By Ben Wright, editor.
Gary Smith knows he's coaching in an unprecedented time.
"Whatever season we go into now is going to be completely different to how this season started, or any season that we’ve had before," the Nashville SC head coach told local media on a conference call Wednesday. "We’re in uncharted territory here. I certainly, along with probably most other people, have never seen anything like this before."
With Nashville's players returning to their Currey Ingram training fields for individual voluntary workouts, a return to play this summer seems plausible, with The Athletic's Sam Stejskal and others reporting an Orlando basecamp with closed-door matches starting in July.
"I haven’t been in a meeting that has categorically said, ‘this is what it’s going to be’," said Smith. "The league is still at a stage, from what I understand, where this particular idea is something that they have in mind, and are trying to get feedback from teams about what it could look like and how it could work."
Smith raised some questions about the proposed Orlando plan, noting that the heat and humidity could cause challenges for scheduling games. His staff would be "pushed to their limits" to get players fit quickly and to help them recover after matches. Smith also pointed out how difficult it would be for players and staff to be away from their family for as long as three or four months. "There’s other issues that you have to run into and will run into being away from home for that amount of time. But if it means the season, the league, would have the opportunity to get the wheels turning again, I think most people would be supportive of that, and whatever that means... The one most important factor I would obviously consider, and I’m sure everyone has, is staying safe."
With sessions limited to individual workouts, Smith has been limited in how he coaches his team. "There’s not really anything tactically we can do at this point... There’s some ground to be made up," he said. "I guess the only thing we all have to consider is, depending on how long we stay in the current moratorium, and then with the league looking at what a season might look like, and the timeframe needed, there is of course the possibility that we go from this straight into a mini-preseason, as it were. And we’ve got to get ourselves ready."
Echoing what Mike Jacobs and Dax McCarty had previously said, Smith said his players would need a minimum of four weeks full training to be ready for matches. "I’m sure most coaches would want more. I think a lot of us would be able to get the work that’s needed done in four weeks.”
When asked about the proposed rule change to allow teams five substitutions instead of the traditional three, Smith was supportive, saying he'd like to see matchday squads increased from 18 to 20 to help ease the burden on players in a very congested schedule. He did raise questions about how the substitutions would impact the flow of a match, though. "If we were winning the game, it would be a natural course of events sometimes to try and give your own players a bit of a break in proceedings... it’s not going to be very enjoyable for the viewer to see constant changes that just disrupt the flow of the game. So the three breaks in the game and five substitutions make a lot of sense, so therefore you’d have to have multiple substitutions at any given time if you want to get all five of those players on."
For Smith, as for everyone living in the new Covid reality, the past several weeks have been challenging.
"You look around the country, and obviously my country back in England as well, have been very hard-hit in London. Lots and lots of people have lost their lives, when normally they wouldn’t have done. Lots and lots of people have lost their jobs and are in a very very different position to when this virus started to take hold."
Smith said he is fortunate to have both his parents still alive, but said they're both in their 70s and he worries about their health. "They’re finding their world is very different, and that affects me and my family."
“It’s certainly been a very, very tough couple of months, and for some, a lot tougher than others," he reflected. I certainly feel grateful that we’ve been able to get through this at the moment, but it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed that lots and lots of other people have not been as fortunate."
Smith was very aware that while sports returning are not the world's most pressing need, they do provide a much needed distraction from reality. "When you come in a soccer environment, especially a professional one, there are many times where players have issues outside of the game, and it’s their opportunity when they come in just to leave that baggage at the door... It would certainly give them the opportunity maybe to leave that baggage that a lot of people are carrying around, just leave it at the door for the hour and a half or two hours that the game’s on. They can drift into a world that they’ve not seen for a little while, and maybe it just gives everybody a little bit of relief, for whatever amount of time that is."
Quotes provided by Nashville SC communications.