Saturday evenings this summer, Vanderbilt’s Soccer field transformed into somewhat of a Chevy Silverado commercial: Will Hoge’s “Strong” blaring as 11 players and their coach in his lucky gray pants charged the field to face such foes as the Force, the Jesters, and the Revolution.
Hoge happens to own that team—Nashville FC, the city’s semi-professional soccer team. So do some 700 others, many of them among a throng of fans, chanting in building rhythm and decibel levels their favorite chant—and club motto:
“Our town, our club.”
“To see folks come out on a Saturday night in the summer, when there’s plenty to do in a great town like Nashville, but they choose to come out and spend some of their hard-earned money and buy some of our gear and jump up and down in the stands and root for the team. . .
“Seeing the city get behind this number of people on this consistent of a basis—a team like this—at our game. As a member of the soccer community, even if I wasn’t involved [on the team], I’d be thrilled with it,” said head coach Bryan Johnson, who’s been a part of soccer in the Nashville area for 30 years.
Johnson played at Franklin High and Belmont University before transferring to Maryville College in East Tennessee for two years. He returned to coach at Belmont then played for the Nashville Metros.
“[They] were part of this community for a long time; they kept the dream alive. They were the longest-running club in U.S. soccer for a long time. When that came to an end, we were proud to be able to continue. They did some tough sledding to keep things going where there weren’t as many folks supporting this game,” said Johnson, who added that the Metros’ legacy, along with the strength of youth leagues throughout Middle Tennessee “is all part of the whole community that makes this kind of thing possible.”
It was Chris Jones, who played on Middle Tennessee State University’s 2001 Sunbelt Conference football championship team, who launched an effort to continue the post-Metro era by forming Nashville FC.
“In 2008, I started playing the FIFA video game. I couldn’t get enough of it,” Jones said. “I followed the Metros a little and when they folded in February 2013, I was like, ‘Let’s put a team together.’ ”
Through what was virtually a grassroots campaign, Jones and other partners have established the United States’ first supporter-owned football club, Nashville FC, through a merger with Atlas FC, through which about 600 founding members paid $75.00 to join by a May 10 deadline. These members received a Nashville FC scarf—a staple for international football fans—and free tickets to games. Current members of the 501(c)7 social club pay $40.00 dues in an annual cycle that begins every August 1, and to date, Nashville FC has more than 700 member-owners. Each gets a vote on every decision affecting club operations, notices of club news (including monthly social gatherings and opportunities for service work), the club’s annual T-shirt, and other amenities.
“Every single decision’s put through a vote. We all get a vote. For our youth program, we got a 93 percent ‘yes’ to partner up with Harpeth Soccer. It’s great giving back to a community we’re helping build already. It shows that Nashville really cares about our club,” said Logan Collins, a native of Dublin.
Collins is one of Nashville FC’s founder-owners, and one of the Nashville FC “Roadies,” a group of die-hards who travel to all the team’s games—and who (like his fellow Roadies) comes to home games equipped with horns, huge flags, a bass drum, and a stereo system. You’ll also find him among the many fans who tailgate before home games—and bring extra slices of pizza for the players who often mingle with them.
“Especially with the mayor coming out, really cementing we know we’re where we’re supposed to be—and we’re going to stay here,” Collins said.
Mayor Karl Dean attended Nashville FC’s home match against the New Orleans Jesters. He said, “Nashville is a great sports town, and I am thrilled the city now has a semi-pro soccer organization. I know there are many soccer fans here in our city who enjoy watching the game and playing the game. It’s a great sport to get both kids and adults outside to be active.”
Nashville FC competes in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL)—the fourth tier of leagues in the United States. Ultimately, the club would like to compete in the Major Soccer League (MSL). The team has 28 players from 14 countries who share the vision and enthusiasm for the club the owners have.
“It’s great that we’ve started to make a basis for ourselves to grow on as far as what the potential could be and the community spirit felt here,” said midfielder Elliot Goodwin of Cheshire, UK, better known as the “Cheshire Cat” by the Nashville FC Roadies.
In its first season, Nashville FC finished fourth in the Southeast division of the NPSL and made the playoffs. Attendance at two home matches has approached 2,000 fans in the current 2,400-seat stadium.
“It’s been surreal. Going into this we thought it would be good to have 500, maybe 1,000, people show up. That’s a successful first year,” said Jones. “Coast to coast, very few [NPSL] teams can claim they have 1,000+ per game. For us to exceed that every game really is a testament to how strong the soccer community is in Middle Tennessee.”
According to Nashville FC member-owners, attending matches is a value that fits aficionados and novices.
“I’m a new convert to football. I’m from Nebraska originally. My Huskers are dear to my heart, but I’ve never been so excited,” said Steve Pennington of Clarksville, another Nashville FC Roadie.
“You can’t ask for a better experience. You can’t just reach out and high-five a player when you’re at a Preds game. You can’t tell them ‘Good shot!’ and they give you the thumbs up and see the coach and heckle him half the time.”
Johnson takes into account that he’s not just creating cause for heckling from die-hards; he’s creating an experience for those new to football.
“I don’t really understand all the X Games, but I get that Tony Hawks’ awesome. I get that when you’re around a group of people who are really into it, that community aspect of it, it sort of becomes infectious and gets ahold of you,” he said.
Nolan Pittman, vice-president of operations for Nashville FC, adds, “It’s a fantastic bargain because you think of all the benefits—you get to be outdoors, you get to be with your family, and it’s substantially cheaper. A family of four can come to a game together and enjoy concession foods for less than $50 (even less expensive if children are under 12 because they get in free).
“It’s a great place to develop an emotional connection with your team as well,” Pittman said.
In a Nashville “strong and here to stay” kind of way.
To learn more about Nashville FC matches, membership, and year-round social and outreach activities, go to nashvillefc.net.