Michael Dax “Dax” McCarty photo from file by Tim Sullivan/Club and Country
Tuesday morning, Nashville Predators goalkeeper Pekka Rinne retired from the National Hockey League. He was rarely among the league’s leaders in save percentage – just a couple seasons inching inside the top 10 – and in what would prove to be the final two years of his career, wasn’t even the team’s first-choice keeper (ceding way to prospect-turned-standout Juuse Saros between the pipes).
However, the outpouring of emotion from Nashville upon hearing the news, reading his farewell essay, and seeing the team’s tribute to him…
…indicated that he meant much more to the team and city than anything he did statistically. He was – he is – their guy. The 38-year old played his entire NHL career with the Preds. He was Capital-T Capital-M The Man for Nashville when the Predators made their run to the Stanley Cup Finals. And he gracefully stepped aside after teaching Saros the tricks of the trade when the younger keeper used them to pass Rinne on the depth chart.
If you walk out of Bridgestone Arena and follow lower Broadway until you run out of dry earth*, you’ll be staring across the Cumberland River at Nissan Stadium. It’s most known as the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, but for the past year and a half, Nashville SC has been a houseguest. The Boys in Gold have at least another three months there, before the Fairgrounds Stadium becomes the permanent home for the club in 2022.
* have fun wading through the sea of pedal taverns, sucker
Each game, as the Boys in Gold march out of the Northwest tunnel in their temporary home, is this club’s Pekka Rinne among the 11 men who take the field? It will take both team and individual success to provide the club a legend like the Finn. It’s inherently unknowable if that’s in the cards. But this is the internet so let’s make a list.
Dax McCarty. Nashville SC’s captain is already a fan favorite, and wearing the armband gives him a certain level of gravitas and authority. Of course, it’s tough to call a guy Nashville’s own in the way Rinne is when he’s arguably a club legend elsewhere (New York Red Bulls), and even played for a championship in his first professional stop (losing to Gary Smith’s Colorado Rapids with FC Dallas). The expectation is probably that he ends his career in Gold, but at 34, the longevity that Rinne had won’t be available to build the legend.
Dave Romney. Under-appreciated at his hometown club, the Irvine native headed out from Los Angeles Galaxy to get a fresh start, and perhaps the opportunity to prove that he was deserving of the playing time and of the accolades that never arrived when he was playing in Southern California. Lo and behold, he arrives in Nashville and is instantly one of the league’s best central defenders! The redemptive arc is a very nice origin story for the figurative superhero we’re seeking. But as much as goalkeeper may not be a glamor position on the ice, centerback is less so on the soccer field. Romney will certainly remain a popular player among the diehards. But at a position where only your biggest mistakes are likely to draw headlines, the myth can only grow so big.
Daniel Ríos. More than perhaps anyone else on this roster, Ríos has the feel of a guy who is a Nashville SC lifer. He joined the squad when it was still in USL, and elevated an offensively-anemic team into one of the best offensive units int he league by finishing second in the Golden Boot race. Elevated along with the club’s arrival in MLS, he was oft-injured during his first year in Nashville, but extraordinarily productive when he was able to see the pitch. His career trajectory also seems such that NSC probably won’t lose him to a high-dollar international transfer at this point – but that’s partially because the injuries have once again limited his impact, and a guy who doesn’t see much of the field is not going to go down as a club legend.
Luke Haakenson. Drafted by Nashville in the 2020 SuperDraft, he had a solid loan spell in USL as a rookie. It certainly didn’t indicate that he’d burst onto the scene when he returned to Nashville. But in a way, that did indeed happen: he only has two Major League Soccer goals to his name, but they were huge ones, drawing Nashville level with Toronto FC and then providing the winner in a come-from-behind victory. How’s that for origin story? He’s also got the look of a many-year pro… but perhaps a guy who doesn’t quite reach a level that sees him spend just a few solid years in Nashville before rising to bigger and better things.
Alistair Johnston. Another 2020 SuperDraft pick, Johnston didn’t see the pitch in Nashville’s first two games of that season. During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, he must have been bitten by a radioactive Dani Alves. Upon the team’s return to play, he saw his first appearance off the bench and then first start in the course of a week. His winning personality also made him a hit with the fanbase. Now an inked-in starter for Nashville SC, he seems to only leave the field when he’s away with the Canadian National Team (whose radar he wasn’t on until his blossoming in Nashville). The longer he remains in Gold, the more likely he’s our man. But his rapid growth trajectory could have him moving to Europe before we get his best days.
The first homegrown signing. This is a long way off. Nashville SC’s academy didn’t play at all this season, and only fielded age groups up to U-15. But when the time comes, there’s no better way to become a club legend than progressing from humble beginnings to become a true hometown hero. We don’t know who that will be. We don’t know how long that player will even suit up for the senior team (the nature of MLS 3.0 is guys moving on to European paydays very early in their careers – see Red Bulls’ Caden Clark and his agreement to move to Germany before hitting a dozen MLS games). But a player who grows up in Music City, and who sees this club as the inspiration to pursue a career in soccer? It’s going to be hard to be anything other than a club legend.
Of course, the global nature of soccer is very different than that of hockey. The NHL is the pinnacle of its game around the world, and the same can very much not be said about MLS. Is it even possible for a player to have the quality and longevity in Nashville to build the same sort of legend as Rinne? Nashville SC fans won’t sweat it as long as the benchmarks along the way – championship runs, highlight-reel plays – give them a number of options to choose from.
Who do you think will build a Rinne-like legend in Nashville? “Sound off in the comments”