I arrived in the media parking lot at Nissan Stadium at around 3:15PM. Even though the game wasn’t scheduled to start until five hours later, there already were 2,500 to 3,000 Mexican fans in the parking lot tailgating and having a good time — for a friendly.
I wasn’t able to pick up my press pass for the game until 5PM, so I decided to walk across a pedestrian bridge from the stadium into downtown Nashville. After grabbing a bite to eat and drink, it was getting close to 4PM. By this time, a good number of fans were making their way up and down Broadway. And as tends to happen with US and Mexico fans, there were dueling chants all the way up and down the street of, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” or “ME-XI-CO! ME-XI-CO! ME-XI-CO!” It was loud and boisterous but all in good fun.
As I was walking back across the pedestrian bridge, a group of three kids that looked to be about 18 or 19 asked me if I could take their picture. I set my notebook and what remained of my milkshake on a bench and snapped two or three pics for them.
As I handed the phone back to them and went to pick my stuff up, I found a guy standing on the arm of the bench like he was surfing and had four or five people filming him with their phones. As it turns out, the guy was former USMNT player Jimmy Conrad (who scored his only goal for the US against Mexico in 2007). I introduced myself and we talked as we walked the rest of the way to the other side of the bridge before I had to leave to go stand in line to pick up my credential at media will call.
By the time I got my pass, the revelry was really starting to pick up. I began walking around to try to find the American Outlaws tailgate, but never made it (turns out they were roughly a mile away and I didn’t feel like walking that far). At this point, there were probably 9,000 or 10,000 Mexico fans in the parking lot, and let me tell you something. Mexico fans go hard when it comes to tailgating.
Nashville is a big time college football town. It’s home to Vanderbilt of the SEC. The annual Music City Bowl is played there every December and a number of fans of a variety of college football teams live in the area. In fact, during the press conference that I talked about earlier, Sarachan compared the USA/Mexico rivalry to the Tennessee/Alabama football rivalry. I say all of this because college football fans (and especially SEC fans) like to pride themselves on how awesome their tailgating experiences are. I would put the Mexico fans up against any of them. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and I’ve been to my fair share of college football games. One group even had a huge fire pit with a spit that they were roasting several chickens on. There were bands of all sorts: one or two rock band type setups, an actual marching band complete with tubas, trombones and trumpets, and of course a mariachi band. A number of people had tents set up and each tent had its own DJ, complete with multiple speakers blasting out what I assume was Mexican rap music. And while at most football games you see kids throwing a football, just about every kid under the age of 12 was kicking a soccer ball.
I happened upon a tent that said Memphis Tigers on it (I live in the Memphis area) so I stopped in to say hello and introduce myself. It was a divided group: Several folks wore USA and several folks were wearing Mexico. It turns out they were from Jackson, Tennessee (located on I-40 between Memphis and Nashville). I asked them about several things but the thing that stood out to me the most was this: When I asked about their thoughts on the rivalry, one guy said, “It’s a big rivalry for sure and it’s great when it’s super intense out on the field, but it doesn’t have to be that way between the fans. I mean, look at us in this tent. It’s half and half. We’re throwing down and having a great time but it’s not ugly or violent. Just people enjoying themselves.”
At about that time, a full tent of all US fans a few rows over caught my eye, so I bid goodbye to the folks from Jackson and headed that way. I was welcomed with open arms. This crew was from Nashville and they were fantastic. We talked about a variety of things ranging from youth soccer tournaments (I referee a bunch of them and so did one of the guys, so we traded war stories and agreed that the parents at youth games are the absolute worst), to the most recent USA appearance in Nashville (they did not get to make it to the Gold Cup last year, but were glad they hadn’t when they heard how hot it was and how boring the game was) to the players we wanted to see that night (Tim Weah was the favorite amongst those in the tent), to who should be the next US coach (everybody would love Tata Martino, but they all also think it’s going to be Gregg Berhalter.
Somebody said they were worried that they might just give it to Sarachan full-time, but that was rebutted by another person saying that he would be a good hire to coach the U-23 team). The thing that everybody agreed on was the ticket prices were obscenely high for a Tuesday night friendly, which led my referee compatriot to say, “Mexico and us have both gotten a lot of crowds over 40,000 people here so you would think that against each other we could sell the place out but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen because people don’t want to spend $100 for a friendly on a weeknight to watch a team that didn’t go to the World Cup.” Somebody else in the tent floated the idea that maybe sales were low because neither team had a lot of their big names, which led to spirited debate that I was able to extricate myself from.
