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Under the Radar: Where is the Next Great Soccer City?

I spent sometime this season following the results of an upstart NPSL team that caused quite a buzz in the lower levels of American soccer, that team is Chattanooga FC.  A quaint, modest Appalachian foothills city that straddles the banks of the Tennessee River, Chattanooga is one of the last places people would look if they were searching for a soccer hotbed, and they would be missing out on something very exciting.

During the course of their debut season Chattanooga led the league in attendence, averaging well over 1,000 fans through the gates of Finley Stadium each week, especially impressive when you consider the city already has an established minor-league baseball team in the Chattanooga Lookouts who play out of the beautiful AT&T Park (yes, it shares a name with a more famous park).

Thinking back to Chattanooga’s success in a league not associated with MLS or the USL, together with the formation of a new professional league by the breakaway TOA clubs, got me asking myself: “Where is North America’s next great soccer city?”

As Kartik wrote earlier today, the TOA league will mark the return of professional soccer to St. Louis, a city which is arguably the heart and soul of the American game. It’s a wonder that a city the size of St. Louis, especially considering it’s natural rivalry with Chicago, went so long without  a professional team.  Now with St. Louis accounted for, it’s time to ask — hypothetically, of course — where one of the leagues will expand next (discounting the already announced expansion cities in MLS and the USL).

Des Moines, Iowa – A midwestern city like St. Louis, has been incredibly supportive of it’s PDL team, the Menace, to the tune of crowds approching, and at times easily exceeding, 4,000. There has been talk of Des Moines joining the professional ranks but as always, money is an issue, as is the lack of a stadium though there are grassroots efforts in place to build a soccer-specific venue in the greater Des Moines area. While not a glamorous market, and one that will certainly be scoffed at by people unaware of the Menace’s off-field success, Des Moines has shown a passion for the sport which few cities in North America can rival.

Omaha, Nebraska – In keeping with the midwestern theme, it’s hard to ignore Omaha when you get a look at the beautiful Morrison Stadium. Craighton, the stadium’s owners and main tenants, are always near the top of the NCAA attendance charts (.pdf), showing that a willingness from the city to support local soccer. It’s not possible to tell whether or not that support would automatically transfer to the professional game, but Omaha has historically shown support for minor-league sports.

Greensboro, North Carolina – And it’s sister cities of Winston-Salem, Burlington, and High Point of course. One of American soccer’s old hands, the Carolina (formerly Greensboro) Dynamo, play in the Triad (Browns Summit, to be exact) and often draw big crowds to their small, tranquil soccer-specific stadium at Bryan Park. Dynamo matches are not the only soccer well supported in the area either as both North Carolina-Greensboro and Wake Forest can lay claim to good crowds, and wonderful little stadiums of their own. Furthermore, the 11,500-seat Rhodes Stadium on the campus of Elon was built with soccer in mind. Though to many people the area sits in the twin shadows of North Carolina’s two major cities, Charlotte and Raleigh, Greensboro boasts one of the most active soccer communities in America.

Jackson, Mississippi – This one will raise a red flag with many people outside of the South, but Jackson isn’t without it’s merits. Yes, Mississippi is and will always be SEC football country, but since 2007 the Jackson area has played host to a modestly successful, and cleverly named PDL team, the Mississippi Brilla. Despite the relative lack of facilities, the Brilla have managed to impress at the gate, especially considering the competition from the Mississippi Braves, the Southern League farm club of Atlanta. While it’s very much a long-shot, Jackson does deserve a mention since it does fit the qualification of being successful “under the radar”.

St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador – Canada’s most historic soccer city, yet there is no professional club within sight. St. John’s is home to King George V Park, site of Canadian soccer’s most memorable triumph and one of the oldest soccer-specific venues in English-speaking North America. St. John’s is reletively small by North American standards, and is certainly remote given it’s location in the Canadian maritimes, but it’s soccer history is expansive and I get the feeling that the city would passionately support a team.

Louisville, Kentucky – Louisville is a big city. It’s not New York, Dallas, or Chicago but it’s still a city that carries with it a big reputation. I’ve always felt that the old Cardinal Stadium — though I’m unsure of it’s fate — would make an ideal soccer stadium, but I’m not sure how well Louisville would support soccer. Soccer would be the fifth sport in the city, after football, basketball, baseball and horse racing but it may just be big enough to support a USL team. I’m in the dark on this one.

I know I’m missing several cities, Victoria, BC among them, so feel free to name some more. Keep in mind that we’re talking about cities that fly under the radar, not the likes of Atlanta or Baltimore.

This entry was posted in Leagues: Major League Soccer, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Under the Radar: Where is the Next Great Soccer City?

