Some are calling it an “expansion derby,” and in keeping with the norm for most of 2020, much of the talk about Friday’s MLS Cup Playoffs Play-in Match (9 pm ET | TV & streaming) between Nashville SC and Inter Miami revolves around the South Florida side, the glitzier and more star-studded of this season’s newcomers.
From the perspective of Nashville GM Mike Jacobs and his front-office colleagues, you might say that that’s not right, but it’s OK.
“Yeah, I like the fact that even with us having the success we’ve had this season, that we're still kind of like the weak sister to Miami,” Jacobs said with a laugh in a recent video chat with MLSsoccer.com.
“I'm perfectly happy with us flying under the radar and being able to sneak in the blind spot of the teams we’re playing against, being taken for granted.”
The Tennessee club might not have drawn quite as many cameras or column inches as their more ostentatious counterparts, but the numbers don’t lie. Crafting a tigerish defensive identity under coach Gary Smith, NSC finished eight points ahead of Inter in the standings (and thus get to host their postseason face-off), conceded 13 fewer goals and have already racked up an end-of-year award, with key center back Walker Zimmerman named MLS Defender of the Year on Wednesday.
Nashville did all that with less money, and in keeping with a long-term plan that Jacobs believe will keep them competitive for years to come. While Miami’s international allure and leadership from David Beckham has prompted comparisons to high-spending sides like Atlanta United and LAFC, Nashville look to Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers for inspiration — as well as a few cautionary tales elsewhere.
“The goal for us is to be able to have sustained success,” said Jacobs, a former acolyte of Peter Vermes at SKC, taking aim at what he sees as dodgy assumptions being made across MLS. “The one I hate the most is, ‘you can spend like Atlanta or LAFC and win, or you can not spend, like the other teams, and not win.’
“There are just as many teams that have spent like LAFC in the first year and done really poorly. Without me calling out other clubs, there are teams who spent more than those teams spent, or as much as they spent, and struggled their first year. … We looked at best practices about what didn’t work. We looked at the teams that struggled and tried to figure out why they struggled.”
If you subscribe to the idea that the “sexiest” soccer is the winning kind, you’re probably on Nashville’s wavelength. The Boys in Gold have built from back to front, fussing over their defensive foundation while allowing the attack time to distill, and believe that — combined with a crop of young players finding their feet — can keep their growth on a steadily upward trajectory.
They waited until the summer transfer window to bring in their showcase attacking piece, Venezuelan striker Jhonder Cadiz, on loan from Benfica, and have duly seen their offensive productivity tick upwards down the stretch.
“We continue to exceed expectations and I think when you look at this group we have, what's really exciting is, not only have they performed really well in our first year, but we still haven’t had all three DPs on the field yet,” said Jacobs, a former coach who’s grown fluent in the modern languages of analytics and value-oriented team building. “Attacking cohesion is the hardest thing to build. Over [the season’s] last month, we’ve been as good as anybody offensively.”
Jacobs calls NSC’s John Ingram one of the most supportive owners he’s ever encountered and maintains that the resources are there to make a splashy signing when it makes sense. Earlier this year they reportedly kicked the tires on Ake Loba and Maxi Romero, attackers who likely would've been eight-figure transactions, before moving on. In the meantime, they've earned some vindication about some of the pivotal deals pulled off months ago — and Jacobs hasn’t forgotten the criticism they drew at the time.
“When we first started putting the team together, fans, members of the media could question or challenge different roster moves we made,” he said, “[like] how much money we spent on [holding midfielder] Anibal Godoy. Almost every other club in the league reached out saying they were trying to trade for Godoy, or how great he was. And now look, he's one of the elite midfielders in the league, on both sides of the ball.
“[Vermes] told me, in ‘13 they traded for Benny Feilhaber, everybody thought he overspent. Ian Ayre said when he was at Liverpool and they bought [Roberto] Firmino, everybody thought they overspent. When you win and those guys play well, no one [cares] anymore about how much you spent.”
It took significant assets to pry Zimmerman away from LAFC and Godoy from San Jose – and both turned out to be smart buys.
“Honestly, the amount of money we spent, if we’d had to, we would have spent double to get Walker. I mean, he's that valuable,” said Jacobs. “Look at how Ike [Opara] changed the fortunes not only of Minnesota’s franchise but Sporting Kansas City last year, also. That position certainly has a huge effect on a team’s success.
“Most teams that build a roster out don't appreciate how important that is, not only the spine of your team, but how your defensive DNA is going to be – where your line of confrontation is going to be, are you going to sit in, are you going to press up higher, how are you going to absorb pressure? We probably put more emphasis into that than some other teams in their first year.”
Nashville want to maximize the impact of every dollar spent; that’s not the same thing as penny-pinching. Jacobs describes how he flew out to Los Angeles to make an in-person presentation to the LAFC brass to lay out the data behind his offer for Zimmerman, and similarly to the LA Galaxy for his center-back partner Dave Romney.
“The reality is, Walker Zimmerman, Anibal Godoy, those teams weren't looking to move those guys,” explained Jacobs. “So you have to offer more than their market value to entice that team to do a deal.
“There are other teams where I tried to do a similar presentation, and teams would say, ‘I like what you put together and I totally appreciate that, but I want $300,000 more.’ And when that happens, I mean, what's your choice? The reason those expansion teams are given that kind of GAM is to build your team. So you can nickel-and-dime with the players you have, or you can spend to get the right guys.”
“We took a tack of understanding that we’re not going to get everything right, we're going to make some mistakes,” he said. “We tried to make sure more than half our roster were players who weren't guaranteed [contractually] for more than one year. And it was because we didn't have confidence in the guys we were going to select, we just didn't know what we didn't know. We hadn't played a game yet. We hadn’t had a chance to evaluate the players we had.
“For us, MLS is the most challenging league in the world to assemble a roster for, because of the mechanisms we have. So I wanted to make sure that we maintained the same flexibility we were looking for in the field – like a winger who can play in a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 – we want to create the same flexibility with us on our roster build. And I think we did that.”
Will this collectivist approach hold firm in a win-or-else setting against a more superstar-driven model? That’s the challenge of the playoffs, and Miami are Nashville’s first test. Jacobs likes their chances, both now and in the future.
“I appreciate people coming around, but I love the idea of people challenging us,” he said with a grin, “because it's just another person for us to knock over on our way forward.”