As Nashville SC embarks on its first Major League Soccer season, defender Walker Zimmerman has been surprised by how quickly the club has coalesced.
He knows a bit about expansion teams, having been on Los Angeles FC's original roster two years ago.
"The thing that we stressed back at LAFC was, 'Don't look at it as we're coming in as an expansion team and let that change your expectations. You're in MLS now,'" Zimmerman said.
"So that's the message here: Sure, we are technically an expansion team, but we're in MLS just like any of the other teams. So don't let that change our mindset. Don't let that change our mentality. We're going to come out and compete, not as a team trying to prove ourselves, but as a team that's wanting to establish ourselves in the right way."
The 26-year-old Zimmerman, a native of the Atlanta area who joined the league in 2013, is among a number of veterans assembled for Nashville's first season, a group that also includes defender Anibal Godoy, 30, and midfielder Dax McCarty, 32.
There are 14 players on the roster who are new to MLS, including attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar, the team's lone designated player, a 24-year-old German from Denmark's top division, and Randall Leal, a 23-year-old winger who played for Saprissa in his native Costa Rica.
"It's a great group, really hard-working group. And I was really surprised at the camaraderie that was already established in the first month of preseason," Zimmerman said. "So hats off to everyone for really getting along, buying in to this process. It's not easy, but I think everyone's really excited for this weekend."
McCarty, embarking on his 14th MLS season, agreed.
"I've been around the block a few times, and I've been around long enough to know that our group, what we have is just real," he said. "We have a real sense of camaraderie. Guys have really bonded off the field. We have a sense of discipline and organization and how we're going to play.
"But also I've been pleasantly surprised with some of our attacking players and guys that I didn't know much about. So I think that there's a real sense of urgency with this group that we want to start off our first season on the right foot."
There's buzz surrounding the team's opener against Atlanta United FC at 8 p.m. EST Saturday at Nissan Stadium, the home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans. The game will be nationally televised by Fox, and Nashville SC reported Friday that more than 50,000 tickets had been sold, in reach of the stadium's record of 50,232 for a soccer match, set in 2017 when English Premier League teams Tottenham and Manchester City played there.
Nashville players are excited about the chance to host Atlanta, an expansion club in 2017 that won the MLS Cup in 2018 and last season won the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup. Star striker Josef Martinez was the league MVP in 2018 and scored 27 goals last season.
Known for its successful launch and rabid supporters, Atlanta provides something of a blueprint for what Nashville hopes to be. Atlanta led the league by averaging 52,510 fans a game last season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which it shares with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
The match could also be the first in what is hoped will become a rivalry: The two teams are separated by just 250 miles.
"They'll want to try and stamp their authority on the rivalry," Nashville coach Gary Smith said. "And we'll certainly want to get off to a very good start if we possibly can. And a lot of that comes down to our preparations. I feel as though we've put ourselves in a decent place."
Smith, coach of the Colorado Rapids team that won the MLS Cup championship in 2010, led Nashville to a 20-7-7 record last season in the lower-tier USL Championship.
Overall, Nashville SC is still very much a work in progress. The team's proposed deal for a soccer-specific stadium hit a snag last fall when scheduled demolition at The Fairgrounds Nashville site didn't start. It turned out new Nashville Mayor John Cooper was taking a second look at the city's agreement for the stadium.
The Metro Nashville Council originally approved a $275 million project in November 2017, and the next month the city was awarded the franchise by MLS. Under the terms of the renegotiated agreement, the team will pay $54 million more in additional costs, including potential debt payments and $19 million for infrastructure around the stadium, which is set to open in 2022.
Such challenges and adjustments are to be expected with a startup venture, but Smith is anxious to finally get Nashville SC off the ground.
"What I can say is I'm very pleased at where the group's at, both aerobically and in terms of their fitness," the coach said. "Their appreciation of some of the foundational pieces of our group, with or without the ball, are good. Can we improve? Yeah, of course. But we're in a good spot."