We were thrilled to be joined by Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs at the 104.5 The Zone studios to talk about Nashville's USL season, their debut in Major League Soccer next year, and what to expect in the coming weeks and months. Listen to our full conversation here and read a transcript below.
Davey Shepherd: You really have two jobs right now. You're a USL general manager and an MLS general manager. What's that balance like? How do you strike a good balance?
Mike Jacobs: The word you used there I think is important from the standpoint of balance, because the notion of teams that have gone from the USL to MLS or NASL to MLS and Nashville - are we another team that's going from USL to MLS - the reality is that it's really two different groups and two different entities with a commonality in the ownership group. You know, for us right now I think my day-to-day, working with the a staff of people who are working on a full-time basis with the USL team, working on a staff of people who are on a full-time basis building a roster for an MLS club, and you have guys like Gary Smith and myself who really have one foot in and one foot out, really trying to manage in my case and in Gary's case coaching at team who is pursuing championships in USL while also working to build a roster for our MLS team.
DS: Are you happy with where the USL season is rounding out and where Nashville is with the games remaining in the season?
MJ: I think it's important when fans look at the table to have a really good understanding of how it works because it's not a balanced schedule. Not everyone has played the same number of games. You also have an intra-conference schedule. So opposed to other sports like the NFL where you have games with NFC teams vs AFC teams, every game is against Eastern Conference opposition. We talk about the idea every game we play is really a six point game. With a win, not only do you gain three points for yourself, but you can take away three points from your opponent. For us, knowing that we've played more road games really than anyone, not only in the Eastern Conference, but in USL, knowing that we have just as many points as any other team in USL on the road, and when you look at the performance we had last week against Indy Eleven at home, if we can hold serve and kind of match the performances we've had on the road, now in this stretch of games where we're going to catch up in home games while also maybe knocking off some teams head to head as we play them intra-conference, I think we're in the place we want to be at this time of the year. I think ultimately we want to win every game we play. The old adage is to get three points at home and no less than one on the road, so obviously [there are] home games that we would have liked to have won that we lost earlier in the season, but I think to get where we are right now and to have the roster we have playing in the kind of form we have right now, I would take where we are right now opposed to any other time.
Ben Wright: Nashville travels to Kansas City this weekend to take on Swope Park Rangers. You spent a lot of time there with Sporting KC. What's a big takeaway from your time in Kansas City you're bringing to Nashville?
MJ: When I first came to Nashville, in an interview I kind of referred to our project kind of tongue in cheek about us being "SKC South". It was less about the idea of simply trying to emulate arguably the most consistent team in Major League Soccer in Sporting Kansas City, but more about the time I had there and working so closely with the likes of Peter Vermes, to have an opportunity to see behind the curtain at a club like that, to have a blueprint of how to sustain success. Because that's really what it is. It's not just about winning MLS Cups or US Open Cups, it's about sustained success and being able to compete every year. I think for me, it was taking that blueprint and being able to bring it here and see which things we can emulate in our own model and making it uniquely Nashville.
DS: What would you say are differences at the USL level between this season and last season on a technical level?
MJ: Overall for the league, the standard has improved dramatically. Not just with our team, but the league in general. I think you're finding teams spending more money on players, whether it's domestic players or international players. I think you're seeing more players come on loan from MLS. I think a year or two ago you probably really only saw it in frequency with the MLS 2 teams, sending players down to their reserve teams. So I think the standards have improved significantly. I think between that and then the improvement of venues, you're seeing more and more teams with their own venues, soccer specific venues. I think the USL really has kind of grown to be like the Football League in England from the standpoint that the Football League is all things not English Premier League, and I think the USL has kind of evolved into a role like that in our country beneath MLS.
DS: In that same vein, we've seen guys that Nashville has brought in on MLS contracts. Can you talk about what you look for uniquely in guys who have only been at the USL level so far as players who might be able to make the jump to MLS in the future?
MJ: What's interesting is that is wasn't that long ago that the MLS Superdraft was like this critical piece to developing and growing a nucleus and base for your club. Ben mentioned Sporting Kansas City. We have Chance Meyers as our chief scout now who had such a long and distinguished career at Kansas City. Guys he played with like Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, Dom Dwyer - those guys became this nucleus of a really successful team in Kansas City, and they were all guys who came from the draft. I think we've seen in our country a fundamental shift where college soccer still plays a place in the development landscape, but the reality is that most clubs are developing their own players through their own youth academies. I think you're seeing fewer and fewer of the tops propects playing in college. You're seeing more and more of those top prospects playing in the USL. For us, we see the USL as a very viable area to help populate an MLS roster. I think that the big thing for us is being able to see if players can maintain the physical demands that you see in MLS. How athletic those players are. And then also, the speed of play as far as their decision making, and how fast they can make decisions under pressure.
DS: Yesterday on the radio, Ian Ayre talked about the academy launching soon for Nashville. Any information or timeline you could add to that statement?
MJ: The reality is that in the coming weeks we're going to have an awful lot to share about the future of NSC's academy. From facilities to directors to a development plan, but that's in the horizon for us. I think that's something we can share more in depth on over the coming weeks. What I can say is that the foundation for any professional soccer team, whether it's in our country or abroad, is the strength of their academy. So we're going to be very active in the process of trying to develop our own players to potentially play in our first team.
