Nashville Secures MLS Place, But Questions Remain for Its Team, Further Expansion

Nashville was granted an expansion franchise, but details regarding when the club will begin play in MLS remain unclear, and the fate of other cities' bids and Miami's ongoing quest are still on the league's docket.
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During an event heavy on celebration and congratulations but short on granular detail, MLS on Wednesday evening officially welcomed Nashville as the league’s 24th club. It isn’t yet clear when the new team will take the field or what it’ll eventually be called. What mattered Wednesday was the big picture. As Mayor Megan Barry proclaimed, “It’s definitely Music City, but we are also a soccer city.”

As he formally announced Nashville’s entry, MLS commissioner Don Garber cited the city’s “passion for sports and for culture” and it's “great ability to forge strong and meaningful public-private partnerships” as key factors in the league’s decision.

“There’s no doubt, and everyone in our country knows this, that Nashville is a city on the rise,” Garber said before placing a ceremonial scarf around the neck of lead investor John Ingram.

The owner’s billions, his deep local ties and his productive relationships with leading political figures also played an obvious and significant role in Nashville’s success, as Ingram was able to forge a stadium deal (which includes 10 acres of mixed-use development), win over the MLS board and recruit Minnesota Vikings owners Mark, Zygi and Leonard Wilf as co-investors.

Garber called the speed at which Ingram and the city put together a winning bid “unprecedented.”

Far from the expansion radar before the summer of 2016 and considered a long shot when bids were submitted last January, Nashville and Ingram beat out 11 other markets to become the first club approved during the current round of expansion. MLS eventually plans to pause at 28 members and the 23rd, Los Angeles FC, will kick off in March. Nashville is considered the 24th because David Beckham’s Miami project still hasn’t received final approval or admission. He only recently recruited new majority investors.

But Miami eventually is expected to figure it all out, and there’s still one expansion slot available that originally was supposed to be filled this month. Nashville, Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento were identified as finalists for two berths (not including Miami), one of which was awarded Wednesday. It’s now possible the other won’t be named until January.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Garber tried to unpack the expansion traffic jam.

“Tomorrow [Thursday] we’re going to announce at least what our timing is to name the second expansion team that’ll join Nashville,” he said, according to Nashville journalist Steve Cavendish. “We are making a lot of progress in Miami. We announced a new ownership group that’s been approved, and we’re hopeful we’ll be able to bring that team over the finish line. That’ll bring three new teams into the league [Miami, Nashville and one of Cincinnati/Detroit/Sacramento], and we’ll need to figure out how we’re going to stage those teams.”

Regarding the three waiting finalists, the commissioner said, "All of those other bids are MLS-ready. They weren’t as complete as Nashville, but certainly MLS-ready. We could’ve announced all three of them had we wanted to. That wasn’t a decision we were ready to make."

Garber added that MLS hoped to establish a timeline for the evaluation and eventual entry of teams No. 27 and 28 before the start of the 2018 season. The league also will need to determine when Nashville will begin play.

“We’ll work that out with MLS based on what makes sense for them and other teams that they’ll be bringing in,” Ingram said. “We don’t really have much of an opinion. We’ll do what they want us to do.”

The league hopes to minimize the amount of time it plays with an odd number of clubs, which it’ll be forced to do next season. Garber acknowledged that Wednesday. He also said, however, that it’s “not likely” that Nashville starts in 2019.

“Maybe in ’19, but we’re not sure. And it’s possible the other two teams will join in ’20. But those decisions haven’t been made,” Garber added. “It would be optimum to have a balanced [number of teams] in ’19. It’s not a necessity, but it would be optimum.”

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Ingram’s USL team, Nashville SC, will start in 2018 at the city’s minor league baseball stadium. There’s a technical staff in place, led by former Colorado Rapids coach Gary Smith and former Sporting Kansas City assistant technical director Mike Jacobs, which theoretically could begin building an MLS squad. This is an organization that put together a viable investor group and stadium plan inside a year, so anything seems possible. And it's been done before in even less time (see Minnesota United).

Ingram told reporters he wasn’t sure when construction will commence on the club’s $275 million stadium, which will be located on the city’s Fairgrounds. He estimated an 18-24 month construction timeframe. Garber said the league has no problem if a new team with a finalized stadium plan starts off in a temporary venue, as both Minnesota and Atlanta United did this year. Ingram added, “The Titans have expressed a willingness to work with us, should that be necessary, and there are other places we could look at as well.”

As for the name, Ingram said, “My going-in premise is that it'll be Nashville SC. We might hold some sort of contest or whatnot to see if that is what the broad majority wants to do—wants to keep that, wants to change to something else. But one thing that won’t happen, is there won’t be anything unilateral from me. It’ll be based on what our supporters and our fans want, not based on me.”

Nashville SC will wear the blue and yellow colors found on the city flag, which also have been adopted by the NHL’s Predators.