MLS preseason is a missed opportunity

We’re in the midst of another MLS preseason. Or at least, so we’re told. If a team plays a game in Florida but no one can watch it on the internet, did it really happen?

What in the world are the trade secrets Nashville SC hides from us each season in such a shroud of cover that they’re willing to give up on building both pre-season excitement for existing fans and the cultivation of a larger fan base in the region?

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In every other sport we can think of, there are numerous opportunities to watch the team and players in preseason games.  Some, like the NFL, turn the entire preseason into a miniature season in which fans get to see veterans, new draft picks, and fringe players competing to make the final cut.  We have friends who travel to Florida each spring to watch their favorite baseball teams in preseason training. This type of behavior isn’t just tolerated; it’s actively encouraged by the league.

In MLS, close to home, we’re not allowed to watch the team in action. Not allowed to start dreaming of what the season will be like. In many cases, not allowed to even know which players are on the field.

Let’s be fair, this is an issue throughout most of MLS. And while many teams have avoided streaming their preseason games on the internet, it does appear that this preseason, at least, has been impacted by the league’s new TV deal with Apple.

But Nashville, in particular, seems to be missing out on a lot of opportunities. While Atlanta United plays a preseason match against NISA-outfit Chattanooga FC in front of 7,500+ fans, building a potential fanbase inside Tennessee, just over an hour away from Music City, Nashville plays behind closed doors in Florida. 

With a rabid fanbase for Louisville’s Championship level team under three hours away, playing a preseason match against them at Geodis Park was a fantastic idea. Except for the part where the match was behind closed doors.

Some of this might make a little sense if, as the beginning of the season unfolded, we witnessed something of an innovative and unpredicted formation unfold. Some of this might make sense if, during the season, we witnessed set piece formations that needed to be practice but also needed to be held away from the eyes of competition. If Gary Smith was concocting a revolutionary tactical system that justified all the secrecy, fans might understand.

But soccer doesn’t really work that way. MLS doesn’t really work that way. And Nashville SC certainly, to this point, hasn’t worked that way.  

We’ve never quite understood the secrecy behind these preseason games. This year makes even less sense. 

Nashville doesn’t have the excitement of their first MLS season working for them. They don’t have the opening of a new home to lift everyone’s spirits. Sure, they’ve got a Johnny Cash themed jersey, and, while that’s cool and all, it doesn’t answer questions of Hany Mukhtar’s form heading into the season. Or if CJ Sapong looks dangerous close to goal. Or how the defense is coping after the trade of Dave Romney.

Shutting fans out of preseason certainly does very little to draw the attention of potential fans in the larger region. Nashville’s MLS NEXT Pro side, Huntsville City FC, are gearing up for their inaugural season. They’re playing a friendly against Nashville in Nashville, just days before the MLS season kicks off.

Instead of opening the match up to fans who are eager to see both teams play, instead of giving fans a glimpse of the young academy players who are set to play their first season in a fully professional league, well… you guessed it. The match will be played behind closed doors.

One of our mutual friends is a die hard Manchester City fan. He has been for 15 years now. He lives in Portland; he’s never been to the UK at all. Still, he watches City every week. If you ask him why, he’ll say “Because I watched them in a preseason friendly against the Timbers.” That’s it. One game, one meaningless friendly, and he’s loyal for life.

We’re not naïve enough to think that this would work exactly the same way for an MLS side as it does for a Premier League side. There are plenty of differences, including the way we seem to find English teams more exotic or romantic than attaching ourselves to a team just down the highway. But wouldn’t playing teams all over the region—openly and with great fanfare—open new fans up to Nashville?

For a still new team in a small market, a market that competes with the Titans and the Predators and the SEC for a foothold in the local sports landscape, a team that has to fight for a mention on local TV or sports radio, why not use the preseason as a chance to grow their footprint and get their name into the community?

Sure, have some closed-door games against MLS teams. But why not mix in open friendlies against Chattanooga FC, Birmingham Legion, Memphis 901 and the like?

Shouldn’t this be tried? Is there really a compelling reason for preseason secrecy in MLS that doesn’t exist in much more established leagues around the globe? At the end of the day, it just feels like another missed opportunity.

Ben Wright contributed to this story.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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