Three hours before the Union kick off against Nashville SC in the opening of GEODIS Park, (Brotherly Game editor) Matt Ralph and I walk the outside of the stadium as thousands of fans linger, 98% of them wearing vibrant yellow NSC jerseys, eager to get inside for the first time. The stadium sits on top of a hill with a view of the historic Fairgrounds Speedway, where on Labor Day Weekend in 1904 Barney Oldfield drove in one of its first races.
GEODIS has a spacious concourse and a sunken playing field, so upon entering the gate, fans are standing on the top of the lower level. A second level of seating surrounds all four sides, with the Supporters section taking up the entire lower level behind the far goal. Every seat has a close view of the field, even the top. An overhang keeps the noise in while the exposed beams allow for the mid-day heat to escape.
An hour before kickoff, we head to field level, a view I don’t experience often. While the players walk the field, Union coach Jim Curtin’s talking to a former Union PR member, now head of communications for Nashville. He stops over to say hello to us, and we talk briefly about the Flyers game a few nights before where he ran into my brother. Then he’s off down the tunnel, stopping every few feet to chat with someone else. Curtin always make time.
I text my brother, who coached Jim and me when we were pre-teens, and tell him I saw him. Love him, my brother texts back. I agree. I can’t think of any better face of a franchise, a local coach leading his local team to the pinnacle of the sport in the U.S. When the Union were in Nashville’s position, three seasons in, he was still coaching in the Union academy, a year prior to being named assistant coach.
Tommy Shaw, the legendary guitarist from the rock band Styx, leads the pre-game Gibson guitar riff ritual, and minutes later GEODIS finally welcomes its first kick. The game lives up to its hype. Two top defensive teams battle until the end. I’m not sure how one quantifies the value of Andre Blake. 60,000 eyes raise when he nearly pushes Dax McCarty’s shot off the post five minutes in. Fans ooh when he tips Alex Muyl’s knuckling shot off the crossbar two minutes later. But in the 23rd minute, he defies logic when he blocks Muyl’s half-volley on the doorstep with a sprawling leg save. For Blake, it was a performance we’ve come to expect, heroic, freakish, but mostly Dre being Dre. He has five saves in the game, four in first half, the last against Wyndmoor’s Daniel Lovitz, a nine-year MLS veteran who’s been with Nashville since 2020.
Mikael Uhre deserves a goal, which has been coming since his debut in March. His change of pace, then cutback to slip around U.S. center back Zimmerman and finish defines his quality and fit in this team. One sprint from midfield, three touches, and the first-ever goal in a new stadium by the reigning Danish Superleague Player of the Year. The goal represents everything the Union 2022 want to be: tough defending, hard pressing, and quick counter-attacking, but with Uhre, Daniel Gazdag, and the emergence of Julian Carranza, the Union inspire a level of attacking play unrivaled in previous years.
Then comes the late Jose Martinez handball, a gift that puts Nashville on the board, deserved with the way they opened the game but unearned in the moment. Again, Blake rises to the occasion, guessing right on Randall Leal’s penalty attempt, though I’m not certain I’d call it guessing. He almost reaches it but concedes his first penalty in over a year and a half. Despite the way the game ends, it feels good to see the home crowd exult, and as the final seconds wane, thick yellow smoke covers the field, allowing streaks of sunlight to pass through like something out of a cathedral.
How does one explain why this 1-1 draw feels like a win while the 1-1 draw against Montréal felt like a loss? Perhaps the pleasure of watching a team perform consistently well week in and week out, in consecutive seasons, puts a single result into the larger context. When a team that concedes possession and gives up more shots on the road can still control a game, an unwavering confidence builds. We rely on more than results and statistics to keep us moving forward. We have unfinished business and bigger games ahead.
Ten years ago, Union fans had minimal expectations. We were happy to be in the league, to be relevant again at the professional level. In many ways, when I watch the Nashville fans this weekend, I see us back then, though they’ve had a more successful start and are probably headed toward hardware in a shorter span. Both fans appear satisfied with a draw but for different reasons. Nashville celebrates a new home, a beautiful stadium with a blank canvas of memories ahead. For us, a road point maintains our hold in first place, the best start in franchise history. But we’re no longer just happy to be here. We’ve won our first trophy, had an international final within reach, suffered our heartbreaks, our learnable experiences. Expectations for an MLS Cup have grown high. A regular season game is just a game. October and November results mean more to us now than in May.
I remember the 100-degree afternoons in July, the two-hours of traffic to get from Mid-County to the Highland Avenue exit on a mid-week, and the logjams outside Subaru Park for hours after the final whistle. I remember celebrating home draws, chasing races for the final playoff spots. It took the Union years to build a winning culture, and Nashville still remains in those foundational years. In time, I’m certain GEODIS will host its share of finals.
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While Matt, Morgan, and I wait for our rides, we walk across the street to Santa’s Pub, an elevated trailer with a small deck out front packed with Nashville fans. Once a local dive on the outskirts of the city center, the bar now has a prime location on Saturdays. I see the mural of Soccer Moses painted on a building wall beside the parking lot, which marks the location of Mason’s famous pre-game tailgate spot. Next time, I’ll be sure to visit.
A woman outside sees my poster commemorating the game, a picture of me with the inside of GEODIS in the background, free for media members as a keepsake but $20 inside for fans before they sold out. She asks if she can buy it. Thirty dollars quickly becomes fifty. I pass, even though it may mean more to her than me. Maybe not. For me, it’s physical evidence I’m reaching my personal goal of traveling to every soccer stadium in the country. It’s also evidence of how quickly the game is growing.
American soccer stadiums didn’t exist when I was a kid. Crew Stadium opened in 1999, the first of its kind, and three years after it opened, I saw Landon Donovan bag a brace in a 3-0 playoff win over the Crew en route to leading the San Jose Earthquakes to the MLS Cup. The Philadelphia Union weren’t even a conception then. Over twenty years later, most MLS teams play in a soccer-specific stadium, including countless others in the USL and soon the NWSL. Since Subaru Park (then PPL Park and later Talen Energy Stadium) held its first game in 2010, 14 soccer-specific stadiums have opened across MLS, the newest, GEODIS. Soon, young players and fans will only know the immersive experience of going to a soccer stadium. Every opening should be a celebration. Before this weekend, I can’t say if I’d ever gone to Nashville. Now, I’m sure I’ll be back.
Hours after the game, I’m still buzzing from the GEODIS experience, but I don’t have the energy to schlep downtown and fight the Broadway scene again. Instead, I walk beyond my late-night pizza stop the night before to The Stillery, a small college bar where mostly everyone’s drinking mixed cocktails out of small mason jars. I sip bourbon, pound a burger, and watch the Phillies turn a 3-3 game into a 10-6 Mets win. It’s my first innings of baseball all season, which strikes me as odd because during my childhood, the Phillies were everything and soccer was nowhere to be found.
I haven’t really missed them.