By Ben Wright.
2020 has been a rough year for Nashville. The highpoint of Nashville SC's expansion season was the very start; a 2-1 loss to Atlanta United in front of 59,000 fans at Nissan Stadium. Since then it's been downhill. Tornadoes swept through the city in March, damaging the homes of several Nashville SC players. Then the Coronavirus pandemic struck, putting their debut campaign on hold. And just as it looked like the club was close to returning, a cluster of Covid-19 cases in the squad forced them to withdraw from the MLS is Back Tournament, which would have been their first action in over four months.
"I'd say morale is low," Nashville CEO Ian Ayre told reporters on Thursday. "[Head coach] Gary Smith had a private meeting with the players yesterday to get the tone from them of their appetite to continue with what would have been a depleted squad. To a man, they supported carrying on."
That wasn't to be, as the league and Nashville ultimately decided that the timing wouldn't work out. Nashville hasn't practiced in 10 days, and would not have had time to be ready to play. "The players were 100% committed, right to the end," said Ayre. "It's certainly not the first rodeo for Nashville Soccer Club, but it's one of the toughest ones."
Ayre, who confirmed that most players are asymptomatic, with a few suffering from mild symptoms, argued that Nashville followed league and local health protocols strictly. "We were absolutely stringent in putting those processes and protocols together," he said. "We followed the protocols, and we refute any suggestion that that wasn't the case."
Ayre says he's not sure where the outbreak started, but pushed back on claims from fans and pundits that Nashville players have been careless. "I've been pretty incensed over the last 24 hours with some of the suggestions I've seen. Stuff like apparently our players had a big going away party, which never happened... It's a poor tactic really."
Ayre was critical of comments from ESPN's Taylor Twellman, who talked about Nashville's withdrawal during the broadcast of Philadelphia Union vs New York City FC. "You had to do your job in keeping your team in quarantine and prepared to play," he said. "I hope everyone involved that has Covid-19 from FC Dallas and Nashville gets healthy, first and foremost. But I don't feel bad that they're not participating because I just think that everyone has to take their own responsibility... it just seems like that wasn't the case." "I saw Taylor Twellman comment that we needed to do our job in preparing our team, and that he didn’t feel bad that we were not participating," Ayre commented. I think that’s A) hugely disrespectful to us, but also B) to anyone who’s affected by the virus, be it in soccer or not. You can’t make those sort of sweeping comments without facts, and we 100% worked within the tournament guidelines and protocols."
Ayre was staunch in his defense of Nashville, saying that Nashville followed protocols, saying that the cluster of outbreaks wasn't for lack of trying to prevent it, but that the virus is difficult to control. "If we did something wrong, I’ll be the first person to hold my hand up for this organization and say we got something wrong. But that wasn’t the case here."
Ayre said that over the last few days, Nashville received no new positive tests. "We came out the other side yesterday and today. We had no new cases, but we really ran out of time, rather than a lack of infections."
So what happens next? Right now Nashville is working with health officials to care for sick players and get everyone back to Nashville. After the team is back in Nashville and back to full health, "our focus will be on getting everyone fit, ready and prepared for the rest of the season, which will recommence in August post-Orlando. Nothing changes in that regard."
Ayre didn't share details of MLS's plan for resuming the season following the tournament, but said he would guess the league won't make up the three missed games from the group stage. "I imagine all of those results will count, and we won’t take any points from that, but we haven’t directly been told that." "Whilst it’s a tough day and they’re all hurting (some more than others), they’ll all stand up and fight again. I absolutely believe that... We’ve had it tougher than maybe any team has had in an expansion year so far. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t recover and we can’t be great again, and bring the energy that we saw on February 29th back to soccer in Nashville."