There is nothing more exciting in sports than when a league decides to add expansion franchises. History has shown us that across all sports it is a common theme that new expansion teams are plagued with unwanted free agents, rookies, and/or 3rd tier talent. It generally takes years upon years for the new franchise to develop a culture within their city, to win, and to gain a consistent following. Take for example when the NBA expanded to add the Dallas Mavericks back in the 1980-1981 season. The Mavs finished the first 3 seasons (15-67), (28-54), and (38-44), respectively. It’s apparent the franchise struggled to compete for its adolescent years, and this is a trend that can be generalized to all expansion teams throughout history… but we do have exceptions! With Nashville being the latest city to receive an expansion team, let’s dig into how and why Nashville SC can replicate the success of a recent expansion team in the NHL.
Las Vegas introduced the Golden Knights into the NHL in 2017, and this city/franchise tossed the ‘New Expansion Team Handbook’ of the past right out the window. The Golden Knights finished the 2017-2018 season with a record of 51-24-7 earning them the top spot in the NHL Pacific Division. Even More remarkable, Vegas fought their way into the Stanley Cup Final! Although the Golden Knights ended up falling to the Washington Capitals in 5 games, the fact that the team reached the Stanley Cup in just its first season is unprecedented. So, how did Vegas do it? The franchise did it with hungry (underrated) players, coaching, and the full support of the city. Now let’s use this same logic and reasoning and apply it to how Nashville SC is positioned to take the same approach as the Golden Knights.
Nashville is currently one of the fastest growing cities in America with a population reaching near 700,000 people. Primarily known for its country music, Nashville is also known for a night on the town, outdoor tourist attractions, hot chicken, and an influx of immigrants moving into the area. According to worldpopulationreview.com, Nashville’s foreign-born population has tripled between 1990-2000. The locals may not love densely populating the city, but builders/investors do, which is one major reason the MLS perceived Nashville as a city capable of supporting an MLS franchise.
Soccer is already rich in Tennessee with clubs such as Tennessee Soccer Club (TSC) in Nashville, FC Alliance in Knoxville, and the Lobos in Memphis producing quality players year in and year out. One of the players includes TSC standout, and now Clemson Tiger Johnny Heckman, who is a Nashville native. On the women’s side, former TSC talent Wrenne French is now playing for the Tennessee Volunteers where she racked up 11 starts at wingback. Heckman and French are just 2 of the 300 former players that TSC has produced to the collegiate level. Soccer is a beautiful game and as more and more kids are exposed to it at a young age, the appreciation by the community as a whole will only continue to grow. Example: Every soccer dad who blamed only football back in his day!
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Nashville is hungry for a successful sports franchise. The Tennessee Titans and Nashville Predators have shown spurts of promising potential, only to lead to disappointing fans. Watching the locals cling to the Preds in their Stanley Cup run in 2017 shows just what I am talking about. Some may call it ‘fairweather or bandwagon’ fans (and they may be right..) but Nashville is absolutely ready to support a true contending franchise. Along with the fans, the Stars living in the Nashville area are as well. Nashville SC would be able to mimic the Preds by having BIG name stars singing the National Anthem and halftime shows.
Las Vegas’s had Gerald Gallant as their head coach in their inaugural season. Gallant was by no means the most qualified for the job, and his track record isn’t exactly impressive. What Gallant had going for him was he was a “players coach.” General Manager George McPhee described Gallant with a statement that reads, “In the eight months of vetting, we never heard a negative word about Gerald Gallant, the person.” In the organization’s first year, Gallant brought maturity, knowledge of the game, and something bigger than sports… someone the players could count on. Gallant was more concerned with the positive mindset of his players, and their well-being than his own personal win-loss record. Unselfish coaches like this are hard pressed to find in this day and age of sports. This is the exact candidate Nashville SC needs at the wheel to take them through their inaugural season, and they have just the man. His name is Gary Smith.
Gary Smith is currently the head coach of Nashville SC as they are still a year away from the MLS, playing in the USL. Nashville SC CEO stated the following in regards to the hire, “We need someone who understands the nuances of the U.S. game, someone that has experience of working with domestic and international players, someone with a history of developing young talent, someone who believed in our vision for the club and most importantly someone who is a winner. Gary fits that bill perfectly. Alongside those key attributes, the value of the continuity of having Gary already at Nashville SC and working with our team for the 2019 USL season make for a fantastic outcome.” The key sentence in that lengthy quote is where he addressed the means to find someone who believed in the vision of the club. Coach Smith will bring consistency, insights, tactics, and a calmness that most expansion teams are not fortunate enough to have.
Players that Create a Culture
Nashville SC has honestly had it as good as it gets in terms of preparing for their opening MLS season. The Club took a similar route that Orlando City SC who started signing players before their opening season. Nashville SC signed Daniel Rios on November 20, 2018, and Cameron Lancaster on December 20, 2018. Rios and Lancaster were the first MLS players that the club signed going into the 2020 season. Both of these players bring experience and leadership to a young club that will look to them as their leaders. The challenge for Rios and Lancaster is going to be to instill a culture and style of play that the rest of the team will embody. Hopefully, Nashville SC will be a place opposing players will HATE playing against, but want to play for! One big challenge will be competing for aging European players with bigger markets such as Los Angeles and New York that will really put Nashville on the map.
All in all, Nashville SC has seemed to have taken extreme caution when it comes to planning out the teams’ route into the MLS in 2020. I would look for the franchise to surprise people around the league in their inaugural season, and for the Nashville SC fans to be recognized as one of the best fan bases in the country!