As I started to make my way to the media entrance, I was walking through the fan zone at the south end of the stadium and several things caught my eye. First was a Tennessee Soccer Association setup that included several tents and a goal for kids to shoot at. And second was an official US Soccer tent with the US Open Cup trophy in it (the line to get a picture was about 50 people deep so I kept walking). As I got close to the media entrance, I was flagged down by a family supporting Mexico, asking me for directions on which gate they needed to go in (they must have seen the pass hanging from around my neck and thought I was a stadium employee). Luckily it was simply what gate they needed to go in, so I told them which way to go and we chatted for a few minutes. It turns out that this family (husband, wife, three boys and one girl) was from Huntsville, Alabama and they got their tickets as soon as they went on sale. I asked them how much they paid and the man said about $100 apiece but that it was worth it because this would probably be the best chance for them to see Mexico play in person. We talked for a few more minutes before I had to go and head to the media entrance.
I got into the press box at about 6:15PM. There was assigned seating. There were two rows of seats in the press box and each row had probably 50 or 60 seats on it. On the wall before you turned the corner, there was a list of assigned seats which was in alphabetical order by outlet. The exception to that rule seemed to be the big guns (some on Twitter call them the good ol’ boys): the usual suspects in the US Soccer media like Jeff Carlisle, Ives Galarcep, Steven Goff, Kevin Baxter and Paul Kennedy. They all had their own little corner at the front of the press box. Given that World Soccer Talk is towards the end of the alphabet, I was on the back row towards the end, but it was right next to the media lounge where food and beverages could be found, so I was a happy camper.
To my immediate left was the presenter from Univision who was at the press conference in August (we recognized each other and chatted briefly). And to my immediate right was Zander Faidley of the Meet Me in the Middle Podcast. We talked at length about a variety of US Soccer topics but the big one was the search for a new coach. Neither one of us is particularly pleased with how long the search is taking, and we are both of the opinion that US Soccer and Earnie Stewart aren’t fooling anybody with the straight lines they’ve been feeding the public. He even said, “They said they’ll make the hire by December or as soon as November. It’s not hard to figure out that’s when the Crew’s season will be over and they’ll make Berhalter the coach.” He took the words right out of my mouth.
Walking around a little, it kind of felt surreal to an extent. I’ve followed a lot of these guys on Twitter and read their stuff or watched them on TV for a long time and there I was rubbing elbows with them. But when I was on the way to the bathroom, I happened to bump into Fernando Fiore. I wasn’t sure it was him at first, but then I saw the FOX Sports World Cup jacket. He’s a nice guy and seemed to be diligently taking notes during the game and asking good questions at the press conference after the game but the thing I noticed was that it’s amazing how different he is in person than he is when FOX Sports is making him play a cartoon character on TV.
As kickoff approached, just about everybody was in their seats (I guess it’s hard to be late for a game that kicks off at 8:15PM). What I did notice was that while most of the lower bowl was full, most of the club level seats and upper bowl seats across from the press box were empty (and I later discovered as I was walking the concourse at halftime that all of the club level seats and upper bowl seats above the press box were closed off).
Once the game got started, most of the mindless chatter in the press box died away and the focus changed to the field. One thing that the staff at Nissan Stadium did that I thought was nice was they turned all of the TVs on to the ESPN broadcast. The broadcast was about two minutes behind what was actually happening, so it gave everybody an opportunity to see it happen live and then check the TV to see if they missed something.
At halftime, just about everybody agreed how dull and quite frankly boring the game was. Just before the second half started, somebody sent word that the reason Weston McKennie had been subbed out early was because of a left knee injury and everybody rushed to post it to Twitter. Once the game picked up in the second half (right around the time of the Matt Miazga/Diego Lainez dust up), the press box became much more lively. Not in a cheering or homerish kind of way but in a “Thank God something finally happened in this game” kind of way. When Angel Zaldiver was sent off for serious foul play, there wasn’t a soul in the press box who disagreed with it. When the US scored their goal a few minutes later, the American Outlaws section behind the goal erupted. But aside from one or two people briefly clapping, there was hardly any reaction in the press box.
Once the final whistle sounded, everybody immediately started packing up to try to get down to the post-game press conference.
After I got all of my stuff packed up, I realized I had no idea where the post-game press conference was going to be so I waited until I could just follow somebody who knew where they were going. Zander Faidley next to me had the same philosophy so we waited a few extra minutes before following the herd. As we were walking down the hall towards the elevators, a door opened and I ran right into the guy who came out. It turned out to be none other than Taylor Twellman, who I guess was making a quick bathroom trip while ESPN was on commercial break. Neither one of us had much to say other than, “Whoops, sorry” before we both just kept walking.
