Nashville SC’s second team, Huntsville City FC, made its MLS Next Pro home debut May 19 in front of 5,605 at Wicks Family Field at Joe Davis Stadium, a newly refurbished minor league baseball field.
“In addition to being the second team for Nashville SC, we are the first team for Huntsville,” said Chad Emerson, Managing Director of Business Operations for Huntsville City FC. “We have our own unique brand identity but we also have vertical integration with the parent club.”
In a unique arrangement, Nashville SC is the only MLS club to have its MLS Next Pro team in a separate, out-of-state market, with a branding makeover to boot. MLS Next Pro officials expect "the Huntsville model" to duplicated by others.
“The vast majority of our teams are playing in their MLS market, very much close to home, close to the mothership,” said MLS Next Pro president Charles Altchek told Soccer America in March. “But several of them are exploring Huntsville-type opportunities in their spheres of influence. We're very supportive of that.”
Home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal, a U.S. Army post that on any given day has 36,000 to 40,000 personnel on site, Huntsville’s diverse, growing population made it a good choice for Nashville to grow the game and its club footprint.
"People relocate here from across the country,” said Emerson. “People from Virginia, California — really from all over the country. And with that diversity they bring their love of soccer with them."
Huntsville, the most populous city in Alabama (210,085 per a 2021 community survey) and around 100 miles south of Nashville on Interstate 65, began plans for the stadium in November 2019 and ended up spending $30 million to turn the abandoned site into a mixed-use development area that will host HCFC and select high school football games (six are slated for fall 2023) for the foreseeable future.
Huntsville City FC has sold more 3,000 season ticket memberships
“I give Mayor Tommy Battle a lot of credit, because it was clear to us that they were going to execute at a high level,” said Altchek after the home opener. “They had a masterplan for what bringing professional soccer to Huntsville could mean for their constituents: whether that's soccer fans, sports fans, or just residents of Huntsville who are looking to do something new with their friends and family.”
MLS Next Pro launched in 2022. Players are fighting for first-team contracts, academy players are frequently called up for adult pro experience, and first-team players often get rotated in. All ties are settled by penalty kick shootouts, with the shootout winner earning an extra point. The majority of games are broadcast via MLS Season Pass on Apple TV and the rest streamed at MLSNEXTPro.com.
MLS Next Pro averaged 3.41 goals per game for the 2022 season. (MLS averaged 2.96 goals per game in 2022).
But playing under the first team’s shadow in the same market can make drumming up support a challenge.
“A big part of the MLS Next Pro plan is to have great game-day environments,” said Altchek. “We want our teams to get out of bigger stadiums and get into better-fitting stadiums, and when possible, find those strategic partnerships in secondary markets like Huntsville. We now have a really important proof of concept and are exploring several other markets around the country as we speak.”
Thus, the Huntsville model.
"It creates a new market,” said Emerson. “A lot of our fans are already Nashville fans. We're able to create dual-HCFC and NSC supporters.”
HCFC went into its home opener after playing its first seven games on the road — four losses and three draws — due to delays in stadium construction. Emerson says that given its jumbotron, high-tech amenities and intimate seating, Joe Davis Stadium (capacity 6,000) is “one of the best in the country.”
In North Alabama's MLS Next Pro opener, Huntsville upset Crown Legacy (Charlotte FC’s second team), the top team in MLS Next Pro’s Eastern Conference, 2-1, with goals by Jonathan Bolanos and Azaad Liadi after falling behind in the 5th minute. It was the team’s first win of the season and Crown Legacy’s first loss.
“It's funny, we've had several of our fans talk about how exciting it will be to go to a Huntsville game on a Friday night, and then go see Nashville the next night,” said Emerson. “A soccer-filled weekend.”