Knoxville will be home to a United Soccer League team starting in 2022
The United Soccer League is coming to Knoxville in 2022, but the club won't take shape without input from you.
The new team will be part of the United Soccer League’s League Two, an advanced-skills developmental league mainly for elite high school and college-aged players who are on a professional track. Some 70% of all MLS SuperDraft picks since 2010 have League Two experience.
The effort is led by a group of local owners who see soccer as a way to bring the community together. In an office overlooking Market Square, the five owners sat spaced apart around square tables last week to share their plans exclusively with Knox News.
There is no club name. No logo. No club colors, no jersey pattern. No brand. All of that is being researched and cultivated, and the group is adamant that it won’t be complete without fan input. The logo (or crest) will eventually be created by Matthew Wolff, who has designed dozens of professional soccer logos.
“We want this whole process that we build with Knoxville,” group leader Drew McKenna told Knox News. “It’s not about us five spinning something up for ourselves, it’s about doing something organically through Knoxville that people can be a part of.”
The club has no home yet, but the group has spoken with University of Tennessee System President Randy Boyd about playing at his proposed Smokies Stadium downtown. Talks are underway about whether the city and county will build the stadium as the centerpiece of a massive entertainment, retail and residential district in the Old City.
As it’s been proposed, the Smokies’ stadium would be a mixed-use facility that can accommodate soccer, though the stadium won't be complete by 2022 when the soccer club debuts.
The group has also had conversations with UT about using the Regal Soccer Stadium, home to Lady Vols’ soccer team. McKenna said UT has been supportive of group bringing a team to Knoxville. The Knoxville Force, the city’s former semi-professional club, originally played its games there.
From the ground up
McKenna, like the rest of the owners, is a businessman. Originally from Chicago, he moved to Knoxville, his wife's hometown, in recent years. He’s had particular success with startups — he and a business partner sold Chicago-based laundry service Pressbox to Procter and Gamble in 2018 — and bringing a soccer club to Knoxville is the next passion of he and his partners.
“I think it's a great vehicle by which you can make positive change in the community through sports. ... We’re focused on being a civic citizen and not stopping where the field stops,” McKenna said. “We want to use this game of soccer as a force for good throughout Knoxville.”
More to the point, partner Mark McComas said, the group wants to create an experience that will draw people back. So the five partners have formed focus groups and are pointing people to a fan survey at knoxprosoccer.com.
The soccer fan experience will go as far as Knoxville will take it, McComas said, so they’re working hard to make the club fan-centered.
“(We’re asking) how can we make an experience that's worth supporting, attending and regularly bringing your family to?" McComas said. "So, instead of being the people that can just shake magic out of their sleeve (and say) we’ve got it, we just follow the lead of people that we’ve talked to."
McKenna has been working on getting Knoxville into the USL for two years. When he started, he knew nothing about the league or how it worked but saw a hole in the market for soccer (fellow owner Nadim Jubran said Knoxville is one of only three of the 65 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. without soccer). Through common connections, the group formed and put together a bid to become a USL expansion market.
The group sees the club as a way to provide more opportunities for more kinds of people as Knoxville continues to grow. It’s a community builder.
“Soccer is what the doctor ordered,” McComas said. “It appeals to such a wide diversity of people and when it’s community-oriented like this, it just leaves the door wide open for everyone. That’s kind of the heartbeat behind this group.”
Visit Knoxville President Kim Bumpas said soccer's footprint here with youth leagues and the sport's growth overall should bode well for the club here.
"I think soccer is a sport — especially the level we’re talking about — it’s kind of shifted over the last five years and there’s a different emotion around soccer," she said. "I trust in Drew and his team and I know they’ve done all the homework and recon to see that they’ll be successful here and they understand the soccer audience here.”
The goal, McKenna said, is to create a Knoxville experience that features soccer, not a soccer experience that happens to be in Knoxville.
By size and makeup Knoxville is a League One market, which typically go to cities with 250,000 to 1 million people, but the club will begin as part of League Two, the right place to start to build something that can grow organically, they said.
USL’s League Two is developmental, meaning the players will not be paid. They can be elite high school players or college players on summer break. That’s not a knock on the talent — like any developmental league this is the first step for many who make it to the highest professional levels, and it allows rising stars to do it without losing college eligibility.
Those expectations of advancement apply to the club as well as the players. The owners plan for the club to eventually advance to League One, a more advanced league with paid players.
USL spokesperson Ryan Madden told Knox News the league looks for three factors in expansion clubs: a committed local ownership group, a strong appetite for soccer locally and a professional venue.
“Drew and his team kick all three of those boxes and then some,” he said. “They’re committed, local owners. They’re young and vibrant and they understand soccer culture and they understand the community of Knoxville as a whole so we have no doubt they’ll be tremendously successful.”
As for whether the club will remain in League Two or make the jump to League One, Madden said much of that is up to the ownership group and its ambitions. He pointed to teams like the South Georgia Tormenta FC (Statesboro, Georgia) and Fort Wayne FC (Indiana) as teams that have made or plan to make the jump.
Quick primer on professional soccer in the U.S.:
- Major League Soccer: Elite professional talent, metros like Nashville. This is America's best league.
- USL Championship: Advanced and rising elite professional talent, major to mid-major cities like Phoenix, Charlotte and Memphis
- USL League One: Rising advanced and elite professional talent, smaller cities like Chattanooga and Greenville, South Carolina.
- USL League Two: Stepping-stone for rising advanced and elite talent, developmental league with unpaid players so they can maintain college eligibility. Mostly in small cities like Des Moines, Iowa, or Albuquerque, New Mexico, or a secondary club in a larger city like New York or Chicago. Knoxville’s club will start here with the expectation that it will eventually move to USL League One.
Previous Knoxville clubs
The Force began playing in Knoxville in 2011 as part of the National Premier Soccer League, a semi-pro league that is below the USL. Similarly, the Lady Force began playing a year later in the Women’s Premier Soccer League. Both stopped operations January 2019.
The teams were originally run by Knoxville Soccer LLC but merged with the Emerald Youth Foundation in 2014 to form the Emerald Force Soccer Club. It was a catalyst for what remains a thriving youth soccer program, but never had the support, structure or talent of the USL leagues.. Home games were played at the Sansom Sports Complex on Dale Avenue.