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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)


Nashville is one of 10 cities under consideration for four open Major League Soccer expansion team slots, pitting Music City against some of its Southern peers for a team in the nation's top soccer league.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced the slate of finalists in play for an MLS team during a conference call with media Thursday to discuss the upcoming expansion process and timeline.

The professional soccer league's 25th and 26th teams, to begin play by 2020, will be announced sometime next year and would pay a record-high expansion fee of $150 million. The 27th and 28th expansion teams, along with the cost of their expansion fees, are to be named at a later date.

Joining Nashville in the hunt for a team are San Antonio, San Diego, Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Ohio; Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte, N.C.; Sacramento, Calif. and Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla. Each has ownership groups that have expressed interest in MLS.

Nashville is competing against three other cities in the southeast and two others, Cincinnati and St. Louis, that are just 300 miles away from Middle Tennessee.

MLS, founded in 1993, is embarking on a rapid period of expansion, with new teams in Atlanta and Minneapolis to begin next year followed by Los Angeles in 2018 and later Miami, whose owners include former soccer star David Beckham. Nashville is competing for the next round of expansion that would occur after those cities begin play.

When factoring in training facilities, stadium costs and other requirements, Garber said the total cost for an MLS expansion team will likely require an investment "well north of $300 million" for the ownership group.

Discussing MLS' interest in Nashville, Garber pointed to large crowds at recent international soccer matches at Nashville's Nissan Stadium, mostly recently between Mexico and New Zealand in October. He also said Nashville fits into a plan for a "geographic rollout in the southeast," a place where MLS has a smaller presence than other parts of the county.

Garber said MLS is encouraged by the start of Nashville Soccer Club, a recently awarded United Soccer League team eyeing 2018 to begin play. He noted the league's ties to the team's chief executive officer Court Jeske, who previously worked as vice president of international business for Soccer United Marketing, the commercial arm of Major League Soccer.

Garber also referenced the Nashville MLS Steering Committee, a group of Nashville business and political heavyweights that formed this year to compete for an MLS team and is expected to be the primary applicant for the MLS team.

"We're encouraged by the community support, at least so far, behind (Nashville SC) and the political and business leaders who have come out and expressed interest in Nashville being a possible MLS expansion team," Garber said.

Nashville's potential MSL investors, who first met with the league only months ago, is earlier in the expansion process than the other nine cities.

In August, businessman Bill Hagerty, former state commissioner of Economic and Community Development commissioner under Gov. Bill Haslam, led the creation of the Nashville MLS Steering Committee. The group includes backing from top executives of HCA, Bridgestone Americas, Nissan North America and Ryman Hospitality Properties, the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators in the MLS push.

"The movement to bring Major League Soccer to Nashville has come a long way in a very short time thanks to the hard work of our city's business and civic leadership," Will Alexander, a co-organizer of the MLS Steering Committee said in a statement. "There is real energy, unity and momentum behind Nashville's bid.

"Nashville is one of America's most dynamic cities and the perfect choice for MLS. The committee will continue working to make Nashville's case every day."

The Nashville steering committee's effort is also endorsed by Nashville SC, the newly awarded USL club that first must finalize stadium plans before starting play. USL is considered the third-tier league in North America's professional soccer pyramid, two leagues below MLS, the highest level.

Nashville SC is led by an ownership group that includes David Dill, president of Nashville-based LifePoint.

Multiple existing MLS teams are affiliated with USL clubs and others evolved into MLS after starting at the USL level. Nashville SC officials have said USL offers Nashville as chance to prove itself as a professional soccer city to attract consideration from MLS.

"What I know about this process is we have to show that we can be a soccer city to be considered," Nashville SC's Jeske told The Tennessean this fall. "And therefore we need to do what we can at Nashville SC to support that cause.

Garber said MLS considers the commitment of the ownership group; a market's fan support, size, geography corporate support, and television market; and a city's stadium plan.

He said expansion applications will have to address each of these areas as well as ownership structure, financial projections, and other considerations.

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December 17, 2016


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