  1. Nicolas says:

    I am a big fan of this website and your work, but I must say that the cities named in this article for expansion are absolutely ridiculous!!! Incredibly small markets to say the least…

    • Matthew N says:

      Yeah… People bitch about Columbus not getting enough fans.. Put a club in Mississippi or Des Moines for a few years and you’ll see something to really complain about. This country isn’t ready for soccer yet, so any expansion needs to be planned with great caution. The worst thing that could happen would be for upstart franchises to fail after the honeymoon period is over.

      • Bobby Brandon says:

        I see where you guys are coming from, and I’m not expecting 20-30,000 in these places. Not at all. 5-10,000 is what I’m aiming for.

        I realize that there are larger cities, like Atlanta, that offer a much easier profit but everyone knows about those cities and what they can do, I was talking about under the radar cities.

    • Adam Edg says:

      AS a Des Moines native and Menace supporter, I can assure you that we are a soccer city. I read somewhere recently that our “midsize market” (professional jargon for permanently in the minor leagues) has like the second highest number of soccer players in the country per capita. Soccer is fairly huge here. We boast strong immigrant communities from Africa, Bosnia, Mexico, and Central America. These are soccer cultures.
      As far as local colleges Drake draws well and is hosting the Missouri Valley Conference tournament this year. DIII Simpson draws about as big of a crowd for soccer as they do for American football. Grand View is a NAIA powerhouse. All three programs attract players from around the globe.
      The Menace are a PDL powerhouse both off and on the field. Their record, USOC success, division and league championships speak for themselves. Leading the PDL in attendance every year and drawing better than a few USL-1 & all USL 2 teams (http://www.bigsoccer.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1135373&page=6). Columbus Crew members Ezra Hendrickson and Andy Gruenebaum are both Menace alumni. As are Wizards players Michael Krause & Kevin Souter, Sounders player Lamar Neagle, Red Bulls player Leonard Krupnik, and Dynamo player Danny Cruz. That is not taking into account the players in USL1 & 2 or elsewhere.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Des_Moines_Menace
      Are we an MLS market? Heck no. But we are big enough and ready for a USL-1/TOA-league team.

      • Chris in Belfast says:

        Thank you, Adam. I get so sick of having to defend Des Moines to people. The Menace outdraw many USL-1 teams, and I’m confident that support would increase if the team played in a bigger league.

        To be honest, I think (perhaps crazily) that Des Moines would really love to have a legit, top level pro-team, and that the demographics in Des Moines would support MLS at least as far as attendance is concerned. The team could put Wells Fargo or Principal on the front of the kit and have immediate local connections, too. But there aren’t nearly enough eyeballs in the area to justify a Des Moines team based on TV numbers.

        I’d love to see the Menace step into a purpose built stadium and move up to USL-1/TOA, though. The question I’d ask you, Adam, is where to put the stadium. I’d rather not see something like that in the suburbs, and looking at Google Maps it looks like there’s some open area near Tuttle and SW 9th, fairly near downtown, Principal Park, and Wells Fargo Arena. Do you think something like that could work? Is that area of town still undeveloped? Despite working down there for the last summer before I left for school, I’m not sure if there’s anything in that particular spot or not.

        • Adam Edg says:

          The area you reference is actually being developed right now. The Stetson building is being torn down and a new hotel is going up right around there. I work right across the street and have thought many times that that would be a great spot for a SSS. The fact that the bus depot is right there also increases its ability to draw fans.
          My other pick would be off the southside/highway 5 bypass. That way it is highly accessible, within the city limits (potentially) and near the airport, hotels, etc. The area of Urbandale previously explored would not be too bad as it is highly accessible as well. Waukee is too far away from the interstate and the eastern burbs are too far away from the core supporters and $$$.

  2. Folks, MLS isn’t the only league around and Bobby is mentioning good cities for USL or the TOA league as well as potential MLS cities down the road.

    This list omits current MLS/USL-1/USL-2 cities. It is an appropriate list. We have three tiers of pro soccer in this country, not just one.

    For the game to grow, all three tiers need to be healthy and well supported.

    • Yea, that’s what I was going after.

      Trust me, I’m under no illusions that these towns could up and support an MLS team right away.

      You have to remember that bigger cities don’t have a great history of supporting minor league teams. It’s an ego thing. This is why Charleston, a mid-level “market” in South Carolina, is home to one of the most stable teams in the USL. USL-1 is just right for Charleston, and it should be aiming for more cities like Charleston. Greensboro, for instance, is perfect. It’s only real pro competition is a single-A baseball team — the Grasshoppers.

      Ideally, and I realize how unlikely it is, I’d like for every sizable town to have a team. An extremely rationalized third and fourth tier could accommodate that, and possibly create some real local rivalries.

