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How Chattanooga FC, Nashville FC and the NPSL are Proving the South Is Ready For Soccer

NPSL Soccer

Photo via Chattanooga FC’s website.

It started out with a poster of Taylor Twellman I found at a garage sale. Growing up in Middle Tennessee, I had no idea who the New England Revolution were, I had never seen a Major League Soccer game, and I definitely didn’t know what a Shalrie Joseph was, but this Taylor Twellman guy had my first name and was playing the sport I had loved since I was a kid. So, I picked up a ball, bought a cheap goal, went to my backyard, and was determined to become the next famous “Taylor,” the world would see.

Over 10 years and a Taylor Swift later, my dreams have become much more realistic, but soccer has continued to grow in the South, despite the general consensus that no one cares about the sport.

Until next season with the arrival of Orlando SC, even Major League Soccer has ignored the Southeastern United States. There are and have been no teams from the Columbus Crew, south, and the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City, east, in over 13 years after two Florida-based franchises failed. Even with the arrival of an MLS team in Orlando, there will still be a huge swath of SEC country that is MLS barren until Atlanta joins the league in 2017.

Major League Soccer is finally expanding into the Southeastern United States, but with their hesitation to start directing franchises to the central region, they reveal a very real fear – what if, in their eagerness to expand MLS, they create another franchise like the struggling Chivas USA team that can barely get 8,000+ fans to their games.

As someone who grew up in the South, I understand where that sentiment comes from.

Growing up, soccer was generally looked down upon. If you were not born into a wealthy community or part of a culture that covets the sport, soccer was thought of as something that people grow out of as they get older. People thought of it more as a “fad” or a “game for children” and stuck with what the sports they knew best, High School and SEC Football.

In high school, the soccer team played on a practice field that was in reality the front lawn of a building that sloped downward, was less than forty yards wide, and had holes in it that would give athletic trainers nightmares. We had to beg the city to let the team use the recreational fields for games, and even had to cancel games because, according to certain city-workers, “soccer was a sissy sport” and wasn’t worth the possibility of messing up their fields.

We would travel to nearby counties whose scenery is best fit for a Breaking Bad episode and some of the locals suited for an episode of Cops, where the opposing team would chant “MEX-I-CAN, MEX-I-CAN” from the bench as our players of Hispanic origin darted down the field. Racial slurs whispered behind the play and away from the referee’s ears led to reactions that left the team a man down more than a few times.

So, when people say Americans don’t really care about soccer, those like me who grow up in the South away from the more wealthy schools find it hard to disagree.

But part of growing up is gaining a new perspective on everything – including soccer in America – and it’s time for the rest of the country to realize that the South is finally ready for soccer.

Major League Soccer has turned into must watch TV. Although the beautiful land known as SEC country still doesn’t have a major team, you can find supporters everywhere. I’ve seen a guy wearing a New York Red Bulls jersey at a local bar, Real Salt Lake jerseys at T.J. Maxx stores, and even a person jogging while wearing a Seattle Sounders jersey that had been personalized to say Valeri on the back (Sorry, Portland).

The MLS brand is expanding, clearly, but MLS isn’t the reason to be excited for the prospect of soccer in the South – it’s the success of the lower division teams.

A huge part of the development in the South has been the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). The NPSL is the fourth division of soccer and consists mainly of college players in the offseason, former pros, and local products – some of these teams even hold open tryouts.

The Nashville Metros were the longest running soccer club in the USL until their last season in 2012. With the team gone, instead of waiting for a team to come to them, the city of Nashville and its surrounding areas took it into their own hands and created their own team.

Nashville FC was founded by the community and is funded by the team’s supporters; it’s the first supporter-owned club in the United States. I’m even a “founder” level member (you can make donations here).

Nashville FC began just this season, and the team made it to the NPSL playoffs behind massive community support. With seven wins in their first season and a tie against a team headed to the NPSL National Championship, Nashville FC is heading into the future with a major head of steam.

The South’s big NPSL story is also from Tennessee, but just a little further East.

Chattanooga FC just reached the NPSL finals through a win against Sacramento Gold FC. A Southeastern team reaching the national championship should be praised, but it’s not the win that’s impressive – the semifinal brought in 8,878 fans.