We all got seated in the media room in the bowels of the stadium and waited a few minutes for Sarachan to take the stage. He did eventually come in and there were a few questions from the regulars (who as it turns out didn’t even have to raise their hand to ask a question. The media liaison for US Soccer just told them to ask a question and the volunteers in the room brought them a microphone.) While I was looking around at the folks asking questions, I saw US Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro and USMNT GM Earnie Stewart tucked away in the back corner of the room behind the cameras, neither one of them even looking up from their phones (they both got away as soon as the press conference was over and I did not have an opportunity to ask them some of the tough questions I wanted to). I did eventually get my chance to ask a question of Sarachan, and I asked him how big of a deal was it for the program as a whole that a young, inexperienced US team had beaten a young, inexperienced Mexico team. This time, I was not so lucky to get a direct answer. Instead, I got mainly coach-speak and before I could get a follow up question in, we were told that the press conference was over and Mexico coach Tuca Ferretti would be taking the stage shortly.
Now, the mixed zone is unique in the sports world. In soccer, media is not allowed in the locker rooms. Instead there’s the mixed zone where all of the players from both teams walk through a long hallway on the way to the team bus and take questions from any of the dozens of assembled media members. Naturally, just about everybody wanted to talk to Tyler Adams who scored the only goal of the game, but I did get a chance to grab Shaq Moore and ask him a few questions. The best response I got was to the question I asked about how seriously these young guys are taking these friendlies. He said, “Yeah, we’re really taking these seriously because even though they’re just friendlies, we want to have that winning mentality where we can go out and compete with anybody. Obviously against Mexico it’s never just a friendly so to go out and beat them tonight is really good.” Two things struck me with that: A) the fact that these young guys want to go out and get wins even in friendlies suggests a mentality that could prove to be a huge boon going forward and B) when he said it was never just a friendly against Mexico, it echoed what a lot of the other players were saying in the mixed zone. However, none of them seemed to have their hearts in that response and it almost sounded scripted, like they’d been told to say it. But anyway, once Moore left the last player in the mixed zone was Matt Miazga who has become something of a hero and a villain within the soccer Twitterverse for his dust up with Diego Lainez. What I’ll say is that standing right next to him, he is 100% a giant. He towered over everybody in the mixed zone.
One more thing about the mixed zone, and that is as we were all leaving, one of the Mexican media members came up to Jeff Carlisle and said that Tuca Ferretti didn’t think Angel Zaldiver should have been shown a red card because it’s just a friendly. Sensing an opportunity to dispense some refereeing wisdom, I immediately jumped in and said that it was 100% a red card for serious foul play because it was a studs up challenge that endangered the safety of an opponent (which is exactly I would have had to write it up in a misconduct report) and it didn’t matter that it was a friendly because the laws of the game are the laws of the game and cannot be selectively applied from game to game. Everybody there just kind of turned and looked at me like I was from Mars.
And with that, I walked out the door, went to the media lot, got in my car and proceeded to drive home. I didn’t get home until 2:30AM.
Thoughts on Nashville
One final thing I want to leave you with is an impression of Nashville as a soccer town. Just about everybody I interacted with on Tuesday was of the opinion that Nashville should, and will, be a host city for the 2026 World Cup. Since I talked to a variety of people, there were a variety of reason as to why they all thought it can or should happen. The folks in the Memphis Tigers tent from Jackson, TN said that Nashville is a just a short drive from a number of places (Memphis, Birmingham and Louisville were all used as examples). The guys from Nashville who welcomed me into their tent pointed out the great soccer crowds in the last few years, as well as the success of Nashville’s USL crowds (they regularly sell out First Tennessee Park). The reporter from the Associated Press at the press conference in August brought up that Broadway just across the river in downtown Nashville as one of the best party spots in the country and a great place for pre-game and post-game festivities.
Personally, I think Nissan Stadium is a fantastic venue for soccer. It’s a great location and has a grass playing surface. It’s also wide enough to accommodate a full size soccer field. And, of course, everybody is of the opinion that it would be a great spot for World Cup games because they would all get a chance to go.
Speaking of the great soccer crowds over the past few years, let’s take a look at those real quick:
2015 – USA vs. Guatemala – 44,835
2016 – Mexico vs. New Zealand – 40,287
2017 – USA vs. Panama – 47,622
2017 – Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur – 56,232
2018 – USA vs. Mexico – 40,194
All of these are attendances of games played in Nashville.
Combine that with the fact that the USL franchise is selling out a number of their games, Nashville is a solid location that is easy to get to from a wide range of cities.
I truly believe that Nashville can and should be a host for the 2026 World Cup. And on nights like Tuesday, where it’s a friendly on a weeknight, that draw over 40,000 people really help make that case. I loved being a part of it. It was a blast and I certainly hope to be able to do more of it in the future. And who knows? The Gold Cup is going back to Nashville in 2019, so maybe then.