Nashville SC picked two Tennessee natives – two Nashville-area natives, in fact – in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. It may stand to reason that were it not for an expansion club in their hometown, that would have been less likely. Certainly Clemson’s Tanner Dieterich, whom Nashville selected in the second round, would have drawn strong looks from other MLS franchises, but would Florida Gulf Coast’s Shakeem Adams received the same benefit of the doubt?
In recent years, there have been vanishingly few players from the Volunteer State to make it in Major League soccer: Toronto FC goalkeeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell was born in Hendersonville, but mostly grew up in Australia. Chattanooga’s Matt Lampson grew up in Ohio, and the journeyman keeper was even a Columbus Crew Homegrown. Sporting Kansas City midfielder Felipe Hernandez, was an academy product of SKC from the high school level after growing up in Nashville, but the closest thing to a true Tennessean in Major League Soccer over the past decade (ironic, given he was born in Colombia).
The simple fact is that Tennessee doesn’t produce much talent on the men’s side.
“A lot of that comes down to the lack of a Boys Development Academy team in the state,” said Top Drawer Soccer‘s Travis Clark. “That doesn’t mean that there aren’t quality clubs doing good things, it just hampers the opportunity and makes it a bit harder. There are a handful of players from Tennessee competing at the in-state Division I men’s programs like Memphis, Belmont, Lipscomb and East Tennessee State.
“There are clubs that do a good job, such as Chattanooga FC and Tennessee Soccer Club, and the latter sends players to major Division I women’s programs. It’s difficult to quantify without digging into numbers and looking into things at an extremely local level but there aren’t obvious names that come to mind in terms of pro talent produced.”
There’s a good chance, however, that the establishment of a professional club – with a professional development environment – starts to turn the tide in Tennessee. The Boys (literally, in this sense) in Gold first took the field at the U-12 level in November, participating in the Generation Adidas Cup in the Atlanta area. The 1-1-1 record at the event may not change the national perception of the state’s talent any time soon, but the results were secondary to the process for Nashville.
As the club adds additional age groups to its academy structure in the coming years, with a three-plus-year ramp up to the U-19 level, there’s a good chance that the existence of a true professional pathway helps Nashville SC begin to develop Homegrown talent for itself. There’s an even better chance that it brings the level of the game higher for those players who may not have professional opportunities.
“I think there’s a fundamental shift that we will lead in the State of Tennessee, and even specifically in Nashville,” said Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs. “The most glaring reason is one, you have this clear pathway [to professional soccer] now. Not only do you have a pathway, but it’s a clear pathway to see: ‘this is how you get in the first team.’
“I think the biggest fundamental shift, though, culturally is: for youth soccer, in our state, the families are consumers. There’s a level of entitlement that has to be lost [in an academy structure] because regardless of who you are, it doesn’t matter anymore. A parent, you go from being a consumer to you’re a conduit for getting our player to practice, and then picking him up afterwards.
“It might affect a very small number of people directly, but a lot of people will be looking at the game differently.”
A professional club arriving – or entering the development space – in an area is not a magic bullet that suddenly allows the region to begin pumping out professional talent. However, it does help to allow the talent that already exists in that city or state to get into a development pipeline earlier. It also allows that next tier of players to become the top prospects at their current respective club teams, and get the attention that those now bound for the NSC Academy might have received from colleges in the past.
In his time with Top Drawer, the most comprehensive club, college, and recruiting outlet devoted to the sport in the United States, Clark has seen it before. The arrival of a professional academy creates more opportunities for all.
“FC Dallas is a good example of how a pro team has offered opportunities to local players and brought them through,” Clark said. “But in many ways, that just offered a slightly different platform and pathway that existed in the form of previous clubs. So it’s basically a more direct pathway that offers local players to turn pro immediately. That platform allows players to sign, develop and potentially get spotted sooner.”
He’s quick to point out, though, that simply creating a higher level of play at the academy level doesn’t solve any and all existing deficiencies in development.
“Player development is not an exact science, and there are many factors in the area that could impact it beyond simply creating a team that’s associated with a professional organization,” he said. “If the right people are hired, the right investments and decisions are implemented from the start, it’s all positive. But then the level of talent in the region, and each player’s soccer background becomes a factor. There are some MLS Academies that do a very good job, and others which are basically a re-branding of what’s been happening in this country when it comes to soccer for the past three decades, which is focused more on the college experience and not necessarily on creating pro soccer players.”
It remains to be seen exactly how effective Nashville SC’s academy will be in producing professional talent. However, the recent history of crafting a high volume of pros in the Volunteer State indicates there’s nowhere to go but up.
Nashville SC Academy Director Jamie Smith photo courtesy Nashville SC.