By Jeff Rueter – SAINT PAUL, MN (Dec 21, 2017) US Soccer Players – On Wednesday, Major League Soccer confirmed that Nashville would be joining the league as an expansion side. The announcement concludes a year-long formal pursuit for the Music City.
At first, Nashville seemed like a total longshot to get the nod. Bids from Sacramento, Saint Louis, and San Diego seemed far more promising. While the first of these three had been in the running since 2014, the second and third were aided by the exits of NFL sides, opening a gap in professional sports viewing opportunities. Meanwhile, Cincinnati had become the darlings of the US lower divisions, and groups in Tampa, the North Carolina triangle, and Indy could point to success in NASL and USL as a sign of a stable future. Even fellow dark horses like Detroit and San Antonio offered deep-pocketed owners and major sports cities.
Nashville benefitted their gains and other bids’ losses. St. Louis was doomed by a failed attempt at public stadium funding, and San Diego had similar issues. Detroit seemed poised to make noise until its stadium plans shifted from a new venue to sharing the Lions’ Ford Field. San Antonio may be out of the running with Anthony Precourt’s massively unpopular desire to move the Columbus Crew to Austin.
Even before the league confirmed the “final four” bids for this round of expansion, Nashville was always going to be one of the victors. Reports of in-fighting between Sacramento’s ownership group have stalled the clock on what Don Garber once deemed “not a matter of if, but when.” Meanwhile, an unstable stadium plan for FC Cincinnati has made the raucous USL side less than a sure thing.
Nashville offers a few things that sets it apart. First, it’s one of the true cultural capitals of the United States, thanks in large part to its positioning in country, rock, and folk music lore. Second, the city played host to successful games for both international friendlies and the International Champions Cup.
One major factor that may have moved the needle? It’s pretty easy to pin on a map.
Since Portland and Vancouver entered MLS in 2011, the two have restored a long-time rivalry triad with the Seattle Sounders. The Cascadia Cup isn’t just a piece of hardware. Often, its fixtures provide some of the best entertainment on the field and off. Players buy into the hype. The supporters provide an incredible atmosphere, marked equally by hostility and mutual respect. For a league trying to build a global audience, Cascadia games are advertisements.
Cascadia may be the only regional, multi-side rivalry of its kind in the league. The Canadian Cup has had issues finding the same level of play. The Northeast hasn’t been able to build that kind of interest. The Midwest’s teams aren’t close enough to each other. Chivas USA never quite moved the needle in California, and there’s little reason to believe LAFC and San Jose will have a reason to be sparring partners.
Fittingly, however, Nashville will join in with two of the hottest expansion projects in recent years.
Before Atlanta United became the model of what an expansion club should strive to achieve, Orlando was the story. They painted a traditionally-poor sports city purple. Their new stadium opened to great fanfare. While the on-field product hasn’t caught up to the fervent fan culture, it’s still proved to be a successful project thus far.
Orlando is going through a facelift right now, with Kaka retiring, Cyle Larin reportedly heading to Besiktas, with no clear replacements made public yet. Atlanta, of course, is at the other end of the spectrum, seemingly trying to beat Toronto FC at its own game of depth and quality at every position. We haven’t even mentioned David Beckham’s protracted plans in Miami, which may see the field in 2019 or 2020.
Nashville won’t be in the league in 2018, so time will tell what the club’s on-field identity will become. If USL manager Gary Smith makes the jump, it’ll already have an MLS Cup winner among its ranks. While the roster has no obvious transitional players yet, there’s still time for such figures to sign on in 2018.
Whether it’s MLS expansion or building a house, location is crucial. In Nashville, the league may just be building the foundation of its next soccer hotbed.
Jeff Rueter is a reporter and analyst covering Major League Soccer for The Guardian, ESPN FC, The Athletic – Minnesota, and US Soccer Players. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffrueter.