NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Major League Soccer is expanding its presence in the southeast, awarding Nashville the first of its newest expansion franchises as MLS' 24th team .
Commissioner Don Garber made the announcement Wednesday at a news conference with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and John R. Ingram, head of the group that will own the team.
"This is a town that really surprised us with 46,000 at the Gold Cup US-Panama match and over 50,000 for the Man City game just a few weeks later," Garber said. 'So soccer-involved, great ownership and a great stadium plan, it just seemed like the perfect, perfect match."
Nashville had been vying with Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento, California, as the finalists for the league's latest two expansion teams. A decision on the second winner is expected within a few weeks. Atlanta and Minnesota joined this year and Los Angeles FC starts in March, giving the league 23 teams.
When Nashville starts playing remains to be decided. Garber said it was unlikely the team would debut in 2019 but 2020 was a possibility.
"We are making a lot of progress in Miami," Garber said of David Beckham's long-pending team. "We're hopeful we'll be able to bring that team over the finish line."
Nashville Soccer Holdings LLC includes Ingram, chairman of Ingram Industries Inc.; and the Wilf family, owner of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. Ingram said it was a landmark day both for Nashville and the area's soccer fans who made a strong case for why the league needs to be in Music City.
"We will have a team that everyone can be proud of, and we will take a leadership role in enhancing the growth of the sport in a region that already has a passionate soccer culture," Ingram said. "Nashville is going to be a very worthy addition to MLS."
The Metro Nashville City Council on Nov. 7 approved $225 million in revenue bonds to construct a 27,500-seat soccer stadium and an additional $50 million in bonds for renovations and improvements around the site at the current fairgrounds. The stadium could open by March 2021, with the bonds only waiting for Nashville to receive an expansion franchise.
Garber said it will be up to Ingram and the Nashville owners whether the new team gets a new name or keeps the Nashville SC identify used for the team starting in the second-tier United Soccer League next season.
Garber said Sacramento, seen as the other favorite, is MLS ready.
"They have some things to finalize with their ownership that I think would make them optimum," Garber said. "We've said for many years there's a great level of support for the game in Sacramento and I think there's great interest in joining Major League Soccer."
MLS joins the NFL in Nashville with the Tennessee Titans and the NHL with the Nashville Predators. Forward Filip Forsberg of the Predators was at the news conference Wednesday, and the Titans tweeted out photos of players holding up shirts supporting the town's newest pro team.