Not long ago, the notion of professional soccer in Nashville, Tennessee sounded eccentric. Now it’s impossible to imagine the city without it. Large crowds flock to support Nashville SC of the United Soccer League (USL), a first-year, second-division club on an 11-game unbeaten run and into the Round of 16 of America’s oldest soccer competition, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It’s safe to say, where the Grand Ole Opry and the fabled Ryman Auditorium hold sway, the world’s game is here to stay.
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“There’s this perception back home that Nashville’s some hick-town, full of rednecks,” said 30-year-old striker Robin Shroot, a Londoner with experience at Birmingham City and in Norway who was brought over by his countryman and coach Gary Smith. “But I’ve been blown away by how passionate everyone is for life over here. How relaxed the vibe is – how they’ve come to embrace the club. And even though country music isn’t the first choice for me on Spotify, Carrrie Underwood is even working her way up my list.”
(Englishman Robin Shroot is loving life in "vibrant" Nashville)
Shroot is part of an international cast assembled by head coach Smith, former manager of MLS’ Colorado Rapids. He’s teamed up with the club’s GM Mike Jacobs, who came from Sporting Kansas City – a perennial force in the top-flight and, not coincidentally, the Open Cup. In the best of circumstances, it’s difficult to get a team together, on the same page and competitive in a first year of existence. But that’s just what this brain trust behind Nashville SC did early on and with a clear vision in mind.
Quick off the Blocks
“It’s come together quite a bit quicker than I had imagined,” said Smith, who came up as a player through the Arsenal youth system and had a stint with Fulham. He speaks slowly and considers his answers. There’s nothing canned about him, and he makes it clear that selecting the right players – not just good players – was critical. “We looked for players who were comfortable in possession, players who were soccer intelligent – which is a lot different than academically intelligent. We wanted players who were hard-working and aspired to succeeding if they’re young and set a good example if they’re senior players. We’re seeing the results of that right now.”
(The Roadies, Nashville SC's super-fans, are a rowdy bunch)
Hunting the right kind of player led Smith to assemble a squad that’s a mix of young and old, of American-born talent and foreigners who’ve learned their trade in places with more of a traditional soccer pedigree than Tennessee. There are players in the squad from Ghana, Gambia, Japan, Portugal and even the Isle of Man. And the results that Smith talks about seeing, well those are hard to miss. The crowds have not only been big at First Tennessee Park, but they’ve been wild, spurred on by the club’s official supporters group -- the Roadies.
Nashville SC haven’t been beaten in the space of 11 games. Most recently, the club garnered a literal last-second home win over North Carolina FC that saw them into fourth place in the USL standings (with a pair of games in hand). All this on the eve of traveling to Kentucky for Wednesday’s Open Cup Round of 16 game with league rivals Louisville City.
(Nashville's Open Cup run has seen be Davids and Goliaths - and they've won as both)
“Coming in from Sporting Kansas City, the Open Cup, and what it means to American soccer, is just part of my DNA,” said Jacobs, an understated front-office wizard who had a large hand in finding the talent to fit the needs and desires of coach Smith. “We’re making a statement in the Open Cup in our first year and that’s massive for the equity and credibility of this club and for the future of soccer here in Nashville. We’re showing we can compete with teams from all levels of the American soccer scene.”
Nashville aren’t just competing with teams higher up the food chain, they’re beating them. After knocking off area amateurs Inter Nashville SC in their first Cup game, they bested PDL club Mississippi Brilla before doing the same to big boys Colorado Rapids in the Fourth Round. Coach Smith and two of his players (Matt Pickens and defender Kosuke Kimura) were all once affiliated with the Denver-based MLS outfit. “In a Cup it doesn’t matter how you win, you just need to win – but to do so in the fashion we did was amazing,” said Jacobs. Nashville SC won the day 2-0 and didn’t allow the Rapids, MLS champions in 2010 under Smith, a single shot on target. Smith agreed with his GM and has every reason to expect more out of the tournament: “I see no reason why we can’t become one of those teams who go on a great run from outside the top flight.
(Head coach Gary Smith has been the primary guiding force for Nashville's early success)
“There’s a buzz around the organization about the Open Cup,” added Smith. “The fans are getting up for it. It creates a momentum and gives everyone a huge confidence boost when you go and beat an MLS side like we did. It goes a long way to laying some foundations – putting some stones in place for the future.”
That future, for Nashville, is in MLS. The league confirmed as much in December of last year. And while it’s not yet certain that Nashville SC will be the name of the team when they hit the top flight, the stones being laid at this club will build the framework for what happens down the road. For now, though, there’s only one thing on the mind of the players and the staff: Winning. Winning in USL and in the 2018 Open Cup.
That Old Cup Magic
“A good Cup run is always crucial,” said Shroot, who grew up loving the FA Cup in his native England. “And it’s a bit of novelty as well. We went and beat an MLS team. Can we be the USL team that goes the farthest? Maybe [three remain – Nashville SC, Louisville City and Sacramento Republic]. All those things add a little bit of spin to what’s going on here at the club. It’s not just your run-of-the-mill league game. It adds a new dimension, like a bonus. Teams, through history, have thrived off of that.”
(For a first-year club, fan culture and results have been impressive for Nashville SC)
Nashville’s players know their next opponent well. They’ve beaten Lou City and lost to them already this season. This time, with a place in the Quarterfinals on the line, will be the tensest yet. “It would be superb to get past Louisville City and into the last eight,” said Lebo Moloto, formerly of Sporting Kansas City’s USL-based little brother Swope Park Rangers who came over with Jacobs at the start of the season. The midfielder’s from faraway South Africa, and he’s been bitten by the Open Cup bug. “There’s no group stages like the World Cup,” he said, having played a few years of college soccer in Kentucky and admittedly being shocked at the rise of soccer in the American South. “You have to put everything in – you win or you go home. We have a group with a winning mentality.”
“We lost there (in Louisville) early on and it’s still a bad taste in our mouth,” said Lagos, Nigeria-born Bolu Akinyode. “We know there has to be a winner, but for us that’s just motivation.” More motivation. Those two words should have Lou City and their fans a little nervous. Nashville SC, in their first year, have caught the kind of tailwind and form that’s rare for teams even decades older. They’re up in the stratosphere and one win away from ranking in the Last Eight. Motivation hasn’t been a problem.