BW: So there was that quote from you that went around our fanbase about "spending wisely", and I think a lot of people just took to mean that Nashville won't spend much. What's your vision for "spending wisely"?
MJ: I think it's funny because when you look at the role I have, it's easy to associate with the book that Michael Lewis wrote or a movie with Brad Pitt in it and the idea of general managers trying to be smarter than the next guy as the idea of what Moneyball is. I think that analytics and statistics are very much a part of what we do on a day-to-day basis. In the simplest terms, what moneyball is is trying to acquire things that are undervalued, try to discard things that are overvalued, and trying to maximize the resources you have. For us, it's not a question of whether or not we're going to spend a lot, and I think over the coming weeks and coming months that we'll be able to demonstrate with some of the players that we announce that you'll see players at varying levels of abilities in MLS but also varying wage scales that probably will demonstrate that. From our standpoint, we're not going to spend frivolously. We're not going to buy players just to buy players. We're not going to buy names simply to try to move the turnstiles. From our standpoint, the best way to engage our fanbase is just to win all the time. And I think the best way for us to do that is to spend on the right players that we feel by looking at best practices, by looking at analytics to gauge that these players have the best track records of success in our league.
BW: So you just mentioned analytics, and I know you just brought in a Director of Strategy and Analytics. What do see the role of analytics and that kind of data to be in building this team and in how it performs?
MJ: We feel so fortunate to have Oliver Miller-Farrell in that capacity. Oliver adds to our leadership team that's made up of a very diverse group. Ally MacKay, our assistant general manager, has served kind of in a previous life as an agent. Chance Meyers, our chief scout, has had as decorated and distinguished as a right back has had in MLS and has a really unique reference point as far as his eye for players simply in our league. To add someone like Oliver, who worked at Opta, the world's leader in data analytics, his role in knowing how each club in MLS integrates the use of data analytics is invaluable. His strategic insight is into how to use certain software, to help us shortlist players, to get an idea of what kind of players we're looking at and where to find those players. We're going to look at any advantage we can take to help make us successful. Whether we're looking under rocks for players or looking between the lines at statistics, having someone like Oliver in that capacity has been invaluable.
DS: Philosophically, what should we expect the identity of this team to be in MLS?
MJ: It's interesting, because I think it's something that's fluid as far as what our style of play is going to be. For us, what we hope to be, the NSC DNA, we want to be a team that's going to create scoring chances. Ben and I used to talk last year about the difference between expected goals or creating chances. I think there's a big difference between creating chances and finishing. Some of them are tactical, about how your team wants to play. Some of them are technical, based on the individual players you have. When you look at our current manager, Gary Smith, the notion of him being a "defensive coach", I have to say that I've not been around a team that's been ok with hemorrhaging goals, giving goals away. Most expansion teams in every sport are like sieves as far as giving goals away. For us, to start an expansion team in MLS, contrary to these successful teams like LAFC or Atlanta, the reality is that most expansion teams fail miserably their first year. We have a manager who's very stingy defensively - his teams just don't concede goals. But to have this notion about how his teams play, his team in Colorado that won an MLS Cup in 2010, the subsequent year it would be hard to say that a team that had Connor Casey as a US international or Omar Cummings, a big goal scorer in MLS, that those teams bunkered and sat back. I think if you look at our team right now, we're one of the only teams that are top 10 in USL in goals scored and in goals against. As far as our DNA, we're going to be a team that creates a lot of scoring chances. We're going to be a team that puts a lot of pressure on opposing teams. And you can put pressure on teams defensively, like in basketball with a full court press or in soccer with the high press. You can also pressure a team offensively, by how you turn them on defense, how you make them uncomfortable in their half of the field. That last phrase I mentioned is really important in our DNA. We want players who are ok with being uncomfortable, who can deal with being under pressure. The likes of playing somewhere like in Atlanta in front of 70,000 fans. We want them to be comfortable being uncomfortable, but also able to make other teams uncomfortable, in a high-pressing team on both sides of the ball.
DS: You mentioned LAFC and Atlanta United. Are there any trends you've seen in MLS that have caught your eye and are worth paying attention to, and on the flip side any things that you think are just fads and are maybe going to be gone?
MJ: We spend a lot of time looking at best practices. If you look at the recent success of expansion sides like LAFC or Atlanta, I think it's important to look at what things they've done really well. Every team is going to spend differently. That isn't an indictment on anybody for not spending, or giving plaudits to them for spending as much on the players they went after. There's a certain price point for any player you're looking at, like buying a car. You have to decide what kind of waters you're going to dip your toes in. I think both those clubs [LAFC and Atlanta] are committed to spending big early on on attacking players. What I will say is we look at certain trends from not only those clubs, but any club that has had success in our league, there are certain countries that players have come out of and had success in our league. There are certain demographics about positions that money has been spent on, positions you shouldn't spend money on, maybe the age of certain players, and for us, without getting into the weeds too much, we try look at those trends, look at those best practices of clubs that have worked. I'll be honest with you, we've spent as much time looking at practices of clubs that haven't worked to see where it went wrong for them, to try and avoid making the same mistakes.