On Friday, Nashville SC announced the addition of four players from the club that competed in USL Championship to their inaugural Major League Soccer squad. Midfielder Matt LaGrassa, winger Alan Winn and defenders Taylor Washington and Ken Tribbett will all continue their playing careers in Nashville as the club begins to compete at the highest level of soccer in the country. General Manager Mike Jacobs held a press conference via phone to share his thoughts on the signings.
“It’s a great day, not only for the four players, but for the fans of the team that played in USL Championship,” he said. “To see these guys go through the last two years (In Ken Tribbett’s case year) and watch them prove themselves capable of being part of this project we have in MLS… I’m proud of how these guys have played and how they’ve conducted themselves also.”
All four players have been on the fringes of MLS their entire careers. Taylor Washington was drafted by the Philadelphia Union, but has played the majority of his minutes in USL. Matt LaGrassa joined Nashville from Reno 1868, the USL partner of MLS’s San Jose Earthquakes. Alan Winn was drafted 25th overall by Colorado Rapids, before leaving in preseason to join Nashville ahead of their debut season in USL. Ken Tribbett is the only one of the quartet to see the pitch in MLS, making 23 appearances for Philadelphia Union after signing in 2016.
“Experience is relative in some regards,” says Jacobs. “A lot comes down the roles these guys are being looked at for and what they’re being asked to do.” He notes Tribbett’s MLS experience, saying that he performed quite well in his first season in MLS. Jacobs says that Nashville brought in Tribbett in 2019 to “put him under a microscope”, specifically with the goal of seeing if he could be a contributor for the club at the next level. “It was very clear to us that when he was healthy, he was someone we thought should be in our plans.” Each of the other players fill specific roles, both in terms of on the field positions and roster designations, says Jacobs.
“As a central defender, he is somebody who can blend in with the guys we have,” said Jacobs of Ken Tribbett. “His ability on both sides of the ball, his playmaking and passing out of the back is going to help him with the change in the speed of play. Defensively, his ability to close guys down and turn them, but also his overall 1v1 defending and ability to win balls both in the air and on the ground make him someone who’s able to assimilate quickly.”
Of Matt LaGrassa, versatility and work rate were key factors in their decision. “He’s versatile enough to play a lot of roles in midfield, and athletically he’s able to cover a lot of ground. Those things, plus how hard he plays, make him someone who fits into the NSC DNA, and he provides depth at a number of different roles for us.”
Jacobs spoke similarly of Taylor Washington, noting his ability to play both defense and midfield. “Athleticism has always been a strength of his. His ability to cover ground on the flank is what got him drafted into MLS, and now is what’s getting him back into the league.”
Of both Washington and Tribbett, Jacobs stated he believes they’re in much better positions to succeed in MLS now than they were when in their first stints. “A lot of times what players lack at the next level is getting regular matches,” he says, and points out how consistent matches have sharpened him as a player.
“Alan took quite a gamble,” he says. Winn opted not to sign with Colorado Rapids to come to Nashville in 2018, and the move has paid off, according to Jacobs. “He demonstrated that he could do the things Gary’s going to ask of his wide players.” Winn’s ability to play on either side and fit into a reserve roster spot were major factors in the decision to bring him up.
“The biggest thing for each of them is that they understand what Gary looks for in specific players. In Gary’s first season in MLS, he’ll get some depth from guys who understand the system. It will help Gary as much as anybody else.”
Jacobs has talked extensively about the difference in quality between MLS and USL, describing it as a “quantum leap". It may seem strange, then, that eight players signed to the MLS roster played all or most of their minutes in 2019 in USL. “A big thing for us is managing expectations,” answered Jacobs when asked about this. “It’s important to keep in perspective the expectations that the club places on them and the fans place on them. Because of that vast difference in standards, we’ll probably try to under promise the roles that these guys have and hope that they’re able to find their way with the other group.”
So how does Jacobs measure success for these players? “I don’t want to damper their own expectations. My hope is that they’re going to come in the same way they have in USL and put themselves in spots to earn meaningful minutes.” He says that in the same way the gap from MLS to USL has widened, the gap between USL and collegiate soccer has grown. “When you look at how a lot of teams fill out their rosters with college draft picks, I value the experience we’ve had watching guys play in USL. Maybe these guys will start out with roles you more commonly associate with college draft picks, but I think having guys who are a little older and more seasoned in meaningful matches, and who are experienced in Nashville with Gary Smith is really important.”
On the timing of the announcement, he spoke about how important it was to announce the signings all at once, but also have the expansion draft to evaluate the roster and what the club could spend on signings from USL. He said the announcement should also be taken in proper perspective, noting that it’s a great moment for the fans and the players, but it should ultimately be viewed simply as four new signings, nothing more and nothing less.
Jacobs says the club was transparent with the USL side on the major gap they saw between USL and MLS, and the club’s expectations of bringing a very small number of players up from the lower leagues. He said he is very aware of the connections fans have to many of the players who won’t be moving up, but says that the best way to respect those fans is to put together a team that can compete at the MLS level. “Our commitment is to the fans, and that commitment is to put the best possible team on the field.”