Under the Radar: Where is the Next Great Soccer City?

I spent sometime this season following the results of an upstart NPSL team that caused quite a buzz in the lower levels of American soccer, that team is Chattanooga FC.  A quaint, modest Appalachian foothills city that straddles the banks of the Tennessee River, Chattanooga is one of the last places people would look if they were searching for a soccer hotbed, and they would be missing out on something very exciting.

During the course of their debut season Chattanooga led the league in attendence, averaging well over 1,000 fans through the gates of Finley Stadium each week, especially impressive when you consider the city already has an established minor-league baseball team in the Chattanooga Lookouts who play out of the beautiful AT&T Park (yes, it shares a name with a more famous park).

Thinking back to Chattanooga’s success in a league not associated with MLS or the USL, together with the formation of a new professional league by the breakaway TOA clubs, got me asking myself: “Where is North America’s next great soccer city?”

As Kartik wrote earlier today, the TOA league will mark the return of professional soccer to St. Louis, a city which is arguably the heart and soul of the American game. It’s a wonder that a city the size of St. Louis, especially considering it’s natural rivalry with Chicago, went so long without  a professional team.  Now with St. Louis accounted for, it’s time to ask — hypothetically, of course — where one of the leagues will expand next (discounting the already announced expansion cities in MLS and the USL).

Des Moines, Iowa – A midwestern city like St. Louis, has been incredibly supportive of it’s PDL team, the Menace, to the tune of crowds approching, and at times easily exceeding, 4,000. There has been talk of Des Moines joining the professional ranks but as always, money is an issue, as is the lack of a stadium though there are grassroots efforts in place to build a soccer-specific venue in the greater Des Moines area. While not a glamorous market, and one that will certainly be scoffed at by people unaware of the Menace’s off-field success, Des Moines has shown a passion for the sport which few cities in North America can rival.

Omaha, Nebraska – In keeping with the midwestern theme, it’s hard to ignore Omaha when you get a look at the beautiful Morrison Stadium. Craighton, the stadium’s owners and main tenants, are always near the top of the NCAA attendance charts (.pdf), showing that a willingness from the city to support local soccer. It’s not possible to tell whether or not that support would automatically transfer to the professional game, but Omaha has historically shown support for minor-league sports.

Greensboro, North Carolina – And it’s sister cities of Winston-Salem, Burlington, and High Point of course. One of American soccer’s old hands, the Carolina (formerly Greensboro) Dynamo, play in the Triad (Browns Summit, to be exact) and often draw big crowds to their small, tranquil soccer-specific stadium at Bryan Park. Dynamo matches are not the only soccer well supported in the area either as both North Carolina-Greensboro and Wake Forest can lay claim to good crowds, and wonderful little stadiums of their own. Furthermore, the 11,500-seat Rhodes Stadium on the campus of Elon was built with soccer in mind. Though to many people the area sits in the twin shadows of North Carolina’s two major cities, Charlotte and Raleigh, Greensboro boasts one of the most active soccer communities in America.

Jackson, Mississippi – This one will raise a red flag with many people outside of the South, but Jackson isn’t without it’s merits. Yes, Mississippi is and will always be SEC football country, but since 2007 the Jackson area has played host to a modestly successful, and cleverly named PDL team, the Mississippi Brilla. Despite the relative lack of facilities, the Brilla have managed to impress at the gate, especially considering the competition from the Mississippi Braves, the Southern League farm club of Atlanta. While it’s very much a long-shot, Jackson does deserve a mention since it does fit the qualification of being successful “under the radar”.

St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador – Canada’s most historic soccer city, yet there is no professional club within sight. St. John’s is home to King George V Park, site of Canadian soccer’s most memorable triumph and one of the oldest soccer-specific venues in English-speaking North America. St. John’s is reletively small by North American standards, and is certainly remote given it’s location in the Canadian maritimes, but it’s soccer history is expansive and I get the feeling that the city would passionately support a team.

Louisville, Kentucky – Louisville is a big city. It’s not New York, Dallas, or Chicago but it’s still a city that carries with it a big reputation. I’ve always felt that the old Cardinal Stadium — though I’m unsure of it’s fate — would make an ideal soccer stadium, but I’m not sure how well Louisville would support soccer. Soccer would be the fifth sport in the city, after football, basketball, baseball and horse racing but it may just be big enough to support a USL team. I’m in the dark on this one.

I know I’m missing several cities, Victoria, BC among them, so feel free to name some more. Keep in mind that we’re talking about cities that fly under the radar, not the likes of Atlanta or Baltimore.

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