There is a soccer movement sweeping across middle Tennessee, and Nashville Soccer Club general manager Chris Jones is at the forefront of it all.
He founded one of the most successful soccer clubs in the United Soccer League. Even more impressive is they are only halfway through their inaugural season.
Jones was born and raised in Tennessee. Like a typical southerner, he was accustomed to football and basketball dominating the sports landscape. However, the sport of soccer grabbed his attention in a most peculiar way during his college days at MTSU.
“Growing up in the south here, it was your typical football, baseball and track; it was everything except soccer,” he said. “It wasn’t a sport that was on my radar as a kid. Around the time I got into college (at MTSU), I had some friends that played video games with. One of them said, ‘You need to try this game FIFA.’
“So, I bought the game and next thing you know, I’m creating an online club that was ranked 10thin America, then I created a site called FIFA World Challenge, where I basically replicated real life. People had salary caps and signed virtual players to fake contracts and that started my affection to the sport.
“I started paying attention to it in real life when I was watching the MLS and the Seattle Sounders came around about 2009. There was a team here locally at the time -- the Nashville Metros. When they shut down in 2013, I basically just went to social media and said let’s start a team and make it work. Five years later, here we are.”
And just like that, a video game led to a dream. That dream became a reality in just five short years. In that time, Jones transformed a team that was losing local recreation tournaments into a team that ran off an 11-game unbeaten streak and pulled off an upset-win over an MLS team in the US Open Cup.
“When we started the team in 2013, we literally had Vista print shirts as jerseys and playing in local rec tournaments and weren’t even winning those games,” Jones said. “We played a few years in the amateur leagues, I was working at Pinnacle Financial and running the team in my spare time with some volunteer help. At no point did we think it would happen this quickly.
“To me, I kind of felt if someone like myself in the south could become fascinated with the sport, pretty much anyone could. There really is no other sport, maybe basketball and hockey are close, but soccer is the world sport. Looking at how it resonated with me personally, I thought let’s give it a shot and see what happens.”
Nashville SC lives by the catchphrase, “Our town, our club.”
Yes, it’s catchy. And yes, it is meant to inspire pride in a fan base to rally around its city. But for Jones, he truly lives it because this is his town.
“It’s really a mantra: our town, our club,” Jones said. “Being from here, it’s pretty cool to see friends and they congratulate me on the club’s success and I still hang out with the same buddies from high school and college. It’s just been really surreal to see this club grow in my hometown has been really cool.”
This past year, area schools had one of the most successful soccer seasons in recent memory with Oakland and Siegel sending its girls teams to the TSSAA state tournament. The Central Magnet boys team made an appearance in the state tournament as well and Blackman played in its first-ever state championship.
Soccer is a growing in popularity on both the local and national stage. From youth soccer to high school and club teams, the sport has seen a rejuvenation over the last decade.
Jones knows he is fortunate to see the kind of immediate success Nashville SC is having right out of the gate. Amid all of his club’s accomplishments, Jones understands that success is predicated on growing the sport, starting with the youth in middle Tennessee.
“We’re fortunate in soccer that we partner with the Tennessee State Soccer Association, which is like the governing body for soccer,” Jones said. “You’ve got 30,000-40,000 kids registered in the mid-state to play soccer. That probably helps with our attendance and the turnout that you’ve seen so far. There’s something about the already established soccer community that helps us.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @mpatrickg5