MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Nashville SC take "relentless" identity into new chapter at GEODIS Park

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There’s something that simply feels right when a professional sports team properly reflects their home. Across all sports.

It’s just another way to resonate with your surroundings, to hold a mirror up and extract qualities from the streets onto the field, court or ice.

Nashville SC believe they’ve accomplished that in their first two-plus years in Major League Soccer. And it was remarkably evident last Sunday when more than 30,000 screaming fans showed up at GEODIS Park to christen their new cathedral.

“This is the city that associates with Johnny Cash, the bad boy of country music,” general manager Mike Jacobs told last week. “This is the city that walks around with a chip on its shoulder, daring people to knock it off. I think this is a perfect team for this city.”

Jacobs is a proud New Yorker who lived and died with the 1990s Knicks, an era that still holds a special place in the memory of Knicks fans despite not winning an NBA title because of how well that group reflected New York City.

“We’re a team that when the opposition are preparing scouting reports, they're going to talk about how they hate to play against us,” Jacobs said. “Whether it’s [being] stingy defensively, tough players, guys with dynamic pace and guys with personalities who relish being the bad guy and wearing the black cowboy hat. It’s a group that’s relentless.”

Head coach Gary Smith epitomizes this ethos, with their roster snugly fitting the mold. Back-to-back MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman leads the way alongside a core of MLS-experienced midfielders, like Dax McCarty, Anibal Godoy and Sean Davis. Hany Mukhtar has been the star attacker and was named a finalist for 2021's Landon Donovan MLS MVP award.

“We approached this team and bringing it to this community in that way: Being good people who do good stuff,” CEO Ian Ayre said. “Not surprisingly when we took that attitude, it resonated with the city. We got a following we hoped for and then some.”

The only real knock on the group over their time in MLS is aesthetics. Part of having a gritty, chip-on-your-shoulder, defensively-sound type of identity means placing less emphasis on free-flowing, high-risk attacking soccer.

Nashville tied the league record for most draws in a season in 2021 with 18. For all the quibbles about those draws, the team still finished top-third in the league in goals and shots as well as top-half in expected goals.

Most important to the club, though, is accumulating points to make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, preferably hosting games, and extending their season as far into the fall as possible.

“Most teams are playing for three points at home and no less than one at home,” Jacobs said. “You have two kinds of people: Those who believe that and those who deny believing that. We’re always trying to get three points every game we play, but we understand with data points how many points you need to be top seven, and how many points to get a home playoff game. The best way to entertain our fans is to win and still be playing in October, November.”

While the team is doing fine as is – they have 12 points after nine games, with an eight-game road swing preceding their GEODIS Park debut, a 1-1 draw vs. Philadelphia — there’s room for growth when the Secondary Transfer Window opens July 7 and lasts through Aug. 4.

Nashville just re-signed Mukhtar and Zimmerman to new contracts, the latter now occupying the third DP spot (club-record signing Ake Loba is their other DP). Nashville can still add a U22 Initiative signing and have accumulated a big chunk of allocation money to add a key piece or two under a DP charge.

“We tried to make ourselves flexible enough that when the opportunity presented itself for the right player we’d be ready,” Jacobs said. “We absolutely have targets and options we’re looking at. When the opportunity presents itself, we’ll be ready to strike.”