There are few things as ubiquitous in Nashville’s sports history as postseason misery. On the rare occasion that a Nashville team makes the playoffs, it will inevitably end in one of the saddest ways possible. While there will always be exceptions to this rule, the evidence is clear, whether it’s Kevin Dyson hopelessly reaching for that extra yard in Super Bowl XXXIV or Kevin Pollock inexplicably blowing his whistle in Game 6. When the postseason rolls around, there has almost always been a moment that will rock a Nashville fan to their core.
Nashville Soccer Club fans are new in the landscape but familiar to this feeling as well. After a dramatic end to the regular season in 2018, the Boys in Gold were off to see a record-setting first-place FC Cincinnati in the playoffs. All NSC did was play them even through 90 minutes to force extra time. After Cincy pulled ahead early, a magical Bradley Bourgeois goal leveled things very late into the proceedings and forced the match to be decided on penalties. Nashville made all five of its attempts, pushing things into overtime in the shootout as well, but unfortunately, a sixth conversion was to much to ask. The season ended and tears were shed.
At the time, my research wasn’t prepared to handle how that episode of soccer misery measured up in the city’s history, but it is now, and the numbers aren’t particularly pretty for Nashville fans. NSC, who has thrived in areas that so many of its predecessors have failed, will be looking to continue making history on Saturday.
This is well-traced territory around these parts, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that it took a while for Nashville to even taste the postseason in the first place. The Diamonds certainly didn’t in 1983, and it would take five years for the amateur Metros to get there, failing every season from 1991-1994. They finally broke through in 1995. It should come as no surprise at this point, the ending was hard to swallow for Metros fans. Playing in the now-defunct USISL Premier League, the team hit the road for a match at the Birmingham Grasshoppers on Aug. 4, 1995. After playing level for 90 minutes, Birmingham found the back of the net in the last minute of extra time.
A year later, things went much better as the Metros closed out their would-be final amateur season with a solid postseason run. In the first round of the tournament, the Metros picked up goals from Ken Hoey and Doug Schenkel to upset the Roanoke Riverdawgs. A week later, the team found itself in the divisional semifinals in Jackson, Miss., and former Metros star Pasi Kimpuri picked out Tony Siikala for the winner in a 1-0 victory over the Florida Strikers. The run ended just a day later as both Siikala and Kimpuri were back on the scoresheet in a 3-2 extra time loss to the host Jackson Generals.
Two playoff trips, both ended in extra time.
In 1997, the Metros transitioned into the professional ranks in the USISL A-League, and they made the most of it, earning a trip to the postseason, which now featured two-legged series. On Sept. 5, the Metros welcomed the Milwaukee Rampage to the Columbia Soccer Complex, and things could not have started off better for the first home playoff match in the city’s history. Tim Geltz opened the scoring just 70 seconds into the match. However, a familiar bug-a-boo was just around the corner, with the Rampage’s Nick Igel and David Marshall each finding the net in the game’s final 10 minutes to pick up the victory. In the return leg two days later, Dan Stebbins keyed a dominant ending to the series for the hosts, linking up with Myles Stoddard for the opener in the 73rd minute and then picking up a pair of goals himself in the 81st and 83rd.
A year later, things continued in heartbreak fashion as a Martin Reynders scored a pair of second half goals to force overtime with the New Orleans Storm at Columbia/HCA Soccer Complex. The Metros, who enjoyed their best-ever season, boasting of 20 wins and a No. 2 seed, looked like they had figuratively and literally weathered the storm in the added period when the team earned a penalty. However, Steve Klein, a Brentwood native (and future Christian Pulisic academy director), missed his chance to change the narrative. The Metros lost 4-2 in the shootout.
Mercifully, the Metros re-branded themselves as the Tennessee Rhythm for the 1999 and 2000 campaigns and saved the sad times by just missing the playoffs altogether.
The 2001 season brought about the postseason coup de grâce. Playing their final professional season, the Metros scored 90th minute goals in both legs with the Milwaukee Rampage. The series, which began late due to the horrific events of 9/11, opened on Sept. 19 at Ezell Park. Steve Butcher found the net in the 30th and 61st minutes to put the visitors firmly in control. Jakob Fenger finally broke through for the Metros in the 82nd, but a minute later, Igor Soso canceled his tally out. Jaymi Bailey cut the deficit to just one as the clock hit 90. Three days later, Jeff Houser struck for the Metros, and gave the professional side its first postseason win. However, with the series tied 3-3 after two matches, things went to a shootout, and we all know what happened next. Nashville lost 4-2.
As the Metros transitioned back to the amateur ranks in the Premier Development League, they never regained a competitive foothold in their division. The Metros folded in 2012 having never qualified for the playoffs again.
The forebear of Nashville SC entered into the fold in the wake of the fall of the Metros, but the playoff success would still remain largely absent. Nashville FC’s first soirée came in 2014 with Kevin Tikhomira scoring the team’s first playoff goal in an otherwise dreadful 6-1 loss at Chattanooga FC. It would be much the same in 2015, this time with Josh Pando getting on the scoresheet for the visitors in at 5-1 loss. NFC didn’t make the postseason in its final NPSL campaign in 2016, and the re-branded amateur side Nashville SC U-23 missed the cut by the slimmest of margins in 2017.
Also in 2017, a new Nashville team entered the fold, and did so with aplomb. Inter Nashville FC avenged the city’s Chattanooga losses of previous years, going down to Finley Stadium and walking away with a 2-1 win in the NPSL’s Southeast Conference quarters over the hosts. Chaka Aruh, who scored the winner in the contest, picked up another three days later in New Orleans, as Inter earned a second 2-1 win, this time over the Knoxville Force. The next day was a cakewalk, with Inter claiming the conference title in 3-0 fashion over the New Orleans Jesters.
The following week, Inter traveled to Florida and a first-half Greg Warden goal was enough to hand Miami Fusion FC a loss and book a trip to the regional championship game. However, as this is still Nashville, all good things must come to an end. Inter lost 1-0 to the host Midland-Odessa Sockers FC.
The last two years haven’t been nearly as kind to the Antioch-based amateur club, losing 3-1 at home to Asheville City in 2018 and 3-0 in Chattanooga this past summer.
While the history is decidedly sketchy, there are, in fact, some signs that the times are a-changin’ in Nashville. First and foremost, one can’t look past the city’s WPSL side, Nashville Rhythm FC. Earlier this summer, that team accomplished the rarest of feats, knocking off the Memphis Lobos 3-1 at Father Ryan High School. It doesn’t necessarily stand out on paper and Rhythm FC still ultimately fell at Chattanooga in the next round, but they did something that all the men’s teams had failed to do before them; they won a home playoff match.
There’s also hope to be found in the men’s and women’s college programs at Lipscomb. Last year, both booked NCAA tournament trips, and they both picked up their first-ever tournament wins. On the men’s side, the tournament run, which featured postseason wins at ranked opponents Washington and Central Florida, began in earnest with the ASUN championship playoff in Nashville. Led by former Nashville SC U23 player Logan Paynter, it was the best season in the history men’s college soccer in Nashville.
This year, maybe the pro team can follow suit.