A day at MLS Next Cup

MURFREESBORO, TN – Last week, MLS Next Cup, the season-ending tournament for 438 different academy systems took place in the Nashville area. The full tournament was played at Richard Siegel Soccer Complex in Murfreesboro, while the finals for all four age groups (U13, U15, U17 and U19) took place at Nashville SC’s Geodis Park.

I spent all day on Wednesday in Murfreesboro floating around the vast complex, talking with various people, and yes, watching a ton of soccer.

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My day started with Strikers FC vs Sockers FC in a U19 quarterfinal bright and early at 9am, and finished with full time on a U17 quarterfinal between Philadelphia Union and Vancouver Whitecaps at roughly 5pm. Here’s a rundown of the things I saw, and what you can look for as (hopefully) the tournament returns to the mid-state next year.

The sights and sounds

All games that are streamed from MLS Next Cup were played at the stadium at Richard Siegel Soccer Complex. The same complex has hosted the Tennessee state high school soccer championships and countless other games across numerous competitions.

Truthfully (and this isn’t limited to the stadium) hats need to be tipped and applause given to the grounds crew in Murfreesboro. By the time MLS Next Cup kicked off, it had been less than a month since the aforementioned state high school soccer championships had concluded, and the fields all across the complex, both at the main facility and the secondary facility just up the road, were immaculate. At some point Wednesday I stopped and watched at least a couple minutes on just about every field in the complex, and all of them looked incredible, grass or turf. Truly fantastic job by the grounds crew.

As far as the soccer on the field, everything was played at a really high level, and at a great tempo, despite the intense heat for most of the day. As hot as it got in the mid-state, however, it’s surely nothing compared to the last three years MLS Next Cup has spent in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Inside the indoor facility, MLS had set up the four tournament brackets, along with retail space, a player lounge, and the “Innovation Lab”.

The Innovation Lab is an area where companies not affiliated with MLS can advertise their products to the players and coaches of all 438 participating clubs. If you’re familiar with TOCA Soccer, for example they’re a company that had at one time been part of the Innovation Lab

You might be wondering how that number is calculated. While, yes, only 32 clubs from each age group qualify for the MLS Next Cup Playoffs (a total of 128 clubs), the other 310 participate across the age groups in the MLS Next Cup Showcase. This is a three game schedule for those clubs to ensure everyone gets at least those three games in front of the countless coaches and scouts in attendance from both the national team and numerous colleges. Any team eliminated in the first two rounds of the playoffs also plays in the Showcase.

After watching a bit of Sockers FC vs Strikers FC, I got taken on a tour of the entire set up, front to back. I wound up speaking for a bit with MLS Next interim General Manager Kyle Albrecht. We spoke a bit about moving the tournament from the Dallas area to the Nashville area, and I asked if he thought the tournament might become sort of a traveling circus moving forward.

Albrecht says that ideally they’d like to keep things in one location if they can, and that they thought very highly of both the Nashville area and Richard Siegel Soccer Complex specifically. Don’t be surprised if Murfreesboro is the host again next year.

We then got to talking about MLS Go, Major League Soccer’s recreational soccer initiative. Currently, there’s a bit of a gap between the youth recreational scene and the more hardcore academy setups both in MLS Next and other competitions like ECNL.

MLS’ goal, as I was told, was two-fold. One, to establish connections with more areas, not only to diversify the potential talent pool for MLS academies, but to also hopefully create lifelong Major League Soccer fans as well.

Second, given the nature of the youth soccer system in this country, placing your child in a “recreational” league can sometimes seem like a bit of a downgrade from other, more “serious” setups elsewhere. MLS wants to provide these local leagues with more resources to provide both players and parents to foster the best possible soccer environment wherever it may be.

After this, we returned to catch the end of Strikers FC vs Sockers FC, and I spoke with MLS Season Pass analyst Ricky Lopez-Espin about the things they’re able to do with MLS Next broadcasts. There’s much more freedom for experimentation at this level, and everyone involved loves trying new things. For instance, one idea brought to MLS Next was to have substituted players come into the broadcast booth for live interviews while the action is still going.

This is something that’s not at all alien to other sports, but in soccer would be a rarity. Imagine for a moment, Nashville SC subs off, say, Jacob Shaffelburg in the 65th minute of a game they’re leading, and a sideline reporter grabs Shaffelburg to interview him and give fans the player’s perspective on the way the game is going live.

Again, to fans of literally any other sport in this country, that’s nothing new. In Major League Baseball we’ve even seen, for spring training, broadcasters put microphones on players while they’re on the field. However, this would be groundbreaking in soccer. Personally, I’d love to see Apple implement something like this in MLS broadcasts in the future.

I walked around the complex on my own for a while, waiting for Nashville’s final academy game of the season, a U17 Showcase game against IMG Academy. You can see my thread on that game here. Finally, I returned to the stadium, caught the very end of the U17 quarterfinal between Philadelphia and Vancouver, watched Philadelphia move their name placard to the semifinals, and that was that.

An eventful day came to an end, and by the time you’re reading this, an eventful week has come to a close as well. Fingers crossed MLS Next makes a return to the Middle Tennessee area in 2025. If they do, you can be certain that I’ll be there to give you all the details.

Author: Ronan Briscoeis a contributor for Broadway Sports, and a founding contributor at SoundwaveSoccer.com, where he covers Nashville SC, Huntsville City FC and Nashville's youth academy.

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