Ian Ayre’s journey from Liverpool CEO to running Nashville SC in MLS | Nashville SC

Ian Ayre, Nashville SC’s CEO, had never given much thought to working in the US, let alone Tennessee. In fact, after his 2017 departure from the same role at Liverpool, he wasn’t really thinking about soccer very much at all: a decade at his boyhood club had proved as grueling as it was exhilarating. A visit to Nashville and a meeting with the club’s owners changed his mind. Back then, the club was a concept rather than a reality. For Ayre, it was a chance he knew he had to take. “How often,” he asked himself, “do you get a chance to work with a blank canvas?”

In December 2017, MLS confirmed Nashville would be awarded an expansion team, who would join the league in 2020 (Ayre joined the team in May 2018). The club’s birth would have seemed almost fanciful a decade prior. But the ambition, and investment, spearheaded by owner John Ingram, an avuncular local industrialist was crucial.

When the club played its first MLS game against Atlanta United to an almost 60,000-strong crowd in February 2020, it was at the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. But the club’s ambitions went beyond mere participation. Instead, it wanted to achieve something unique: the construction of the largest purpose-built soccer stadium in the US. Geodis Park, Nashville SC’s 30,000-capacity stadium, was opened on 1 May 2022 after two years of rapidfire construction. Eyebrows had been raised. Was there really enough demand in a city where soccer was often seen as a niche sport?

Certainly, there are US cities that spring more readily to mind when it comes to soccer. Though the sport in Nashville can’t claim the same lore as it does in New York, Philadelphia or Portland, it has its own distinct history. The game carved its niche in the city from successive waves of immigration, from Hungarians arriving after the second world war, to Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. The city saw the rise and fall of various amateur and semi-pro clubs, from the well loved and long-standing Nashville Metros to the Nashville Diamonds, a faintly disastrous short-lived 1980s experiment, who played in the equally ill-fated American Soccer League.

From inception, Nashville SC has made a great deal of trumpeting authenticity as one of its core values. Nashville has been considered a boom town for the last decade and more, thanks to strong economic and population growth. For some, this has proved a disruptive experience. Not everyone was thrilled at the prospect of Geodis Park being housed in the city’s historic fairgrounds, which used to host the Tennessee State Fair. In 2018, a coalition of locals under the name Save The Fairgrounds took the city’s government to court in a bid to delay construction of the new stadium, a cause taken up by incoming mayor John Cooper in 2019. After some financial wrangling, the club was allowed to proceed with construction of the new stadium.

Today, Geodis Park already feels like a fixture: an oddly unobtrusive addition to the local landscape, despite its size. “We didn’t want it to feel like a spaceship had crashed into Wedgewood Houston,” Ayre laughs. “Our stadium has four distinct stands rather than a bowl. There’s a home end and it’s designed so that there aren’t any bad seats. Even if you’re sitting at the top row, right at the back, you’re never more than 150 feet from the action.”

Despite the rate of change, the city retains much of its essence: a warm, welcoming place that takes little time to turn new arrivals into evangelists. It certainly didn’t take Ayre long to “go native”. The self-effacing Scouser arrived short haired and fresh faced. Five years later, he sports a neatly cropped beard, looking like a softly ageing country star.

Nashville SC fans have embraced the club and season ticket sales have been brisk
Nashville SC fans have embraced the club and season ticket sales have been brisk. Photograph: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports

Jozef Colomy is another case in point. The 34-year-old Californian also moved to the city half-a-decade ago. A lifelong soccer obsessive, he quickly became involved with the club as its MLS debut approached.

Today, he’s an active member of the raucous Bootlegger supporters group, well known for their commitment to tailgating events, complete with plenty of beer and food.

“The club was already well-supported. Being in the MLS makes it more exciting for the average fan, but even for the hardcore there’s maybe a sense of even more pride,” he says. “Having a local team to support, that’s really all you can ask for.”

Soccer’s popularity in the US is at an all-time high. The broadcast of the Premier League on NBC and the success of the men’s and women’s national teams has something to do with it, as does the influx of American talent into Europe’s top leagues. Then there is the increasing maturity of MLS, which has begun to shed the old cliches about geriatric European stars looking for a final payday. Instead it has acquired a reputation as an exciting, competitive league in its own right, full of hungry emerging talents. Crowds are young, diverse and deeply knowledgeable.

Nashville SC embodies this growth. The club made the playoffs in its debut MLS season – it spent time in the second-tier USL first – and has been performing solidly ever since. The team currently sit third in the Eastern Conference with a streamlined squad devoid of blockbuster names, perhaps save for MLS 2022 MVP Hany Muhktar and USA veteran Walker Zimmerman.

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For Mike Jacobs, Nashville’s general manager, any questions about the sport’s future in the city, and the US as a whole, have been answered comprehensively. “Soccer has grown significantly. It’s here. MLS is the fifth major league in this country. It’s really exciting. What’s happening in Nashville is an amazing love affair,” he explains from his office at the club’s training complex on the fringes of the city.

This isn’t simply overly optimistic managerial speak. All 23,000 season tickets for 2023 sold out and average attendances hover around the 28,000 mark. “The fervor is there,” says Colomy. “People really, really love it. It’s something to behold every game. The atmosphere in the stadium is electric. Though as far as I know, no one has the crest tattooed across their back or anything like that yet.”

Ian Ayre (left) alongside Jürgen Klopp and chairman Tom Werner after the German’s appointment as Liverpool manager in 2015.
Ian Ayre (left) alongside Jürgen Klopp and chairman Tom Werner after the German’s appointment as Liverpool manager in 2015. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Perhaps the passion Colomy describes isn’t all that surprising. As Nashville soccer writer Pablo Maurer has noted, it’s a city where “locals have almost always seized on almost anything that presents itself with the opportunity of being ‘theirs’”. Very few, for instance, had seriously considered an NHL hotspot before the Nashville Predators arrived in the late 1990s. Colomy says “[Nashville SC] is a very unifying presence and something for the whole city to be proud of”.

For Ayre, the club’s authenticity goes beyond marketing talk. It’s about an adherence to what makes soccer so special in the first place. Long gone are the days when tied MLS games ended in penalty shoot-outs.

“My own view is that people won’t take you seriously everywhere else if you don’t play their game,” he says. “NFL, baseball, they really only play it here. But when it comes to soccer, you can’t really mess with it. It was crucial for MLS and it was absolutely crucial for us to be authentic.”

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