  3. Phil says:

    BALTIMORE all I have to say Crystal Palace !

  4. dan says:

    well Dayton, Ohio would be a good market for like a USL or TOA. Not MLS though. But a ton of People show up all the time at Dayton’s Airforce Base for The Summer High School Tourniments.

  5. Derek says:

    All good cities for future USL-1/TOA League expansion. I would like to boast a few potential Florida cities and add Orlando, and, a serious dark horse, Key West.

    Orlando is a no brainer for 2nd tier soccer. And it would make for a good rivalry with Miami and Tampa Bay. Let me explain Key West: Yes it’s out of the way a bit, and a loooooooong bus ride on the Overseas Highway. But if teams can fly to PR they can fly to Key West. The reason I think a USL level team could work there is because it’s an isolated town(with a Navy base) with nothing to do but drink and chill on the beach. Having their first ever pro sports franchise would be something to rally around. Conch Republic FC!

    Of course, they have no potential investors(short of maybe Jimmy Buffet or city native MLB player Bronson Arroyo), and a high school stadium, so it’s highly unlikely, but I think it could work.

  6. Chattanooga has definitely become quite the little soccer town over the last few years. Chattanooga FC is just adding some gasoline to the fire! For any true soccer fans who enjoy quality soccer gear, check out http://www.chattanoogafc.com/page/gear as there is a bunch of pretty cool CFC merchandise available. The club has been able to connect with fans (self-proclaimed Chattahooligans) and have been successful in creating a tribe mentality. In fact, the club is expecting to draw 5000 fans per match in the 2010 season. For soccer fans, Chattanooga is definitely an exciting place to be these days. Come check it out next summer!

  7. Joe in Indianapolis says:

    Sadly, there is no demand in Indianapolis.

  8. Jeff C. says:

    I would love to see a team in Indianapolis. It’s the 14th largest city in the country (although only the 33rd largest metropolitan area). It has a soccer-specific stadium, Kuntz Stadium, although with a limited seating capacity of not much more than 5000, it would need expansion. It did a good job of hosting the US Open Cup final in 1997, with a crowd of nearly 10,000 (Wikipedia’s report on the match is wrong in one respect, by the way: the match was held not at Kuntz Stadium, but at the IUPUI track and field stadium, which seats somewhere around 12,000). The failure of the A-League Indiana Blast, which folded in 2004, would surely be a major strike against the city, although the Blast weren’t helped by the fact that they were awful. Another strike against would be that a team here would be battling with the Ice (minor league hockey) for the role of fourth most important pro team in the city, behind the Colts, Pacers, and Indians. And, as Joe suggests above, there doesn’t seem to be any groundswell pushing for a team. It’s too bad, really–this is a great sports city, and I do think that a properly run team could succeed here, but I don’t see it happening.

  9. Rob says:

    I didn’t go as far into this as you did but I was thinking the other day of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. One google search of Soccer in Edmonton returned one of the most organized amateur soccer sites I’ve ever seen: http://www.edsa.org/site/

    I did the same for Calgary, Alberta; which returned a site which wasn’t as impressive as Edmonton’s, but it was still a start: http://www.cusa.ab.ca/league.php?scriptName=HOME&leagueID=1000

    Point is, I think Alberta (Edmonton more likely) could be a home to soccer in the long-term future. It’s just a hunch but I think its worth looking into.

  10. Pat says:

    Nashville. It’s in the middle of the state which is becoming more of a soccer state every year. There was an incredible showing for the US vs. Trinidad/Tobago World Cup qualifier. Plus it’s a good distance for other TN city supporters to attend games (Chattanooga, mentioned above, Jackson and even Memphis).

    There definitely needs to be more professional teams in the south.

    • Jonesta says:

      I couldn’t agree more with the fact that the South needs some teams. We especially need an MLS side so we can get behind a team. DC United is too far away for most of the South (like myself) to support. I was at that US vs Trinidad & Tobago match, I drove up to Nashville from Auburn (best 6 hour trip I have ever taken btw), and had a blast watching Jozy put 3 up on the lil’ Islanders. If an MLS side could draw half of the support that made it out to that game it would be a viable option for expansion.

    • AB says:

      I’d be all in for a Nashville team. With small pockets of support like Chattanooga near by, you would have more than just a citywide audience. When your roots are in the South, it’s very very hard to pick an MLS team to be *your* team. You feel like you’re settling.

  11. Vnice says:

    I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE small-market soccer. I love minor league baseball for the same reasons. I like when small cities and towns rally around a team in a small park. That said, the stadiums you posted are great. I was really surprised.

