Apart from being a proving ground for the next generation of Major League Soccer stars, MLS NEXT Pro is a rapidly growing league that aims to spread the game we love to communities all across the United States.
What happened in Huntsville, Alabama on May 19 stands as a crown jewel in that mission.
Huntsville City FC, the MLS NEXT Pro affiliate of Nashville SC, opened the doors of Joe Davis stadium for the very first time and the event went off without a hitch. 5,600 fans sold out the stadium and brought their signature touch to create an atmosphere that every other team in the league will envy.
The game itself provided a fitting result - a 2-1 comeback win over a previously unbeaten Crown Legacy FC, which was on the cusp of making history for the longest-running winning streak in league history. The win was the first in club history for HCFC, and the celebration wouldn't have been nearly as special if it happened on its lengthy road trip to open up the inaugural campaign.
Here are just a few special moments worth re-living from a picturesque Friday night in Huntsville:
Of course, anything less than a win would have made for a bittersweet occasion for the Huntsville faithful. An early concession had their team on the ropes, but Jonathan Bolanos made the most of a golden opportunity to hit the comeback button.
While Crown Legacy FC's Jacob Williams marked the first-ever goal scorer at Joe Davis Stadium, Bolanos is the one that fans will remember as he sent in the first one they wanted.
HCFC had some extra help in the form of Nashville SC star Randall Leal who whipped in a ball that Bolanos made no mistake with for the historic moment.
As you can see from the crowd's reaction, the energy at Joe Davis Stadium swiftly changed, and Huntsville City was able to make good use of it. The win was an upset, though maybe not as big of one as it seemed on paper based on recent form, and the club's first taste of victory was far from guaranteed as they went back and forth with their fellow expansion foe.
The decisive moment came in the 70th minute when Oliver Wright took a chance on a longball that will likely be prominent in his lifetime sizzle reel. It dropped perfectly for HCFC striker Azaad Liadi whose run had already beaten his two markers. It was off to the races from there, and his right foot didn't fail him in the crucial moment.
Perhaps nobody needed to hear the final whistle more than head coach Jack Collison.
The win marked a perfect start to life at their new home. It also marked the transition away from a challenging and winless seven-game road trip that Collison and his players both described as a grind. Getting the first win is a major accomplishment that should serve HCFC well in the weeks to come while they get paid back with a four-game homestand over the next few weeks.
The setup in Huntsville is the first of its kind for the league and opening day set a high standard for clubs looking to follow suit in the future. Nashville SC and HCFC represent the very first parent club-second team partnership to operate across state lines in MLS and MLS NEXT Pro, but based on an update given by league President Charles Altcheck, it sounds like a model many other clubs are interested in moving toward in the years to come.
It took a $30 million renovation to resurrect "The Joe" back to a professional-caliber facility, and Altchek shared some of the steps that it took to do so.
MLS NEXT Pro Senior Vice President of Competition and Operations Ali Curtis had similar sentiments, calling the event "everything MLS NEXT Pro is supposed to be about" when asked about the atmosphere in North Alabama.
Huntsville City FC fans will make their own traditions and bring a unique flair when it comes to supporting their new club, and the 5,600 who combined to make the opener a sold-out occasion proved that their city was indeed ready and their new club was welcome.
It goes without saying that the night would not be possible without the desire and follow-through from local leadership. Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle was on hand to represent those efforts and told MLSNEXTPro.com about his first impressions of the city enjoying the overhauled stadium and new club.
The good showing in Huntsville is hopefully the first of many more magical moments that MLS NEXT Pro can add to the soccer universe. In the next two years respectively, Carolina Core (North Carolina), and Cleveland, Ohio are confirmed to join the United States professional soccer landscape by way of MLS NEXT Pro.