NASHVILLE—Saturday afternoon in Nashville, and the smell of smoking meats wafted above a frying-pan hot pavement in a parking lot near Nissan Stadium. Flags – both the Stars and Stripes and those of other various regional and tribal allegiances – flapped slowly in an only intermittent breeze. A nearby Shoney’s offered a “Welcome Soccer Fans” message above a line about their ribs.
But all around the stadium, its western edge hugging the Cumberland River running through the city’s downtown, any outside distractions failed to tempt. Instead, thousands – and thousands more – soccer faithful descended for the venue’s biggest match in the sport in years, the United States’ kick-off of its 2017 Gold Cup campaign.
And seriously, they descended. The cavernous expanse of the usual home of the Tennessee Titans filled with a reported 47,622 fans, a record for the largest-ever crowd for soccer in Tennessee. Forget the old chestnut about soccer making it in this country overall – after spending a couple of recent weeks in Nashville, soccer is most definitely ready to make it in Music City.
“You spend so much time in bars watching teams that you care about,” says Jonathan Slape, president of the Nashville chapter of American Outlaws, the US national team supporters’ group. “You crave that experience of being able to support a team in your own city.”
Personal bit of bias here – one side of my extended family lives in the area so I’m there about two or three times a year. It’s because of this that I’m pretty passionate about the fact that the city’s not just neon signs, boot stores, hot chicken, and country-music buskers – though there’s plenty of that. Nor is the sports scene just about college football or whatever other southern clichés you might trot out if you haven’t been.
“Culturally, one of the great things about Nashville is that everybody’s coming here,” says Newton Dominey. He’s the owner of a popular local rock-climbing gym, the Crag, and the head of the Roadies, the supporters’ group for Nashville SC, the city’s current PDL team. (More on that in a second.) “We have crazy growth right now; 100 people a day move here. We are becoming and have been for a little while, a culturally diverse city. That’s soccer!”
You could feel that sheer volume of human bodies, at least, at American Outlaws’ pre-game tailgate, or especially its night-before party. Sure, plenty of visitors fill those out alongside the locals.
But among the throngs at Tailgate Brewery, the downtown home of the city’s local AO chapter, I met plenty of area folks who were pumped for the scene. They appropriately lost their mind when head coach Bruce Arena showed up, and when even Stu Holden and Landon Donovan waded into the beer-lubricated crowd.
Here's Bruce's arrival not as a reply pic.twitter.com/SZs33Gneqp— Arielle Castillo (@ariellec) July 8, 2017
They didn’t just turn out for the bigger Friday-night festivities, though. The Saturday before that, the afternoon the US-Ghana friendly, I also hit Tailgate, where a group of Yanks supporters had also gotten the bar to project the game on its biggest wall.
More evidence that the national-team support already rings strong there? Fans cottoned to the fact that the Yanks were training at the city’s Lipscomb University, smack in the middle of a tidy, green residential neighborhood, almost immediately. They set up camping chairs outside of the soccer field fences and waited patiently, daily for autographs on various pieces of memorabilia, for the full span of nearly two weeks.
Unsurprisingly, of course, there’s a concurrent Premier-League-watching world, too, as in just about every American city at this point. Slape himself runs a local Liverpool supporters’ group, and even at the American Outlaws night before, I seemed to meet Tottenham fan after Tottenham fan.
But more real promise at the local level, right now, rests with Nashville SC. The club is sort of the continuation of a previously supporter-started NPSL team, Nashville FC, and also sort of a new creation connected with the city’s expansion bid group. (If you want to get deep into the weeds on this, you can read this recent Nashville Scene story that lays it all out in detail.)
While the club officially starts USL play next year, this year, they fielded a U-23 team in PDL (currently contending for the playoffs, depending on a few results this week).
At their last home match of their season, at Vanderbilt University’s soccer field, more than 1,100 fans packed the stands to take in the home side, the Boys in Gold, draw the visiting SC United FC (yes, really) for a 1-1 score. The crowd ranged the city’s demographics; couples on dates, packs of small children whooping and eating popcorn, and boisterous 20- and 30-somethings shared the stands and joined in on Nashville-themed chants led by the Roadies.
The supporters, naturally, form the heart of the momentum behind the team. As their numbers continue to swell, Dominey says new members come for a sense of community that’s rare in a city of transplants, and a rare opportunity in sports to follow along from near-scratch.
Cute to see all the kiddos getting autographs pic.twitter.com/vi63rZKyG5— Arielle Castillo (@ariellec) July 2, 2017
Kyle Roelke, head coach of Nashville SC’s U-23s, echoed that sentiment after the match. “I think there's a lot of young professionals living in the city, and obviously, Nashville’s growth is huge. But also we have so many different cultures in Nashville that embrace the game,” he says.
There’s one more recent sport success story in town that comes up almost every time people discuss soccer’s budding – the Nashville Predators’ recent deep NHL run. Over and over again, folks told me how they felt the Predators had found a way to truly speak to and welcome the community into the fold, that everyone involved felt like they were part of building a new era. They hope that feeling can carry over into soccer momentum.
“Everybody here in the city is very supportive of each other and each other’s sports teams, so I think fan bases will switch over once we get started,” says Roelke. “Hockey fans and soccer fans are both very passionate and once they see the product and the game, I think they’ll switch over.”
“No one thought hockey would work in Nashville. But [the] group reached out to the community – which I feel Nashville SC has done,” says Slape. “Nashville is a tight-knit community, and people like to see teams that are involved in the community.”
Humans factor in most news stories but, anyways, expansion on the front page of the Tennessean today pic.twitter.com/aKdnrCqFSd— Arielle Castillo (@ariellec) July 5, 2017
Regardless of what happens in the team's MLS expansion bid, the beautiful game’s foothold seems pretty secure. Check your calendars for the next possible time to visit – hot chicken optional.
“Most of Nashville is gonna stand the entire time,” Slape says of the next soccer event there, whenever that may be. “It’s gonna be loud and rowdy.”