For John Freeman, working CFC’s Saturday match against the Georgia Revolution is something of a thank you letter to the Chattanooga Football Club. As the play-by-play radio broadcaster for Nashville SC, he believes his job would not have existed without CFC’s success.
“What excites me most about being part of a CFC broadcast and why I was so excited to say yes, was that Chattanooga was one of the first, if not the first, seed of this Tennessee soccer movement,” said Freeman. “And if I look at the opportunities that have been available to me in Nashville, starting with USL which turned into MLS, I can’t help but think that, in some way, what Chattanooga has been doing for a decade has helped this movement here in Nashville.”
His journey to Finley Stadium’s broadcast booth began in his hometown of Crozet, VA. Freeman said he would announce computer-vs-computer video game matches on his Sega Dreamcast, mimicking the voices he would he would hear on TV. As a teenager and almost as soon as he got his driver’s license, Freeman was able to secure a radio internship with Virginia’s play-by-play announcer.
“When I think of driving an old, beat-up Volvo before the sun was up and trying to avoid deer on my way to this radio internship as a 16 year old, all of that led to me doing Nashville’s first ever game in MLS,” said Freeman. “That was my first gig, and it started rolling from there, kind of like a tumbleweed, picking up different things.”
After graduating from the University of Virginia, Freeman carved out a career doing play by play for the MLC Radio Network, VCU on Learfield Sports, the Atlantic 10 Network, and Virginia Sports Radio Network. But when his then-girlfriend (now wife) moved to Nashville to be a CRNA at Vanderbilt Hospital, he entered an alien land with no contacts or connections. After a year of announcing Lipscomb and Belmont soccer, he finally got his break with Nashville’s new team.
“I just flat-out reached out to the team when they were announced as a USL franchise,” said Freeman. “I just reached out on Twitter to the GM Chris Jones, and basically said “Here’s my resume. I’ve called soccer for Virginia, and here’s my tape.” Nashville didn’t have any pro soccer, so I was kind of one of their only choices because I was one of the only ones with experience. And so on short notice I called my first Nashville game, a U-23 game.”
Freeman soon became the voice of Nashville SC, and has provided the call for all of the team’s finest moments. But of all the games he has had the opportunity to call, Freeman reflected upon the very first contest Nashville SC partook in, considering it as a particularly bright memory.
“I got to call the first friendly, and that was against Atlanta United,” said Freeman. “THE Atlanta United, and I kept the spotting board from that game and I’ll look at it from time to time. Some of the names on there are outrageous, like Miguel Almiron who is now in the Premier League, or Ezequiel Barco who has interest from really big clubs like Atletico Madrid.”
The announcer then reminisced about Nashville SC’s MLS opener against that same Atlanta United team, this time in 2020 in front of almost 60,000 fans. Nashville lost that game 2-1, but the outcome almost did not matter for the fans in attendance.
“Holy cow, does that not feel like three years ago,” said a laughing Freeman. “Personally, it was such a culmination of professional and personal things, and there are so many other people at the club who feel the same way. That game just kind of proved that it was all worth it and it’s working. I moved to Nashville four or five years ago with no broadcasting and no professional soccer. Then for all the work I’d put in and all the people who had helped me and given me opportunities to sit there at midfield, and to think that this was once nothing, and now there’s 59,000 people here and we’re on national TV.”
Unfortunately, the promising start to Nashville’s inaugural season never had the opportunity to be anything more than just a start. After that opening game, the next ten days were a rapid decline from the high of that first goal in the Music City.
“When Walker Zimmerman scored that first goal, just think of the next week after that. A tornado tears through Nashville, and then the team goes to Portland and loses that game,” said Freeman. “I remember flying home on the overnight after the game, and seeing people with masks in the airport for the first time. By the time Tuesday rolled around, I was preparing for Toronto, and then skepticism crept in, and then things were shut down. I remember thinking ‘Oh, it’s going to be 30 days? That’s crazy and forever.’”
He pointed to the NBA’s shutdown on March 11 as the pivotal moment for sports in America. After the Utah Jazz center tested positive for COVID-19 right before the game, the NBA suspended their season. Major League Soccer shut down their season the next day, and other leagues followed suit.
