One Knoxville SC and soccer’s growth in the Southeast

Before Nashville SC’s preseason kicks fully into gear, I took a few minutes to sit down with Drew McKenna, Partner and a founder of One Knoxville SC. As a nearly lifelong Knoxvillian that helps to cover Nashville SC from afar, I thought that Nashville SC supporters might be interested to learn about the changing soccer landscape in East Tennessee and how it may eventually come to intersect with Nashville SC.

The club

One Knox will begin play in May 2022. The University of Tennessee’s Regal Stadium will temporarily serve as home to One Knox. The City of Knoxville recently approved a new downtown, mixed-use stadium to house both minor league baseball and One Knox. The location and setup should remind Nashville SC supporters of its two years at First Tennessee Stadium. 

The club will begin its journey in USL League 2. This level of the American soccer pyramid is considered semi-pro, pre-professional. Eighty percent of the player base is college players playing during their summer break. Accordingly, USL League 2 is a short-season competition with matches from May through August. 

While One Knox will begin as a semi-pro club, McKenna relayed, “We’ve always said from the start, [USL] League 2 is a starting point and not a destination…Starting [the club] at the most grassroots level really appealed to us.” The partners want to “prove it on a small scale, figure out what works, and grow it with time.” 

McKenna drew parallels to Nashville SC’s journey as a club rising from the fourth tier of the American soccer pyramid to MLS. Like Nashville, One Knox plans on making a quick step up. McKenna emphasized, “By the time we are in that [downtown] stadium, we hope to be fully professional.”

A possible US Open Cup match against Nashville SC

One Knox will not compete in the 2022 iteration of the U.S Open Cup, the first since the COVID-19 pandemic. But the club will automatically enter the annual competition as soon as they step up into USL League 1. 

I asked McKenna what a hypothetical matchup with Nashville SC would mean for the club. 

“It would be incredible, a club-building moment,” he told me. “Nashville is the big dog in the state. In every cultural way, Nashville is kind of big brother. For us to be in the position to host Nashville or play at Nashville in the new beautiful stadium, it would be an honor and an unbelievable opportunity. We would come at that game with a distinct desire to win it.”

At the risk of sounding like a Knoxville tourism director, I would highly encourage Nashville SC supporters to make the trek east on I-40 if the two sides are ever drawn together. This is especially true after One Knoxville moves into the new downtown stadium. The stadium site is located adjacent to the Old City, a downtown neighborhood with a vibrant restaurant and bar scene with loads of breweries in the surrounding area. The location will make for an incredible away day for any fan.

Soccer is growing in the Southeast

The arrival of One Knoxville fills a sizable hole in the Tennessee soccer landscape. The rapid growth of clubs across the state has transformed Tennessee into a soccer hotbed. From Memphis to Johnson City, the state of soccer in the Volunteer State is strong. 

I asked McKenna how he views the explosion of soccer clubs in Tennessee. 

“Part of it is the story of soccer in the Southeast,” said McKenna. “Atlanta with what they have been able to do, which was the 8th or 9th highest attendance in the world in 2019. Nashville what they have done growing from NPSL to MLS, selling out Nissan [Stadium] for the first game, and building the biggest soccer-specific stadium in the country. An unbelievable story of soccer success in Nashville. Chattanooga with two pro teams. Greenville with what they have done on and off the field. Asheville, I think, is one of the most robust professional clubs in the country. It’s kind of shocking to see what’s happening in the Southeast from a soccer perspective…Soccer is on its way and is growing in a way that nothing else is growing. A huge part of the story is plugging into this unbelievable growth of the sport in the Southeast.”

Knoxville’s role in youth development

The most illuminating part of the conversation centered around One Knox’s role in improving youth development. McKenna’s passion was palpable, even through a Zoom feed. 

Part of McKenna’s inspiration in co-founding One Knoxville was born out of his frustration with the US Men’s National Team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. He wanted to help build, at least in part, the soccer infrastructure to ensure that failure to qualify never happens again. It is a personal club challenge to have a former player earn a USMNT cap. McKenna admits it might take the club 30 years, but it is a goal worth striving for.

“If people bring the best possible soccer to their local market, if that happens in the top 150 markets, it’s a different game,” he emphasized. “[FC] Dallas and Philadelphia [Union] have already written the playbook on what it takes to change what development looks like locally. We will never be Dallas and Philly from an MSA perspective, but we can be Dallas and Philly from a playbook perspective. If everybody is doing that, it changes what American soccer looks like… If the success of American soccer is important to you, the success of local soccer should be important to you because that is what American soccer is. It’s the patchwork of these different markets across the country getting together to do what they can to develop American soccer players.”

Knoxville, as part of that patchwork, has not been holding up its end of the bargain. While the city is a top 65 metro statistical area (“MSA”), it has produced only a few full professionals. 

Based on this barren history, I was pleasantly surprised to see nine Knoxville boys included on Nashville SC’s first academy rosters. But McKenna sees things from a different lens.

“As a Knoxvillian involved in soccer, it breaks my heart that we have nine kids who have to move to Nashville and leave their families and friends while they are in high school to get the level of training they need. Long term, we want to fix that. We want to be part of what’s happening across the country where you are seeing not just NFL markets but the top 60-100 MSAs, developing these professional-level training academies that can raise the tide of American soccer across the board. I think that is what’s best for American soccer. Getting true professional-level training in cities like Knoxville… I know three or four of those kids [in Nashville’s academy] personally. They are great kids and great players. I am glad that they are getting the best level of training possible. I just hope in the future, ten years from now, a kid in that position can stay at home with their parents, in their high school, and still have that experience.”

The loftier ambitions will have to wait. For now, One Knoxville will not start its own academy. Instead, the club will form a youth select team that brings in the top high school players from the area. Free of charge, the club will provide this elite group of top talent additional training in a professional environment a few times per month. The youth select team will also participate in a few tournaments within the USL Academy structure. 

Regardless of the structure, the mere existence of a professional club in Knoxville could be a game-changer for youth development.

“We’ve got to provide aspiration to Knoxville youth soccer players,” McKenna remarked. “Give them something to aspire to… The one thing everyone can coalesce behind is ‘I want to wear the One Knox Crest. I want to play for One Knoxville.’ Not only at the USL Academy level, but hopefully at the professional level as well.”

Even if One Knoxville hopes to keep the best youth prospects in Knoxville, those ambitions may still help Nashville SC. As additional pathways open and the competition level increases across the entire state, it should only help to identify capable talent and hone skillsets from an earlier age. 

After all, a rising tide lifts all ships. The arrival of One Knoxville SC enrichens the suddenly vibrant Tennessee soccer landscape. 

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