On Thursday afternoon, Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs met with a small group of reporters to discuss the end of Nashville SC in USL and the beginning of Nashville SC in Major League Soccer.
Off the bat, Jacobs was quick to point out how successful Nashville's two seasons in USL were, pointing out that only New York Red Bulls II and Reno won more matches in their first two seasons in the league. "Any team that’s not competing for silverware at the end of the year, they’re unsuccessful from the standpoint that every player and every coach aspires to win championships," said Jacobs when asked if the final season was a success. "I think the identity of our club has been established to some degree with our fans about what things we expect from any player wearing a gold jersey. But the reality is that we’re going from one set of circumstances in USL to a very different set of circumstances in MLS. It’s the same ownership group for both franchises, but it really is two separate franchises."
Jacobs was very emphatic of the distinction between the two clubs. "I always try to dispel this notion of a USL team going to MLS. In terms of personnel, players, club identity, it’s a very different mission in a different league." And while he says that every coach and players goal is to win a championship, he points out that it's an understood goal for every team. "Without being vanilla or non-committal, our goal is to be as competitive as possible straightaway. Teams that stand out tend to stand out for either being really good or really poor. I think for us, a realistic goal is to not stand out, but to blend in. The goal is when you watch us play against team x next year, that you see two teams that are comparable to each other."
The goal of being merely a competitive team may seem underwhelming, but the reality is expansion sides have historically struggled. Outside of LAFC and Atlanta United, it's been pretty grim for new clubs in their first couple seasons. Orlando and New York City both missed the playoffs in their first year, and Orlando has yet to qualify for the postseason in five years. Minnesota took three seasons to make the playoffs, and conceded the most goals in league history their first year, a total broken by expansion side Cincinnati this past season.
Jacobs again talked about Nashville's research into teams who haven't been successful. "A lot of times they brought in good players, but players who didn’t fit in their market, didn’t fit in their league, didn’t fit in the states," he said. "It’s easy to say “I need a 6 and an 8 in midfield”, but there’s gotta be things about them that make them fit together. Speaking the same language, having a similar style of play, a similar understanding, that’s really important.
Jacobs talked about the process of getting players settled in to Nashville. He mentioned how crucial it is that David Accam and Aníbal Godoy have already been in town looking for housing and school options for their families. "Rather than trying to do all these things in January that other clubs do, orient 30 new players in two weeks and try to fit in training sessions as well and play with new teammates, our hope is to cut out all this noise and in January just be able to focus on football."
With CBA negotiations looming between the MLS Players Association and the league office, Jacobs says his staff is very aware that the roster rules and mechanisms may change. "We’ve been somewhat frugal from the standpoint of this war chest we’re trying to create. You may see more of a slow roll in putting our roster together. We don’t want to spend all our resources and have things change, and then find out we no longer have tools to work with." He noted that LAFC started their debut season with only 17 players on their senior roster, and he seemed to indicate that Nashville will start the year with a smaller squad to allow for more activity in the summer transfer window, when more players from Europe's top leagues are available.
However, Jacobs was quick to use a phrase we've heard from him before; "spending wisely does not mean we won't spend." He used the example of Hany Mukhtar, a type of player he said is not available to acquire from within MLS. Jacobs said that Mukhtar was purchased for nearly three million dollars, and noted that several MLS clubs will not spend that much on their entire roster this season. "We’re fortunate that our ownership puts us in position to pursue players we think will fit, but we’re not going to spend frivolously. It’s not a race to fill our DP slots."
Perhaps the biggest emphasis of the conversation was how the group of players from Nashville SC's USL side will be handled moving forward. Jacobs declined to comment on individual players on the record, wanting to be respectful of their contracts that run until November 30. However, he pointed out the difference in level of play between the two leagues more than once. "We can’t underestimate how huge this gap is between MLS and USL," he said. "That’s not to discredit any player who has played in USL, or our fans who love these players. You’ve seen teams take multiple players from USL to MLS and fail miserably. I can tell you, that’s not going to be us."
Jacobs didn't say that Nashville won't sign any players from their USL side. In fact, he hinted that a couple players may make the jump. Nashville won't make a formal announcement on those players until closer to the November 30 date, but he emphasized that even those who don't make the jump to MLS are in a good position going forward. "The guys from this USL team will not be short of options. I’ve been getting calls by the dozens for the last couple of months from other teams looking at our players."
"But the reality is, we’re not looking at these guys compared to USL," he said. "We’re looking at them compared to MLS. Even the most casual of observers can see the difference between the players we’ve announced and the USL standard of play. Any players who will be announced as coming with us to MLS were poked and prodded and responded positively. Also, because of the mechanisms of MLS, certain players will qualify to be in a certain roster spot, while others won’t. SO it’s not always as simple as if someone is good enough. But I can say if we felt a player from the USL side is good enough to be with us in MLS, they would be, regardless of age or domestic status."
The MLS transfer window will be open from November 11-13, allowing clubs to trade for players in the league. Dax McCarty and Dave Romney are reported to have signed with Nashville, and will likely be announced officially in that time. The expansion draft will take place on November 19, and Jacobs was open with the fact that Nashville may not keep all the players they select. "Expansion draft picks are assets. Players tend to keep 2-3 players they pick. It’s possible we could keep all five players we pick. It’s a better chance we keep 1 and trade 4. The idea of trading them is to acquire assets."
Jacobs was quick to point out the attacking emphasis of their signings so far. "Gary has a moniker of a defensive coach, but we haven’t announced a guy on our backline yet," he said. "Hopefully when you see the focus we have early on to sign guys like Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal, David Accam, you see this forward thinking, dynamic attacking group. I hope unlike other expansion teams that we’re sound defensively, and I think if we can do that coupled with this attacking group we have, we’ll be a cohesive team."
We'll include a larger portion of our conversation with Mike on our next podcast, out Friday afternoon, and we'll include other parts of our conversation as the offseason progresses.