That’s nearly 9000 fans to a fourth division semi-final game. To put that into perspective, that’s higher attendance than the average for all but the top four minor league baseball teams, all but the top six Arena Football League teams, and higher than the average attendance for every team in the NBA D-League. Oh, and for the MLS buffs out there; 8,878 is a higher attendance than the average for Chivas USA as well.

So, say what you will about soccer in the South, say that it’s a bad idea, say that we’re not ready for the beautiful game. But the successes in the lower divisions don’t lie – the South is ready for soccer, and it has been for some time.

Taylor Sturm is a Columnist for StoppageTimeSoccer.net. Follow him on Twitter @TSturmRS, like him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.

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10 Responses to How Chattanooga FC, Nashville FC and the NPSL are Proving the South Is Ready For Soccer

  1. There was an MLS franchise in Miami (Sol) when the league was founded. Carlos Valderrama was the star

  2. Good write up… but there were MLS teams in the south previously, both in Florida… Tampa Bay when the league started, then in Miami a couple years later… that ended up going bye bye a few years later.

    One team in Florida would work better, although MLS is potentially making the same mistake by letting Mr. Beckham put his new team in Miami… hopefully the Beckham factor helps it turn out differently… because Orlando already has a fervent following, so they should be safe.

    Chattanooga, good to go at the level they are… Meaning NPSL. They are one of the best, clearly (I think they should win the Final by the way)… Hope Nashville keeps up the good work… The more the merrier!

    @TomLeiss

    • I left out the failed teams, because I was focusing on soccer in the South now in the lower divisions and the recent growth. Thanks for pointing that out. I added a sentence so people wouldn’t get confused. I appreciate it.

  3. Pingback: Liga MX: Takeaways From Apertura 2014 Week 2 Action | Stoppage Time Soccer

  4. I’m wondering where the writer of this piece gets his information. “How Chattanooga FC, Nashville FC and the NPSL are Proving the South Is Ready For Soccer” pretty much ignores the fact that the South has, for the past few years, has enjoyed a complete Renaissance when it comes to professional soccer. The author of this article completely left out the fact that the North American Soccer League, 2nd division, currently has two teams in Florida (Tampa Bay Rowdies & the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers) and will have a third in 2015 in Jacksonville. There are, of course, the NPSL teams here in Florida, too. I simply believe that the credibility of this author has suffered because he declines to offer a well-rounded and complete article—which may lead people to believe incorrect–if not incomplete information. While there hasn’t been any MLS soccer in the South for quite a few years, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in the form of 2nd & 4th division teams. #NextTimeGetItRight

    • What’s the attendnce like in TB and Ft. Lauderdale and it’s hard to talk about a team in Jacksonville that hasn’t played a game yet. Don’t know what kind of fans they will get. NPSL is fourth division FWIW.

      I think the author focused on the teams he did is because he wanted to speak of where he knows what is going on. The information is not incorrect, sir. Also why should he speak about MLS teams that folded in the South previous. That doesn’t help his argument.

    • I ignored the NASL, because the NASL is second division and the highlight of the article was to focus on Chattanooga FC (fourth division) bringing in almost 9000 fans — more than several second division leagues in sports considered more important than soccer by many — while adding some of my personal experiences of the sport in the South. I have been to several Tampa Bay Rowdies and Atlanta Silverbacks games, and yes, their atmosphere’s are great, but they rarely boast an audience like the one at the semi-final between Chattanooga FC and Sacramento Gold. I specifically said, “there has not been an MLS team in over 13 years.” I did not discredit the NASL or the USL in any way; I simply stuck to the theme of the work which was my experiences of soccer in the South and how Nashville FC and Chattanooga FC are changing the game. Nashville FC — first ever supporter owned club in US. Chattanooga FC — 9000 fans to a fourth division game. I appreciate your concern for me leaving out second division teams, but I was purposely highlighting the fourth division because the stats and facts are far more impressive to those who don’t understand the rise of soccer in the South.

  5. Let’s not forget in the midst of Chattanooga’s constant amazing attendance, Nashville’s growing club, New Orleans sudden influx of fans, there is still the disaster of Pensacola City FC. Good will is good, but got to take the bad too.

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