By some accounts, Nashville’s quest for a top-tier Major League Soccer franchise started late and lacked several key components. But experts say much has changed — and Nashville, newly named on Wednesday as one of four finalists by the MLS, now has a strong chance of being awarded a franchise.
The finalists — Nashville, Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento — make final presentations to the league Dec. 6, with two franchises to be awarded Dec. 14.
“Early on, Nashville was not a top contender,” said Kevin Reichard of Soccer Stadium Digest, a trade magazine. “Bit by bit, the Nashville bid evolved … it’s actually a remarkable story, where it came from the middle of the pack to a leading contender.
“In the end, the Nashville investors made a strong commitment to soccer on every level. They have the new stadium bonding, they have a strong ownership group, and they have a very hot city to do business in.”
They agree the Nashville ownership group is strong — with two billionaires as backers — plus a hot market, good demographics, supportive city officials and a stadium financing plan that was quickly approved.
Sports Illustrated goes so far as to tout Nashville’s "quick and comprehensive commitment" and extols the city's growing global appeal and a location that could fill a “significant hole” in the league’s map. ESPN says the city made more progress than any other candidate.
Still, experts have long held Sacramento as the frontrunner, thanks to its popular second-tier United Soccer League team, large TV market and long-ago finalized stadium plan.
So Reichard said the second available franchise comes down to Nashville versus Cincinnati, where there’s also already a lower-level team with a proven, die-hard fan base.
“I would put Nashville’s bid ahead of Cincinnati’s as of today. Now, that could change in the next couple days,” he said Wednesday.
He hedged because Cincinnati has struggled to find an ideal stadium location and has met strong resistance to publicly funding it.
Yet on Wednesday, hours after MLS announced its finalists, the Cincinnati city council did approve a stadium plan — despite pushback from a group of business and hotel leaders that came out against the idea. The city funding for related infrastructure came in below an earlier request from the team.
Stadium deal passes council, 5-3. One of council members yelled: "Goal!" immediately after final vote
— Jason Williams (@jwilliamscincy) November 29, 2017
ESPN has a similar analysis on Cincinnati, calling it “the only candidate that can stand in the way of Sacramento and Nashville.” Meanwhile, Detroit has been called a “distant” fourth place, largely because its bid doesn’t include a new soccer stadium.
The MLS still has plans for a total of four expansion franchises — two in December and two later. While the league has said a wider pool of cities remain in the running for the second round, Reichard said these four finalists are likely looking at "a matter of when … not if" for expansion franchises.