After nearly a decade between managing games in MLS, Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith enjoyed every bit of his expansion side's first two games of 2020.
Well — Almost everything.
“It was phenomenal," Smith told MLSsoccer.com last week. "I want to say I enjoyed every minute, [but] I can’t because we got beat!"
Nashville's first two matches in MLS ended in defeat, albeit against stiff opposition. They hosted Atlanta United to kick off the season before heading to the Portland Timbers the following week before play was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and dropped both games by a single goal while earning respect for their defensive efforts. Nashville have by far the fewest expected goals against in the league, at just 0.45 over those two games, suggesting they may have been a bit unlucky to walk away with zero points.
"I was delighted to see the group in action, a lot of work went into preseason," Smith said. "There were concerns heading into the season: Are we going in the right direction? Are we going to compete? But we felt as if we belonged. There were some very good performances, some really good chemistry shown early on. It wasn’t borne out in the results, of course, but my hope is that we can quickly pick up where we left off.”
In the meantime, Smith is grappling with new challenges of how to manage a club at a distance, almost exclusively behind a computer screen.
He finally got to take a bit of a break from that last week, when Nashville players returned to the training facility for the first time in nearly two months for voluntary individual workouts. The hope is small group workouts and then eventually full team training will follow sooner than later.
“There have been plenty of challenges," Smith said. "Honestly, the fact that you don’t have any personable interaction (is the biggest.) Nothing beats being around the team, being personable with the players, that atmosphere and feel. That’s a big asset in team sports, everyone gets the opportunity to create an atmosphere. ... That’s a huge one, that we’re so disjointed in terms of isolation. It’s just astounding how much you miss the matchdays."
That doesn't mean the club haven't found ways to be productive, particularly in player scouting and recruitment.
“We’ve got a considerable amount of work done as an organization in the technical department in planning for what comes next," Smith said. "We’ve kept ourselves busy. ... We’ve been able to focus on recruitment and possibilities of players for when we get going again or even the future. I’m sure that’s no different than any other group.”
In other words, he expects Nashville to be ready when MLS returns.
“We were looking in a very good place," Smith said. "I know the results didn’t go for us, but there were a lot of boxes we ticked."