Diving into the numbers: Producing soccer players in the Volunteer State

The data that I compiled for this week’s post with every player who attended a Tennessee High School (or went out-of-state, but listed a Tennessee city as their hometown) can certainly tell us a bit about the future of Nashville SC, hopefully a women’s professional soccer team in Nashville, and more.

The 1,000-foot view? The state doesn’t produce enough high-level soccer players. I can only speak anecdotally in comparison to other states, unfortunately, but on a raw basis and I assume a per-capita one, Tennessee produces fewer Division I college players than other states. It is the most populous state without a single team competing in the Development Academy (the US Soccer-run top league for youth clubs – I’ve gone into detail several times on why DA isn’t the be-all and end-all for youth development, but there’s something to be said for not having any available).

Slightly more in-depth takeaways:

  • Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Johnson City (in roughly that order) are the metro areas that tend to produce the most talent. Some of that is convenience – a lot of ETSU recruits come straight from their hometown – though the presence of a college soccer program in an area may also help improve level of talent in an area (on the women’s side, it’s moderately troubling that basically no Vandy players come from Tennessee). Going forward, I’m going to refine my spreadsheet a bit and be more precise about areas that players come from.
  • I’ve gotten comments – fair ones! – that indicated the club teams, not the high schools, are the one developing players. That is in large part true, but my intention (at least in phase one here) was to be more about where prospects are from, more than what club developed them. A number of players developed at clubs outside the state.
  • I do intend to input club teams now that quite a bit of the work is done in setting up the spreadsheet initially. It’s going to be quite a bit more work, because colleges list high schools, while only some list club teams (which was part of the region I laid it out like I did).
  • “We don’t want to produce college players, we want to produce pros” is absolutely a fair point to make about the potential futility of this exercise. Tennessee produces none of the latter (a very small handful, primarily guys who were born here and grew up elsewhere, including Caleb Patterson-Sewell in Australia and Matt Lampson in Ohio), so let’s work up the pyramid a bit for the time being.
  • Yes, there are other divisions of college soccer. I initially intended to include them all, but even just Division I took nearly 100 hours of work. My time ain’t free (except inasmuch as it actually is for this site), and I can’t devote that much of it to what boils down to a hobby.

The data is largely interesting because it will help inform how Nashville SC’s academy setup will work out, at least from the outsider’s perspective here (hey who knows, maybe the data will be valuable to them in setting up an academy, as well. It’s no coincidence that I had a passion for a project like this partially because I have a background in being a personnel guy in athletics).

Let’s take a look at a few specific players from the list, largely because they’re not the ones who played their high school ball in Tennessee:

  • Louisville senior midfielder Geoffrey Dee • Germantown (Shattuck-St. Mary’s, Minn.)
  • NC State freshman defender Alex Bautista • Nashville (FC Dallas Academy, Texas)
  • SMU freshman defender Sevon Pendergrass • Nashville (Lone Star HS, Texas)
  • Loyola Marymount junior defender Nick Dauchot • Nashville (Shattuck-St. Mary’s, Minn.)
  • Kentucky junior midfielder Keyarash Namjoupanah • Nashville (Shattuck-St. Mary’s, Minn.)
  • Elon redshirt sophomore defender Nicholas Graves • Nashville (West Forsyth High, N.C.)
  • Clemson junior defender Tanner Dieterich • Junior • Nashville Father Ryan (IMG Academy, Fla.)

All seven of those players played for Development Academy teams (Pendergrass at FC Dallas’s Academy, Graves at NC Fusion), which they didn’t have the opportunity to do in Tennessee. That’s not necessarily to say lack of a DA side was the reason they left the state in all cases, but certainly the chance to stay closer to home and get high-level coaching might have made a difference for some of them. Certainly, a Nashville SC Academy would try to recruit them to stay in-state.

The intention is for the academy to be statewide, as well, so if you assume the best players from around the state join, it should be a solid group. As with all Development Academy teams (or all high-level youth programs of any variety in any sport), not every kid who comes through the system will be a pro, or even earn a college scholarship. However, building that base will certainly help establish the team and organization.

Based on sheer numbers, we can also get a feel for how Nashville SC will build as an MLS team: it will not be a New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, or Real Salt Lake-type “build with homegrowns” franchise. There just isn’t the talent in the state – at least not yet – to put a competitive product on the field with that strategy. Nashville will have to scout college players (they should do very well here with GM Mike Jacobs’s contacts around the NCAA), and probably have to spend allocation money and designated player spots on top-end talent from around the country, confederation, and world. With a city whose economy has a significant chunk based around a general tourism industry, that’s a pretty good combination for that type of build.

I would imagine a Nashville Academy has a lot in common in the early stages at the very least with how Atlanta United began its academy: merging some of the area’s larger youth clubs together and taking the reins, and forging agreements with other clubs around the state wherein some of their most promising prospects go on to the next phase of their soccer careers by moving to NSC Academy. It will take some time for the level of player to fill out a full roster at each age group with competitive players. Level of coaching in the region (or sheer numbers of high-level coaches, at least) will have to improve as well. I haven’t seen a lot about academies (MLS teams’ especially) also including coaching academies, which seems like an obvious idea that goes a long way toward helping the overall level of player development for individual teams and for the country as a whole, and is a way for teams to serve current players in the next phases of their careers, but this may all be a full story for another day.

I’m excited to see how an NSC Academy plays out in the long-term, and believe the establishment thereof is a significant watershed moment for the club and a step forward for the development of talent in our state – but also in the country, as it should serve an underrepresented region. Based on the numbers for now, though,

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