Be it music, sports or barbecue, the rivalry between the cities of Nashville and Memphis is longstanding and has roots much deeper than this first-year fling between Nashville Soccer Club and Memphis 901 FC. While it’s certainly easy to dismiss the upcoming match between the upstart 901 and MLS-bound NSC, the actual soccer rivalry between the two cities runs much deeper than many perceive, and much of it dates back to a time before a lot of players on the current teams were even born.
Both cities were marked by failed professional efforts in the 1970s and 1980s, with Memphis striking first with the NASL’s Memphis Rogues. The reported attendance numbers weren’t considered great but seem impressive in retrospect, with the team averaging over 8,000 fans per match over their three-season run in the cavernous 50,000-seat Liberty Bowl. However, the on-field results were disappointing, with Memphis compiling a 30-62 record. There was, however, one bright spot, a run to the 1980 NASL Indoor title game, which they lost to Tampa Bay.
As the Rogues moved to Calgary for the 1981 campaign, the Nashville Diamonds entered the fold for the 1982 season. The disaster of that year is chronicled at length on this site.
The fallout from the loss of the Rogues wouldn’t last long, however, as the Memphis Americans took their place and enjoyed a modestly successful three-year stint as an indoor team before moving to Las Vegas. In 1986, Memphis Storm entered into the picture, also as an indoor team. After some success in the early years, including a top finish in the standings in the regular season in 1988, they took on the Rogues identity in 1989, and a year later, Memphis and Nashville would finally have their first showdown in soccer.
The two sides first met playing indoor, as the Metros maiden voyage into soccer began with a road trip to play Memphis and the Arkansas Diamonds. Not much is known about the individual matches the indoor iteration of the Metros played, but this much is true, it wasn’t pretty. Nashville’s first Sunbelt Independent Soccer League match was a 13-4 loss to Arkansas, and it didn’t get any better as the Metros finished 0-10 while getting outscored by 80 goals.
Memphis went on to be the class of the conference in the outdoor season in 1991, going 12-4, and the Metros were markedly better in their inaugural season, ending 7-9 with a much more respectable -5 goal differential.
The Rogues then experienced yet another name change, calling themselves the Memphis Survivors during their final indoor campaign in 1991-92, and then re-branding as Memphis United Express for the 1992 outdoor season. Both teams finished mid-table, and then Memphis underwent another name change, channeling their inner C.J. Clegg to become the Jackals, a moniker they’d continue to hold until folding in the aftermath of an eighth-place finish in 1994.
The Nashville Metros also underwent a bit of an identity crisis in the following years, moving up to the professional ranks in 1997 and then becoming the Tennessee Rhythm for two seasons before reverting back to the Metros name in 2001. A year later, they moved back to the amateur ranks, which was just in time to welcome a new Memphis team, the Express.
Coached by a former Rogues, Americans AND Jackals player, Antonio Carbognani, the Express were contenders immediately, topping the conference in year one and then advancing to the national semis the following year. Unfortunately, like the Memphis teams that came before, the brilliance was short-lived, and after limping to a last-place showing in 2005, the team folded. The Metros kept on trucking through the aughts before meeting their ultimate end in 2012.
The soccer rivalry was once again renewed in 2016, as Nashville FC, in its final year in the NPSL, welcomed Memphis City FC to the Southeast Conference. MCFC fired the opening salvo in the short-lived rivalry in heart-breaking fashion, taking home the first meeting with 1-0 on a Cameron Woodfin 89th-minute winner, but NFC had the final laugh, winning on a second-half own-goal in Memphis a month later. It marked the final meeting between the two teams as NFC became the current NSC.
In 2017, MCFC and Inter Nashville squared off twice, and that would be the last of the rivalry as Memphis changed leagues for 2018 and then folded.
Earlier this year, the new Memphis 901 FC and Nashville SC met for the first-ever professional soccer meeting between the two cities. Matt LaGrassa and Ropapa Mensah both scored in the final 12 minutes as the Boys in Gold grabbed the 2-0 victory at First Tennessee Park.
The second chapter begins tonight, and then with NSC set to move to MLS next year, the future of the rivalry will once again become an open question.