National Writer: Charles Boehm

Nashville SC way: Leagues Cup final brings “tremendous opportunity” vs. Messi


Even as they prepare to host Saturday’s Leagues Cup Final at GEODIS Park, their atmospheric home ground, and aim to maximize that advantage, Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs readily embraces the underdog role for his club in the matchup between Lionel Messi and his suddenly rampant Inter Miami CF side.

Despite having elite players of their own like reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman, the Coyotes expect Miami to be favored by the pundits and oddsmakers, and to be cheered on by the majority of those watching around the world. Jacobs & Co. know the narrative power and possibility of Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba leading the revitalized Herons to glory mere weeks after their arrival, and of hoisting hardware before a massive global audience on MLS Season Pass (9 pm ET).

“What's happened with the addition of Messi and obviously some other really special players is tremendous for our league, the visibility of our players, our teams,” Jacobs told in a one-on-one conversation Wednesday afternoon, the day after NSC knocked off CF Monterrey in their semifinal.

“Nashville SC will play in front of more people than in our club's history [on Saturday], and that wouldn't have happened this weekend had Messi not come to our league. So I think that's tremendous. From a roster-build standpoint, it's very different groups.”

Taking center stage

While Miami have managed to turn around the league’s last-place team on a dime, flipping a switch from doormats to dominant with the addition of their illustrious ex-FC Barcelona trio and esteemed head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Nashville have been the epitome of a slow, steady build.

Jacobs, head coach Gary Smith and their colleagues crafted one of the league’s sturdiest defensive units as the bedrock of their squad from the jump, then judiciously added, chopped and changed in search of the right pieces to elevate their attack to a similar echelon. Some would dub it a “Moneyball” approach, particularly compared to Miami’s.

Though there were fits and starts – the striker position, in particular, was a recurring bugaboo – it largely worked, with NSC qualifying for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs every year while IMCF and their initial batch of high-profile signings struggled for purchase out of the gates.

Now, with Mukhtar – simultaneously one of the most successful and under-the-radar Designated Player signings of the past decade – at the peak of his powers, and new DP Sam Surridge so far looking like the long-sought answer up top with three goals in his first three appearances, they’re ready for their close-up.

This weekend marks the first cup final in their history, which dates back to a 2018 launch in USL.

“I like the idea of describing it as an evolution. I do think it's evolved and changed with the players we were able to add,” said Jacobs, “from year one, putting together a team that we thought could be competitive, maybe stingy defensively and take our chances when it came to adding attacking pieces each year and kind of layering on to that, to be able to create a dynamic and versatile type of attack that can score a bunch of different ways.”

Building an identity

On a deeper level, he believes there’s something intrinsic to Nashville’s identity that makes their players, fans and staff relish being the obstacle, the party crasher, the foil on occasions like Saturday – much as they’ve been since the two clubs entered the league together as expansion siblings in 2020.

“We've always tried to identify players maybe who had not become stars prior to coming here,” explained Jacobs. “We're really proud of the fact that where Hany and Walker are household names in Major League Soccer, they really didn’t ascend to where they are right now until they came to Nashville.

“Knowing that, guys like that, guys like Sam Surridge now have come to our league with a chip on their shoulder, with something to prove. Maybe they hadn't made it yet to the level of aspirations they all have, because I think that also kind of fits into what we're looking to do as a group.”

That is a marked contrast, of course, to the readily-recognizable superstardom of Messi et al, as well as the style and glitz inherent to Miami writ large. Rhinestones may abound on the stages of Music City, but it tends to be a place where careers begin rather than end.

“MLS 1.0 was built around players who had gained their success, made their name in a previous life somewhere else, then came to our league,” said Jacobs. “For us, we tried to identify guys that we thought could do that, could become stars, but needed the opportunity, whether it was maybe valuing them more than some others have, to just finding players that would fit into our framework or our system.”

Smith led an unfancied Colorado Rapids team to an MLS Cup title in 2010 and fairly or not, a reputation for cautious, defensive tactics has followed him ever since. The past month has shown a different side to the Englishman, however, with NSC a good deal more enterprising going forward and their coach even indulging in some timely showmanship, most prominently when Nashville upset Club América in a chaotic Round-of-16 clash, which Smith celebrated exultantly on his way off the pitch.

“Even the manager’s tactics. Based on the personnel he’s had, I think Gary's always been really good about trying to identify tactics that he thought could not only destroy what the opposition was trying to do, but I think had begun to magnify what our strengths are,” said Jacobs. “As we've gotten different types of attacking players to choose from, it’s enabled him to be more, what’s the word I'm thinking of – more swashbuckling? And more attacking-oriented.”

"Tremendous opportunity"

As impressive as Miami have been on their six-match unbeaten run since the debut of Messi and Busquets, Nashville had a rugged road of their own to this point. They locked horns with Toluca in a wild 4-3 loss in the Leagues Cup group stage, then vanquished current MLS leaders FC Cincinnati, a stingy Minnesota United FC and two members of the Liga MX elite in América and Monterrey.

Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat of Rayados provided a potent moment of reflection – a “really, really special” moment, in Jacobs’ words – on the journey of the past four years.

“It was really validating and affirming to see all the hard work from so many people, whether they were under the lights of GEODIS Park or they were in the background, to kind of see this whole thing kind of come to fruition,” he said, before crediting the psychological makeup of NSC’s collective-oriented squad.

“The kind of guys we have in the locker room, a lot of veterans and veteran leadership,” Jacobs noted. “The nucleus of the team all have really strong leadership attributes. We do have Walker Zimmerman as the captain, but we've got a group of like eight or nine guys who are all like experienced, seasoned winners who expect to win all the time. And I think for us, that was part of the DNA we wanted to create with our club, was to create a group of guys who all expected to win all time.”

Now they’ll welcome the world’s gaze to the house that was built near the Nashville fairgrounds while they took their first steps in MLS.

“Our fanbase has waited patiently for a moment like this for our club, to play the best teams in the world, the best players in the world, the chance to pursue cups,” said Jacobs. “Our players deserve it. Our ownership deserves it, and our fans deserve it. It's a tremendous opportunity.”