While the U.S. men’s national soccer team settled for a draw Saturday at Nissan Stadium, this host city scored a small victory in an off-the-field competition that will play out over months and perhaps years across the country: MLS expansion.
Attendance alone for a one-off international match will not secure a franchise in the first-division pro league. Finances and stadium plans will ultimately play larger roles in determining four new teams from 12 candidates.
Saturday’s audience included MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who, during a two-day stay, met with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Vanderbilt University officials, representatives from the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and NHL’s Nashville Predators, as well as bid executives.
“Over the last six months,” Garber said, “Nashville has really risen pretty high on the list.”
On the surface, Nashville doesn’t seem like the type of place for pro soccer. Then again, it didn’t seem like the type of place for hockey, either. The civic enthusiasm surrounding the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup finals this season helped change that perception.
As MLS has blossomed over 22 seasons, the league has discovered success in secondary pro sports markets, such as Portland, Oregon, Orlando, Florida, Kansas City, Missouri, and Salt Lake City. Among those cities, only Portland had a rich soccer history before MLS arrived.
Aside from Nashville, Sacramento and Cincinnati, the other expansion hopefuls are San Diego, Phoenix, San Antonio, St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa, Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina, and Indianapolis.
Nashville started at the back of the pack but has moved up quickly, thanks to the strength of its own bid and problems in other campaigns. Municipal roadblocks have damaged efforts in St. Louis, San Diego and Charlotte. The Raleigh/Durham and Indianapolis bids seem like long shots.
If MLS opts for one or two smaller markets, it will probably want to go big with the other selections.
Nashville has money behind its bid in local billionaire John Ingram. Deep pockets are necessary: The expansion fee for the next two teams will be $150 million and likely more for the following two entries.
Despite Gold Cup momentum and young demographics in a growing city, Nashville has no proven record of drawing crowds for a pro team. Nashville SC will launch in the second-division United Soccer League next year.
The bid also must include a plan for a soccer-specific stadium. Nissan Stadium works for international matches: Aside from Saturday’s event, there were 44,835 for a U.S.-Guatemala friendly two years ago, 40,287 for Mexico vs. New Zealand last year and large advance sales for Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur late this month.
But MLS prefers new or renovated mid-sized venues in order to maximize revenue and the fan experience.
The Nashville bid is looking to partner with the city on a project at the state fairgrounds, about three miles south of downtown.
“If a very promising market can’t have a stadium,” Garber said, “they’re not going to be an MLS expansion team.”
If the stadium plan does come together, though, Nashville will become a formidable contender.
“They seem to have a good ownership group and are checking off the boxes, slowly but surely,” said Fox Sports soccer analyst Landon Donovan, the former U.S. star who has been working on behalf of San Diego’s effort. “I really do think this would be a very good market.”