A true measure of soccer’s growth can be found among the people. During my weekend in Nashville, three of my six drivers are aware of the opening of GEODIS Park. Two support Arsenal and one supports Nashville and will be attending the game against the Philadelphia Union. When I ask for the best place to watch a game on TV, all of them recommend Fleet Street Pub. So on the Saturday afternoon before Nashville’s game against the Union, I venture downtown to check out Nashville’s true soccer bar.
Printer’s Alley earned its name from the vast number of newspapers, print shops, and publishers that filled the neighborhood in the beginning of the 20th Century and has since become a hub for nightclubs and restaurants with an eclectic Northern Liberties vibe. Under Fleet Street’s alleyway tube sign, I walk down a flight of stairs into a long, narrow bar still waking up at noon. A small soccer crowd stands on the far side while patrons scatter along the bar and the high-top tables lining the opposite wall. Manchester City kicks off against Jesse Marsch’s Leeds as I sit down.
Paul, the twenty-four year old next to me, is driving his uncle from Tampa to Chicago and stops in Nashville for the day. He has to catch a flight to Minnesota Sunday afternoon, where he’d just started a new job. A goalkeeper and City fan, Paul says he was trying to get into Minnesota United after living in Chicago his entire life. He doesn’t remember when the Fire were good, and I had to tell him about the MLS Cup win in 1998, only realizing later that was the year he was born. Chances were slim that he had a poster on his wall of Marsch alongside Jim Curtin celebrating the 2003 U.S. Open Cup.
I drink two lagers, one for each half, then leave after City smashes the door open late in a 4-0 win, pushing Marsch’s relegation battle into overdrive with future matches against Arsenal and Chelsea. Before the final whistle, a woman approaches the bar next to me, slugs a couple shots, and shrugs at the score. Another Arsenal fan who’s planning on coming back the next day when the Gunners face West Ham, the busiest Fleet Street gets according to most of the fans I meet throughout the weekend.
Outside Printer’s Alley, I walk uphill to the Rep. John Lewis Parkway and turn left toward Broadway until I reach Assembly Hall, a multi-floor international bar and restaurant mall of sorts, open-air, wall-to-ceiling windows, with seating along the second through fourth levels overlooking paver walkways. Inside Assembly Hall, patrons choose from lobster mac and cheese, tacos, pizza, seafood, and cheesesteaks (though we know how that goes) among the sushi, waffle, and ice cream vendors.
Taking the advice from the Arsenal fan at Fleet, I opt for Prince’s Hot Chicken instead of the more notable Hattie B’s, waiting fifteen minutes in line to order and another twenty-five before it’s ready. When the woman behind the counter asks how hot I want my sandwich, I gaze at the meter behind her on the wall that runs from mild to extra hot to extra extra. I went with extra. “That’s made with ghost peppers, is that ok?” she asks. I say yes without hesitation.
I haven’t smelled or tasted food since getting Covid the week after the Union lost to New England in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2020. Every so often I get hints of Cholula, blue cheese, or tequila. Garlic, onions, jalapeno, and fresh ground coffee still offer nothing to my senses other than static. The first bite of Prince’s moved the needle. For a few seconds, I felt like Harry in Dumb and Dumber, telling myself it’s not so bad seconds before my mouth caught fire. The burning then raged from my lips down to my stomach. I’d be lying if it also didn’t burn on the way out the next day. For several minutes, I power through napkinless, avoiding my eyes and nose with my hands, fighting sniffles and tears just happy to experience food again. I finish the sandwich and chug the side cup of coleslaw then rinse my mouth out in the bathroom sink with handfuls of water before scrubbing the ghost pepper out of my fingers.
“Hot chicken got me, man,” I say, apologizing to the man waiting for paper towels as my nose is running and my eyes still watery. He looks at me to make sure I’m ok, then smiles. Probably isn’t the first time he’s encountered a victim of hot chicken.
Bridgestone Arena, home of the Predators, sits across the street from Assembly Hall on Broadway, arguably the best sporting venue location in North America. Throughout the weekend, many fans mention location when discussing the drawbacks of GEODIS Park, which sparks similar thoughts about Subaru Park, also limited by the only entertainment being the game itself.
Compared to downtown locations occupied by the Predators and Titans, whose Nissan Stadium is viewable across the Cumberland River, GEODIS Park cost $275 million to build on the south side of the city on the old fairgrounds in an effort to save expenses and develop a different part of the city. Nashville SC fans will soon endure the experience of driving to the game, finding parking, and leaving, routines not shared by their hockey and football counterparts.
Away from Bridgestone and Assembly Hall, I walk down Broadway toward the river, amid the street buzz and live music spilling from row of bars with a constant wave of passing open-top busses full of dancing twenty-somethings sticking beer-bottled hands over the rails. The three blocks from Bridgestone to the river are as chaotic as any I’d experienced in America. With staple bars like Tootsie’s, which has a line thirty deep, and Ole Red among the celebrity infused establishments by Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, and Jimmy Buffet, one can easily get carried away by the atmosphere.
Taking in the red brick buildings, the vibrant colors, I look up at the patrons in the second-level windows overlooking the strip, likely rooted in their spot for hours and holding court for many more. I funnel through the walkers going in both directions, pausing to consider of the places where a good crowd and catchy music blare from inside. Amid the claustrophobia, it becomes difficult to spot where the sidewalk ends and the street begins, and I trip off the curb a number of times, following the joyous shouts of a passing bus filled with a bachelorette party.
I keep walking until I reach the Hard Rock on the corner of Second and Broadway, advertising the Messi burger in the window, then turn up toward Printer’s Alley. Twenty years ago, maybe fifteen, maybe now with the right company and without parental responsibilities, I’d feel compelled to spend more time on Broadway.
Traveling up Second for two blocks, I turn on Church Street toward Fleet Street, passing the corner where in 2020 Anthony Quinn Warner detonated an RV on Christmas Day, killing himself and injuring eight people as well as damaging several buildings, none of which show evidence of destruction. My driver, one of the non-soccer fans, tells me how she refuses to pick up riders from Broadway after 5:00 on Saturdays because of the nonsense. I understand but also would enjoy being part of that nonsense if GEODIS were located near Nashville’s other stadiums.
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What does it take to grow a fanbase? Union followers know from experience it takes dedicated fans, supportive owners who don’t mind taking a short-term bath for long-term stability, an attractive stadium investment, a strong relationship between the GM and coach, and of course talented, experienced players with an influx of younger ones through a quality academy system.
But what about spiritual intervention?
Later Saturday evening, I meet up with local writers at Never Never, a backyard bar in the Chestnut Hill section of Nashville, blocks north of GEODIS Park, where a lengthy industrial train passes by every half hour blasting its horn. Our talented photographer, Morgan Tencza, and I were invited by our hosts at Broadway Sports, Ben and Andy, who was wearing a Phoenix Open hat and tells me the story of how he heard Sam Ryder’s ace on the 16th hole from outside the stadium because the line to get in started at 5 a.m.
A couple hours later, while with Larry and Tyler from SBI, I order a beer, waiting beside a man a few years older than me sitting on a corner chair in a Nashville SC zip up. I mention the game, and he says he’ll be there. I wish him good luck, say it should be a good game, but before I leave, Tyler says to him, “Dude, you’re Soccer Moses.”
I’d only seen Soccer Moses like other outsiders, the videos of him holding up his Let My People Goal sign in Nashville’s opening season. Another of him wailing away on the ceremonial pre-game Gibson. I didn’t know the man behind the legend of Soccer Moses, Stephen Mason, is also the lead guitarist of Jars of Clay, the multi-Grammy Award-winning Christian alt-rock band who first went mainstream during the mid-90s, whose videos plastered all over MTV and hit “Flood” inspired some of my high school soccer and volleyball road trips. I stood in awe of a superstar musician and soccer celebrity, chilling at the neighborhood bar the evening before the biggest home game in Nashville soccer history.
Before Stephen leaves, he stops to talk with our group, most of the local writers whom he’d met before. For the newbies like me, he explains how his friend, JT Daly, yelled “Let my People Goal” after watching Nigeria’s Victor Moses score a penalty against Argentina in the 2018 World Cup group stage. The comment fueled the idea for Mason to show up at the inaugural home game dressed as the biblical leader, which has since led to a t-shirt and scarf line, and beer from Yazoo Brewery called Let My People Gold, the proceeds of which help fund Kickin’ It 615, a local youth soccer non-profit that funds training, kits, and boots for Nashville youth soccer players.
Now a Master Barber operating out of a one-room studio called the Handsomizer, Mason splits his time between his business, the band, and his alter-ego Soccer Moses, bringing joy to all and perhaps a higher influence that fueled Nashville’s 19-game unbeaten home streak leading up to the stadium opener.
I leave the bar shortly before midnight, realizing I haven’t eaten anything since my hot chicken sandwich that afternoon, the burning still lingering through my GI tract. Blocks from my hotel, I find Two Boots Pizza, a cartoonish-hippie place that feels like the pizza version of Wawa Hoagie Fest. I share a picnic table outside with a group of college kids, me wolfing down two slices of pepperoni while they discuss roommate drama and future plans. I leave the late-nights to them and bypass the strip of college bars three blocks back to my hotel in anticipation for a big day to come.