NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The energy inside GEODIS Park was surreal as a sellout crowd of more than 30,000 Nashville SC fans got to witness the unveiling of the sparkling new stadium in a 1-1 draw against the Philadelphia Union on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
A tremendous sense of pride filled the atmosphere as thunderous "S-C" chants echoed throughout the largest soccer-specific stadium in the United States. Singer and songwriter Tommy Shaw of Styx kicked off the festivities, with his prematch guitar riff sending the fans into a frenzy.
The Music City has quickly embraced Nashville SC since the team joined the NFL's Tennessee Titans and NHL's Nashville Predators as its third major professional team in 2020. Games were initially played at Nissan Stadium, home of the Titans, with the first home match drawing 59,069 fans, setting a mark for the highest-attended soccer event in Tennessee.
It was during that inaugural season in 2020 that Nashville SC last endured a home loss. It then went unbeaten at home during the 2021 campaign -- becoming the seventh team in Major League Soccer history to achieve that feat -- and reached the playoffs in both seasons. However, the journey to Sunday's unveiling of GEODIS Park -- dubbed by some fans as "the Castle" -- was a long, arduous process.
MLS announced Nashville as an expansion team in 2016, but the expected cost of $275 million for a proposed stadium later increased to $345m. Despite challenges and roadblocks raised by the coronavirus pandemic, the stadium construction on a 10-acre site that was formerly the Nashville Fairgrounds continued to press forward. Demolition of the city-owned site began in March 2020.
"For any team, whether it's in soccer or other sport, the stadium is the spiritual home," Nashville SC chief executive officer Ian Ayre said. "If you're renting, it's not the same as owning, right? Of all the infrastructure and the parts we build, it's the most important."
Now in its third season, the club has gained enough traction in Nashville to warrant investment from local celebrities. Last week, Titans star running back Derrick Henry joined Nashville native Reese Witherspoon and technology investor Jim Toth as minority owners.
Amid all the pregame festivities, there was still a game to be played. Nashville SC was looking to extend its home unbeaten streak to 20 matches -- dating back to Nov. 20, 2020, the longest such streak in MLS. After being the more aggressive team in the first half, the hosts fell behind as Union forward Mikkel Uhre etched his name as the first goal scorer at GEODIS Park. But Philadelphia's goal merely added more fuel to the crowd that was waiting to erupt at the sight of a score by the home team. Nashville fans got their wish when midfielder Randall Leal slipped a penalty past Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, fulfilling a prophecy his father made before the game.
Leal sprinted to the corner and waved his hands as the fans went wild. "I scored and just ran to the fans," Leal said. "To be the first one to score and see the reaction from the fans, it was unbelievable."
Nashville SC coach Gary Smith called the crowd "magnificent," adding that the players felt the energy from the moment they walked onto the field for warm-ups. "The expectation and excitement that surrounded this opening game was huge," he said after the match. "To think that the players didn't feel that would be inhuman. The atmosphere was terrific."
Nashville had a couple more chances to net a second goal, but the game finished 1-1, with exhausted players collapsing on the pitch as the final whistle blew.
"It was an amazing atmosphere, you know? I think the guys, they came out and were ready," said Blake, who made a series of spectacular saves for Philadelphia. "We spoke about being calm and being confident before the game, and I think we did that."
And while players don't typically stay on the field after the game unless they win, the home side knew that Sunday was a different kind of moment. That's why they locked arms in front of the fans and sang the team's anthem, "Never Give Up On You" by local band Judah & the Lion.
"We put together a terrific run at the Titans [Nissan Stadium]," Smith said. "We've got to work to where we form that all over again here [at Geodis Park]. We always knew the fans would give us that extra boost. When you see just what it was like out there, I think there's a fabulous opportunity to try and harness that as a group. We've taken every first step in this arena and hopefully will make it just a successful period as we had at the Titans."
Nashville SC has now spent 544 days since last losing at home and just over two years since joining the league, Nashville SC are right at home at their new castle for the first of what fans hope will be the site of many more fantastic memories to come.
"To have our own home is vitally important," Smith said. "This venue now will be the place over the coming years and decades that fathers and sons will come to and look back on and say, 'Do you remember?'"