By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On July 8, the United States national team played Panama to a 1-1 draw in a CONCACAF Gold Cup match at Nissan Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. The turnout for the match turned more than a few heads; the announced attendance of 47,622 set a record for the largest crowd to ever watch a soccer game in Tennessee.
Those numbers did not surprise Darren Ambrose. In two-and-a-half years of living in Nashville, the Vanderbilt women’s soccer coach has witnessed a surge of support for the game of soccer.
“I think soccer is the next major sport to hit our city,” Ambrose said. “Nashville has tremendous diversity. It’s not just a charming, southern city. It’s a booming place to live with pro sports. To me, soccer is the next sport that could find a really supportive home in Nashville.”
The U.S. national team’s visit represents just one example of the increase in soccer’s footprint in Nashville. Music City is one of 12 cities vying for the opportunity to land one of four Major League Soccer expansion teams. Last week MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who attended the U.S.-Panema match at Nissan Stadium, said Nashville has risen to “pretty high on the list.”
But Vanderbilt soccer is part of the sport’s rise in Nashville, as well. This summer, the program has hosted the Martinique national team for a practice at Vanderbilt Soccer Complex, and it is slated to welcome Manchester City for a workout at the end of July. The opportunity to host European soccer clubs is unique among SEC universities and another reason why Nashville is a burgeoning venue for the sport, Ambrose said.
“We’re the only SEC school that has the amenities, the pro sports, the activities, and it’s all growing,” Ambrose said. “At the moment, because of the draw to have national and international events here, we’re very well-positioned in Nashville.”
Ambrose has witnessed first-hand the growth of soccer during his short stint in the midstate. In the 1990s, the coach would frequently travel to Nashville as part of ODP, or the Olympic Development Program. Ambrose recalls visiting a city without a noticeable soccer presence.
Much has changed thanks to an influx of transplants now calling Nashville home. In March, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated an average of 100 people per day moved to Nashville from July 1, 2015 to July 1, 2016. The city’s shifting makeup has lured soccer fans from around the world to Music City, and the pool of local talent has likewise evolved. Ambrose said the Nashville area boasts a number of high-level women’s club soccer programs.
“There’s a successful club, Tennessee Soccer Club, which has four or five kids on youth national times,” Ambrose said. “They’ve played in the U-15, -16, -17 national teams. That’s impressive.”
Ambrose added that a new generation of parents sees soccer as a mainstream activity for one simple reason: the parents played soccer.
“It’s the largest participation sport among youth athletes in the country. It’s mainstream,” Ambrose said. “You think about the generation of parents now with five-, six-, seven-year-old kids, a lot of those parents played soccer themselves. I have former players from the nineties who played soccer, and as parents they want their kids involved. Forty years ago, you didn’t see that.”
Vanderbilt’s goal is to harness Nashville’s support for soccer with its own brand on West End. Ambrose has led the Commodores to two straight SEC tournament appearances in his two seasons in town; the program had not played in the conference tournament since 2010 prior to his arrival. The 2017 squad returns a number of key faces, including senior Lydia Simmons and sophomore Grace Jackson, and will also have senior Simone Charley eligible for her final year. Charley, who redshirted in 2016, is an All-SEC forward who became the first Vanderbilt athlete to earn an invite to the U.S. Soccer Under-23 National Team Camp earlier this spring.
With Nashville blossoming as a soccer market, Ambrose says Vanderbilt can turn into a destination for local fans of the sport. The Commodores are in the right place at the right time.
“We can help put soccer front and center to a lot of people,” Ambrose said. “We have a great product. SEC soccer is fun to watch, it’s free and it’s family entertainment. Our goal is to turn it into an event, not just a soccer game.
“When people know Man City is training here, Martinique training here, it helps bring a spotlight to Vanderbilt and our facilities and our program. We have to jump on that bandwagon and push Vanderbilt women’s soccer forward.”
Vanderbilt opens its season with an exhibition match against Furman on Aug. 9 at the Vanderbilt Soccer Complex.