Nashville-Atlanta, Portland-Philadelphia highlight weekend matches

Nashville-Atlanta, Portland-Philadelphia highlight weekend matches

Published May. 20, 2022 4:56 p.m. ET

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

Editor's Note: MLS Footnotes takes you inside the major talking points around the league and across American soccer.

The Nashville SC-Atlanta United rivalry is barely two years old, but it’s real.

Separated by fewer than 250 miles, Atlanta is Nashville’s closet geographic foe in MLS. (Nashville was Atlanta’s until expansion Charlotte FC arrived this season.) The teams don’t like each other. Neither do the fans. It’s been that way since the beginning.


"They came up on our very first match in MLS and got the win, and they beat us," said Nashville captain and Georgia native Walker Zimmerman, who scored the Music City club’s first MLS goal in that 2-1, debut loss in front of almost 60,000 people in early 2020. "Pretty much every game since then has been very close. I think just the games themselves have created the rivalry."

Walker Zimmerman on Nashville SC and USMNT

Walker Zimmerman talks with Doug McIntyre about Nashville SC, the chemistry on the USMNT and much more.

The next meeting between the sides comes Saturday, when Nashville hosts Atlanta at sparkling new Geodis Park (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX/FOX Deportes/FOX Sports app). The visitors will be looking for revenge after falling in the most recent matchup, a 3-2 loss in U.S. Open Cup play earlier this month. Meantime, Nashville will try to extend their unbeaten run at home to 24 games.

That gaudy streak speaks to Nashville’s quality since ascending to MLS from the second tier. The inaugural match defeat is one of just two losses in Nashville ever. The club made the playoffs in each of its first two seasons and is positioned to again despite moving from the Eastern Conference to the West this year to accommodate Charlotte’s entry.

Nashville SC are relevant locally. They boast a rabid fanbase and the largest soccer-specific stadium in America. Their hiring has been exceptional, from former Liverpool CEO Ian Ayre to coach Gary Smith, a former MLS Cup winner in Colorado, to Zimmerman and fellow designated player and 2021 MVP finalist Hany Mukhtar. Yet Nashville don’t seem to get the same respect as other recent expansion success stories such as Atlanta and LAFC.

Zimmerman notes a key difference. "We haven’t won silverware yet, and those teams have," he said. "That’s what it comes down to. So that’s obviously our goal coming into this season. We knew we started off with two really good years as an expansion team. But this is year three. We’re very much established in the league, so now it’s all about silverware, and that’s what’s going to change that narrative."

No trophy is on the line against Atlanta on Saturday, of course. But for Nashville, beating their biggest rival for the second time in 11 days would still say a lot.


1. Fit to be tied

How good was the Philadelphia Union’s start to the 2022 season? So good that Jim Curtin’s team still sits atop the East despite its five-game winless streak. After going 5W-0L-2T out of the gate, Philly have now settled for four straight ties, including Wednesday’s scoreless draw at home against Miami

Things won’t get any easier for the Union on Sunday when they travel to Portland (10 p.m. ET, FS1/FOX Deportes/FOX Sports app). Providence Park is perhaps the toughest venue for visiting teams in MLS.

"We are the most frustrated first-place team in the league," Curtin said. "It speaks to the fact that the bar has been raised at the club, right? We’re not happy with ties, especially at home."

Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin on season's start

Union coach Jim Curtin tells Doug McIntyre why Philadelphia is the most frustrated first-place team in MLS and much more.

Frustration on both sides should make for an entertaining match. The Timbers, last year’s MLS Cup runner-up, are 10th in the West and coming off of a midweek loss in San Jose. They’ll be aggressive. Philadelphia are bound to get some scoring opportunities at the other end as a result.

Turning chances into goals has been hard for the Union this season. They haven’t scored more than twice in any of their first 12 games.

2. Gazdag getting it done

The one Union player to display a finishing touch this season isn’t even a forward. It’s Hungarian playmaker Daniel Gazdag, who had five goals and five assists in 26 games (including playoffs) in 2021. He has already surpassed that output this year, with six strikes and three helpers so far.

"To be honest, he probably deserves a couple more goals and a couple more assists if other guys are finishing off plays," said Curtin, adding that he considers Gazdag an early candidate for league MVP. 

"He’s having that good of a season."

3. 10 MLS players to join USMNT

Increasing the importance of this weekend’s slate of games is the fact that teams will begin to lose players to international duty at the end of the month.

The U.S. Men’s National Team will convene on May 27 in Cincinnati ahead of their June 1 World Cup tune-up against Morocco. The 27-man roster coach Gregg Berhalter named Friday features 10 MLS players, including regulars like Zimmerman, LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta, Miami’s DeAndre Yedlin, FC Dallas duo Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira and Seattle Sounders pair Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris.

Now recovered from the broken foot that sidelined him for the final three World Cup qualifying games in March, New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner is also back in the USMNT mix before leaving for Arsenal when the Premier League’s transfer window opens in July.

Montreal midfielder Djordje Mihailovic was rewarded for his brilliant start to 2022, but there was no place for veteran NYCFC keeper Sean Johnson or Turner’s New England teammate, DeJuan Jones, with Berhalter preferring former Atlanta left back George Bello instead.

The MLS players will report to USMNT camp after their games on May 28-29.

4. Youth is served

In addition to senior national teamers like Gazdag, Andre Blake (Jamaica), Olivier Mbaizo (Cameroon) and Jose Martinez (Venezuela), Philly’s roster is stocked with homegrowns who moonlight as key members of the U.S. under-20 squad. The Union could lose as many as five players when the CONCACAF U-20 Championship — which serves as the qualifying tournament for both the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics — kicks off on June 18.

Clubs aren’t required to release players to youth national teams, even for World Cups, like they are during designated dates on the senior level. Indeed, sources told FOX Sports that Seattle is poised to deny U.S. U-20 coach Mikey Varas’ request for 16-year-old Sounders prodigy Obed Vargas. Same with the Chicago Fire and their 17-year-old starting goalkeeper, Gaga Slonina, who committed to the USMNT over Poland on Friday:

But although it could cost them points in league play, Philadelphia won’t prevent their young players from getting the sort of international exposure that could lead to lucrative transfers overseas.

"We want to support our national team," Curtin said. "It’s very important that we do good not only at the World Cup, at the highest level, but also in the youth competitions, because America is starting to be looked at as a real hotbed for talent that can go anywhere in Europe and play."

5. Another Aaronson

Fellow midfielders Jack McGlynn and Quinn Sullivan have played slightly more than him this season, but Paxten Aaronson remains the headliner among the Union’s homegrowns — and not just because the 18-year-old is the younger brother of former Philly and current USMNT standout Brenden Aaronson.

"Just like [with] Brenden, it’s not uncommon at our training sessions that teams from all over Europe — and tops clubs — are coming to just watch him train," Curtin said. "They’re very high on him. If I’m doing my job, and he’s doing his job, he won’t be here much longer. So we’ll enjoy him while we have him. He’s a special young talent. Him and Brendan share a lot of the same things in that they have a love for the game, as simple as that sounds."

6. It’s official

On Thursday, a record six MLS referees, assistant refs and video match officials were chosen by FIFA to work the World Cup in Qatar later this year.

The list includes veteran center referee Ismail Elfath, assistants Kyle Atkins, Kathryn Nesbitt and Corey Parker, and VARs Drew Fischer and Armando Villarreal. Hard to believe that there were no MLS officials at a World Cup as recently as 2010.

One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.


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