“(Rudy Gobert) was where everything changed,” said Freeman. “When the NBA shut down, everything changed on that Wednesday night. I actually texted with (Atlanta United announcer) Jason Longshore, and they were in Mexico for a Concacaf match at Estadio Azteca, which is the largest stadium in Mexico. I remember him saying “This is the weirdest feeling. I feel like I’m broadcasting the last game on earth.” And that stuck with me, and part of it was true for three or four months.”
Recently, the MLS began a tournament of sorts for teams to partake in. However, Nashville SC is not one of those teams, as several players tested positive for COVID-19 before their proposed match against Chicago. Despite setbacks for the team, Freeman remains optimistic about Nashville’s future.
“It’s been tough to swallow after a fast start, like you’re Usain Bolt and you pull a hamstring in the first ten strides,” said Freeman. “But my color analyst Jamie Watson said it best when he said this is year one of forever. In three or four years, when we’re sitting in a sparkling new stadium in Nashville at top of the table, we’ll say ‘Oh that was something, but it was a long way from where we are now.’”
The longtime announcer said he was still being productive during the break, although in a different way than he normally would be doing at this time of the year. Breaking down opposing defenses has given way to breaking up the soil in his garden.
“Someone asked me if I was staying fresh, like I was some elite athlete who needs to train,” said Freeman. “Honestly, I’m guilty of kind of following too much of the news, more than what’s healthy. I’ve been doing a lot of gardening and our yard is looking wonderful. I’ve been reconnecting with the people who are close to me. If you follow the standards of the CDC, they say you can have people over at your house if you stay outside and six feet apart, and we’ve been doing a lot of that.”
While Freeman is enjoying his wide-open schedule, he still loves announcing. So when CFC’s chief marketing officer Owen Seaton hit him up about an opportunity to call the game, Freeman did not hesitate to say yes. Aside from knowing Seaton from their days working Nashville’s USL broadcasts, Freeman has been aware of CFC for years.
“Chattanooga FC has a very widespread reputation, and I can’t pinpoint how I heard about CFC, but I was very aware of it for quite some time, even when I was in Virginia,” said Freeman. “I was in Tennessee when they hosted the 2015 NPSL Final where they had 20,000 fans, and as a citizen of the state, that really stood out and made me think ‘this club is the real deal and are serious.’ Their reputation is known very well in Nashville and in the soccer world as a whole.”
With COVID-19 still a concern, the broadcast booth will look a little different from how it usually would. Fortunately for Freeman and color commentator Dale Schilly, broadcasting is profession that does not require being in close quarters with one another.
“There is no reason or requirement for me to be within six feet of anyone,” said Freeman. “It’s going to be interesting, because my partner is Dale Schilly and typically in broadcasting, you meet your analyst the day of the broadcast. It’s going to be interesting going on air, and you’re doing it with someone you need to have a lot of trust in…………and I will never have shaken Dale’s hand.”
Freeman did not give specifics about the broadcast, but he promises it will be one CFC fans can be proud of, saying “I think people are going to be really impressed. This should be one of the highest-production broadcasts in the American third-tier’s history. The resources the club has committed to this broadcast, the access I’ve gotten from coaches and staff of CFC, the production team they’ve brought in.”
“Everything leading up to this game for the last two weeks has really been impressive from the club’s standpoint. This is not a two-camera web-stream. This is a full-on soccer production. This club wanted it, deserves it, and is going to get it.”
If, or perhaps when, Chattanooga FC takes the pitch on Saturday evening, they will be the first professional team from Tennessee to play an official game, and John Freeman will be the one narrating every moment of the occasion.
“This should be the first professional goal scored in Tennessee since March, when Memphis played Indy 11,” said Freeman. “I don’t think Memphis is playing in Tennessee over the weekend, and Nashville is out and Red Wolves won’t be up and running for a week or two. So this is a big moment for soccer in this state.”
“The sport is officially back.”
If you would like to contact the author, you can do so at Joseph.A.Dycus@gmail.com