YoAn Ayre, CEO of Nashville SC, never gave much thought to working in the US, let alone Tennessee. In fact, after his departure in 2017 In the same role at Liverpool, he wasn’t really thinking much about football: a decade at his boyhood club had been as exhausting as it was exciting. A visit to Nashville and a meeting with the club’s owners changed his mind. Back then, the club was more of a concept than a reality. For Ayre, it was an opportunity he knew he had to take. “How often,” he asked himself, “do you get to work with a blank canvas?”

In December 2017, MLS confirmed that Nashville would receive an expansion team, joining the league in 2020 (Ayre joined the team in May 2018). The birth of the club would have seemed almost fanciful a decade earlier. But ambition and investment, spearheaded by owner John Ingram, a patronizing local industrialist, were crucial.

When the club played its first MLS game against Atlanta United before a crowd of nearly 60,000 in February 2020, it was at the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. But the club’s ambitions went beyond mere participation. Instead, he wanted to achieve something unique: construction of the largest purpose-built soccer stadium in the US. Geodis Park, Nashville SC’s 30,000-capacity stadium, opened on May 1, 2022 after two years of quick build. The eyebrows had risen. Was there really enough demand in a city where soccer was often considered a niche sport?

Certainly there are US cities that come to mind more easily when it comes to soccer. Although the sport in Nashville may not claim the same tradition as in New York, Philadelphia or Portland, it does have its own history. Gambling carved its way into the city from successive waves of immigration, from Hungarians arriving after World War II to Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. fall of various amateur and semi-professional clubs, from the much loved and ancient Nashville Subways toward Nashville Diamondsa slightly disastrous and short-lived 1980s experiment, playing in the equally ill-fated American Soccer League.

Since its inception, Nashville SC has placed a strong emphasis on authenticity as one of its core values. Nashville has been considered a thriving city for the past decade and more, thanks to strong economic and population growth. For some, this has turned out to be an unsettling experience. Not everyone was excited about the prospect of Geodis Park being located on the city’s historic fairgrounds, which used to house the Tennessee State Fair. In 2018, a coalition of locals calling itself Save The Fairgrounds took the city government to court in an attempt to delay construction of the new stadium, a case taken up by incoming mayor John Cooper in 2019. After some wrangling financial, the club was allowed to continue with the construction of the new stadium.

Today, Geodis Park already feels like an accessory: an oddly understated addition to the local landscape, despite its size. “We didn’t want it to look like a spaceship had crashed into Wedgewood Houston,” laughs Ayre. “Our stadium has four different bleachers instead of a bowl. There is a home end and it is designed so that there are no bad seats. Even if you’re sitting in the top row, right in the back, you’re never more than 150 feet from the action.”

Despite the pace of change, the city retains much of its essence: a warm and welcoming place that takes no time at all to turn newcomers into evangelists. It certainly didn’t take long for Ayre to “go native.” The modest Scouser arrived with short hair and a fresh face. Five years later, he sports a neatly trimmed beard, looking like a gently aged country star.

Nashville SC fans have embraced the club and season ticket sales have been brisk.
Nashville SC fans have embraced the club and season ticket sales have been brisk. Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports

Jozef Colomy is another example. The 34-year-old Californian also moved to the city half a decade ago. Obsessed with soccer his entire life, he quickly became involved with the club as his MLS debut approached.

Today, he is an active member of Bootlegger’s raucous group of supporters, well known for their commitment to tailgating events, with plenty of beer and food.

“The club was already well supported. Being in MLS makes it more exciting for the average fan, but even for the fans there is perhaps an even greater sense of pride,” he says. “To have a local team to support, that’s really all you can ask for.”

The popularity of soccer in the United States is at an all time high. Something has to do with the broadcast of the Premier League on NBC and the success of the men’s and women’s teams, as well as the influx of American talent in the best leagues in Europe. Then there’s the growing maturity of MLS, which has begun to shed old clichés about geriatric European stars seeking a final payday. Instead, it has built a reputation as an exciting and competitive league in its own right, brimming with hungry up-and-coming talent. The crowds are young, diverse. and deeply erudite.

Nashville SC embodies this growth. The club made the playoffs in its debut season in MLS (it spent some time first in the second-tier USL) and has been a solid performer ever since. The team currently sits third in the Eastern Conference with a streamlined squad with no blockbuster names, perhaps except for 2022 MLS MVP Hany Muhktar and American veteran Walker Zimmerman.

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For Mike Jacobs, Nashville’s general manager, any questions about the sport’s future in the city, and the US as a whole, have been answered comprehensively. “Soccer has grown significantly. It’s here. MLS is the fifth major league in this country. It’s really exciting. What’s happening in Nashville is an amazing love affair,” he explains from his office at the club’s training complex on the fringes of the city.

This isn’t simply overly optimistic managerial speak. All 23,000 season tickets for 2023 sold out and average attendances hover around the 28,000 mark. “The fervor is there,” says Colomy. “People really, really love it. It’s something to behold every game. The atmosphere in the stadium is electric. Though as far as I know, no one has the crest tattooed across their back or anything like that yet.”

Ian Ayre (left) alongside Jürgen Klopp and chairman Tom Werner after the German’s appointment as Liverpool manager in 2015.
Ian Ayre (left) alongside Jürgen Klopp and chairman Tom Werner after the German’s appointment as Liverpool manager in 2015. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Perhaps the passion Colomy describes isn’t all that surprising. As Nashville soccer writer Pablo Maurer has noted, it’s a city where “locals have almost always seized on almost anything that presents itself with the opportunity of being ‘theirs’”. Very few, for instance, had seriously considered an NHL hotspot before the Nashville Predators arrived in the late 1990s. Colomy says “[Nashville SC] It’s a very unifying presence and something the whole city should be proud of.”

For Ayre, the club’s authenticity goes beyond marketing. It’s about an adherence to what makes football so special in the first place. Gone are the days when MLS games were tied ended in a penalty shootout.

“My own opinion is that people won’t take you seriously anywhere else if you don’t play their game,” he says. “NFL, baseball, they really only play it here. But when it comes to football, you really can’t mess with it. It was crucial for MLS and absolutely crucial for us to be authentic.”

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