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VOL. 41 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 29, 2017

Many goals ahead before Nashville scores first pro soccer goal

By John Glennon

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Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, center, with Mayor Megan Barry, left, John Ingram, chairman of Ingram Industries Inc. and Nashville SC majority owner, Gov. Bill Haslam and Mark Wilf, representing the Wilf family, owners of the Minnesota Vikings NFL football team, after the announcement that Nashville had been awarded a Major League Soccer franchise.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

Major League Soccer exploded onto the Nashville scene last week with the announcement of a new expansion team coming amid thousands of cheering supporters at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

It capped a remarkable run for the Nashville SC ownership group since Music City was considered a late-to-the-party longshot just a year ago.

Exciting as the news was for local soccer fans, however, there’s plenty left to do before Nashville’s new team plays its first MLS game.

Here’s a closer look at some of the significant steps that lie ahead:

Deciding when play starts:

Nashville’s MLS team will begin play in either 2019 or 2020.

The reason 2019 is even a possibility is because Miami – not Nashville – had been expected to be the 24th MLS club, and Miami likely would have begun play in 2019. But Miami’s bid has slowed, and even though the city is still likely to get an expansion team, there’s no guarantee it will be ready for 2019.

MLS will field 23 teams in 2018 and would prefer to have an even number sooner rather than later. Hence the possibility that Nashville would play in 2019.

But MLS officials don’t want to rush the process, so 2020 still seems more likely for Nashville at this point.

“We’ll work it out with MLS based on what makes sense for them, and for the other teams they’ll be bringing in,” says John Ingram, Nashville SC majority owner. “I don’t think we really have much of an opinion. We’ll do what they want us to do.”

Adds MLS commissioner Don Garber: “There’s no timeline in place at all at this point (on making that decision).”

Building the new stadium:

Ingram says he believes construction of the new soccer stadium at the Fairgrounds Nashville will likely take 18-24 months, depending on weather. But it remains to be seen when ground is first broken.

“That will be sorted out,” Ingram says. “Because you’ve got the Flea Market and those places that need to be moved … There are other things we need to get approvals for. Having never done this before, I find there are more approvals than I had any idea about.”

It’s possible Nashville’s new soccer stadium won’t be completed until 2021, which would leave the MLS club looking for a temporary facility for one or two seasons. Nissan Stadium sounds like a strong possibility.

“There are other places where soccer games have been very successfully played here in Nashville,” Ingram adds.

“One of the other nicest things about this whole process is how gracious and supportive the Titans organization, as well as the Predators, have been. Certainly the Titans have expressed a willingness to work with us should that be necessary. There are other places we can look at as well. So, within reason, we could sort out what we need.”

Naming the new team:

Nashville’s soccer team in the USL – one tier below MLS – currently is named Nashville SC. But since both clubs are owned by the same people, the name would likely go to the MLS club when it begins play.

“My going-in premise is that (the MLS team) will be Nashville SC,” Ingram acknowledges. “We might hold some kind of contest to see if that’s what the broad majority wants to do, wants to keep it or change. But it won’t be anything unilateral from me. It will be based on what our supporters and our fans want, not based on me.”

Deciding the future of the USL team:

It seems odd to be talking about the future of a team that has yet to play its first game. But at some point in the coming years, Ingram and company will decide whether they want to keep both a USL and MLS team in the same town (the former acting as a feeder team for the latter), whether they want to sell the USL team, or whether it will be disbanded.

In the meantime, however, Nashville’s USL club will be the first to expose Music City to a high level of soccer, with the 2018 season beginning in mid-March and running through mid-October.

“Whether it makes more business sense to continue to operate a USL team once we get MLS, or whether we’ll focus on MLS, we’ll make that decision down the road,” explains James Cannon, Nashville SC’s vice president of marketing and communications.

“The beauty of that is we don’t have to decide today. Our (USL) season kicks off in 52 days, so that’s real important business. Right now, nobody is selling anything or getting rid of anything. We’ve got some years to build up to this as we get ready.”

The buzz for Nashville’s MLS team appears to have added excitement for the USL squad, which will play its 2018 season at First Tennessee Park. Nashville SC’s USL team has already sold about 4,000 season tickets.

“We’ve already seen spikes in ticket sales, merchandise sales,” Cannon adds. “Our doors have been opening non-stop with people wanting to buy jerseys, merchandise. So, I think what we’re experiencing is this becoming real.”

Naming a head coach:

Gary Smith will be coaching Nashville SC in the USL this spring, and it’s certainly not out of the question that he would eventually lead the MLS team down the road.

Smith’s resume is a hefty one, and it includes winning an MLS championship with the Colorado Rapids in 2010.

Participating in the expansion draft: In the months leading up to Nashville SC’s first MLS season – whether that’s 2019 or 2020 – the team will get to select a handful of players in the league’s expansion draft.

Los Angeles FC, which will begin MLS play in 2018, just completed its expansion draft a couple of weeks ago.

As the rules stand now, expansion teams are allowed to pick a combined total of five players from the rosters of other MLS teams. Only one player can be selected from each team, and every team is allowed to protect 11 players – a total that doesn’t include its home-grown players.

Naming the team’s first designated player: MLS’ designated player rule allows teams to acquire up to three players whose total compensation exceeds the maximum salary cap.

This rule was nicknamed the “Beckham Rule” when it first came into play, as it allowed the Los Angeles Galaxy to sign superstar midfielder David Beckham to a contract that was reported to be $250 million over five years.

Other big-name players who’ve signed big contracts and been classified as designated players include the likes of Americans Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard, as well as internationals such as Giovani Dos Santos, Jonathan dos Santos, David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco.

It will be interesting to see if Nashville SC looks to make a big splash by signing a star heading into its first season.

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.