Major League Soccer is coming to the music city.

By Brian Straus
December 19, 2017

Major League Soccer is coming to the music city.

The league all but confirmed Tuesday morning that the Nashville bid fronted by local billionaire John Ingram and supported by the Wilf brothers, who own the Minnesota Vikings, has been accepted. And then on Wednesday, MLS commissioner Don Garber joined Ingram, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam and Nashville mayor Megan Barry at an event at the Country Music Hall of Fame to announce the city’s entry.

You can watch the event in the stream below:

Ingram and the city plan to build a 27,500-seat, $250 million stadium at the Fairgrounds Nashville site just south of downtown. Their bid was considered a long shot when it was unveiled in January.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re an underdog,” Ingram told at the time.

But Nashville’s cultural appeal, Ingram’s wealth, the public-private stadium partnership (which includes 10 acres for mixed-use development adjacent to the arena) and stumbles by early expansion favorites combined to leave Ingram as the clear front-runner as MLS owners met last week. The league intended to name two teams this month, but Nashville is the only confirmed expansion entrant. That’s an indication of the strength of its bid, as well as a few remaining questions surrounding the other three finalists—Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento.

As the league continues to evaluate those three, it’s possible a decision and/or announcement could be delayed until after the holidays.

As of Tuesday, it was unclear when Nashville’s MLS club will begin play. The league originally scheduled the two teams named this month to kick off in 2020. They’d be clubs No. 25 and 26, joining after David Beckham’s Miami outfit and Los Angeles FC entered as members 23 and 24. But only the latter is ready. Coach Bob Bradley’s LAFC will kick off in March and then open Banc of California Stadium on April 29 against Seattle. The Miami project has taken far longer than anticipated. While this month’s recruitment of investors Jorge and Jose Mas has solidified the ownership group, a stadium construction timeline and MLS entry date are impossible to peg.

So MLS will have just 23 teams next season. It prefers an even number, and the quickest way to accomplish that would be to ask an expansion side—for now, that’s Nashville—to start a year early. Nashville SC will launch its USL team in 2018, so a technical infrastructure will be in place. Could it spend a year in the second tier then play a 2019 MLS slate at a temporary venue? That’s a question the league may ask in the coming days.

That might also give Cincinnati, Detroit or Sacramento a longer runway. All have their obvious positives, but none submitted a bid as complete as Nashville’s.

Detroit is a top 15 media market, and its bid is backed by multi-billionaire NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores. But MLS was hoping they’d follow through on a potential soccer stadium complex in downtown Detroit, and their decision to partner with the Ford family and play at the Detroit Lions’ Ford Field has been received with less enthusiasm.

Cincinnati is a smaller market with a large, rabid fanbase and wealthy investors in Carl Lindner III and Scott Farmer. But among FC Cincinnati’s three potential stadium locations, the one that’s furthest along—Oakley—may be the least attractive to the league. MLS might want to gauge the probability of FCC nailing down a proposed site in the city’s West End neighborhood, which is much closer to downtown—before making a decision.

Sacramento Republic has been in the chase the longest (since 2014). It has an established fan base and brand and a strong stadium plan. Lead investor Kevin Nagle, however, doesn’t boast the financial heft of his competitors. While the late entry of multi-billionaire Meg Whitman shored up Republic’s ownership group, there still may be questions concerning the level of her participation and the group’s long-term financial viability.

MLS very well could decide sooner than later, but there are mechanisms in place that could give the board of governors a bit more time to ensure it makes the best call. Meanwhile, Nashville has met the league’s criteria and will be able to celebrate its once-unlikely triumph on Wednesday.

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