    About Louisville…that stadium is so boss. It reminds me of old English football stadiums. Minor renovation could turn it into a real-deal SSS. The turf is a bit of a downer, but…what can you do? Unfortunately, as much as I’d love to see soccer being played here, I don’t think it will happen, at least not on MLS levels. And I think only MLS could pack that stadium…USL/TOA games would probably be relatively empty.

    But man…that stadium is cool. I love old baseball stadiums. It’s just crazy how well suited it is for soccer…a lot like PGE in Portland.

  12. nathan3e says:

    Morrison Stadium is indeed very nice. There are actually things to do in Omaha, which shocked the hell out of us when we were there.

  13. Jordy says:

    I have to say, I think an MLS/USL team could be very successful in Omaha. As stated above, Creighton already has strong soccer roots in the city. And Omaha has a tradition of supporting pro sports that are played at “less than the highest level” i.e. the Omaha Beef of the IFL and various sub-NHL pro hockey teams.

    An MLS team would be the highest profile pro team in a region without any real pro sports. Sure, the Cornhuskers will always be the top draw, but it’s not impossible that people will throw themselves behind soccer the same way they have for the College World Series — Omahans love claiming things as their own.

    @nathan3e Shocking right?

  14. Rex says:

    MLS attendance is fine. MLS needs TV ratings. For TV ratings you need good attendance but more importantly you need big markets. You could have a team in Iowa, but you would need to market it from Nebraska to Wisconsin to give them a reason to watch on TV.

    • Chris in Belfast says:

      exactly. That’s why Des Moines could work as a USL/TOA club, but not MLS. Folks from Des Moines know that, but we also get a bit tetchy when people assume that no-one would show up to a game or make assumptions about the city when they have no first hand knowledge. It’s kind of annoying.

  15. kginkc says:

    Where are the corporate sponsors/ private owners of these expansion team possibilities once the USL and TOA revenue model settles down? I don’t argue the soccer history and fan base for these towns mentioned. It would be AWESOME to have coast to coast soccer mania in this country. My question concerns the business viability of these markets. In these tough econmic times, folks are holding on to their funds tightly and rightly so. Do these teams need loans to make them meet payroll or are ticket receipts, merchandising, tv-radio contracts enough to keep the lights on? Transportation would be a huge factor, I can see a midwest circuit, a southeast circuit, a mid atlantic circuit, a great lakes circuit working very well. Much like how PDL is structured, just up the development and underwriting.

  16. Ed Kirby says:

    I was surprised when Bobby included St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada, in his list of places where minor league professional soccer might work because we’re far away from any other place he mentioned. The city has a three-year-old 5,500-seat Field Turf facility (currently being repaired following flooding), and an indoor practise facility is under construction. There are about 185,000 people living in the metro area, and there is a history of public support for the game, most recently in 2008 when the national amateur men’s Challenge Cup and women’s Jubilee Shield championships were held here. Several thousand youngsters play in various youth leagues, and the St. John’s Soccer Club has a training agreement with Leicester City of the English League Championship. So, there is interest in the game, for sure. There’s an international airport with connections through Newark, about three hours away by jet, and if by some miracle a minor pro team sets up shop here, mark me down for a season ticket.

  17. evan eleven says:

    Salinas, California! the Monterey Bay Area is big enough and rich enough to support a team and the Salinas Sports Complex has a great stadium. the California Jaguars won a USL championship in 1996, but folded after five years… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Jaguars

  18. Steve says:

    Tulsa definitely belongs on this list. The city still has fond memories of the NASL Roughnecks, and the University of Tulsa draws strong support for its successful soccer programs. The city usually gets mentioned in the early rounds of MLS expansion talk, but I’m shocked that the city has been without even a USL team since 1999. It is a tough market, with OU, OSU, TU and ORU, as well as high school football, minor league baseball and arena football, but a well managed upper level minor league soccer team could do well with the right ownership.
    Maybe the TOA could fix this and find a strong ownership group in Tulsa in their mad scramble for teams next year. It’d give St. Louis a geographic rival in the league, and there are easy air connections from Tulsa to Atlanta and Minneapolis.
    Barring that, it’d be nice to see a PDL team playing at the University of Tulsa’s beautiful soccer complex.

  19. Jeff says:

    What about Indianapolis? Indianapolis is one of the few top 12 sized cities in the U.S to not have an MLS team. The currently have the Colts in the NFL, the Pacers in the NBA, the Fever in the WNBA, the Indianapolis Speedway, the Indians in Minor league baseball, and the Ice in minor league hockey. Indianapolis is a city of around 1 million, but the city is spread out. There is plenty of room for an MLS expansion team to play. Indianapolis needs a professional soccer team! The city is ready and the fan base is definitely strong enough for an MLS team to prosper as much as is possible for an MSL team.

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