Entering the league in 2020 alongside Inter Miami CF, the club with David Beckham at the helm and linked to any number of global stars as potential Designated Player signings, Nashville SC has flown a bit under the radar.
In terms of managing expectations, that's right where Nashville technical director Mike Jacobs is most comfortable.
“As much as it was game-changing to pursue players like [Miguel] Almiron and [Carlos] Vela for our league, it’s hard to maintain that level of spending for any club," Jacobs told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “I don’t think it was just about spending money [for Atlanta and LAFC], but it was about spending wisely. There have also been teams that invested poorly.
"For us, we don’t look at it as an arms race of trying to spend as much, or more, as those expansion teams as much as looking at how thoughtful they were in their process and spending wisely.”
Jacobs wouldn't go into specifics about the club's plan for Designated Players, or any at all. Guarantees at this stage are not something he will lock himself into, especially as he tempers expectation; Nashville have just three players under MLS contracts, after all, a few drops of paint scattered on an otherwise blank canvas.
"It’s too early to say how many [DPs] right now," Jacobs said. "We look at the idea strategically of what’re we going to need to fill certain roles. It’s looking at the collection of our first XI and front four, trying to gauge how much we’re going to need to spend in each role to determine success.”
It's not sexy, but it's integral to building successful clubs. Even Atlanta had someone like Julian Gressel when they won MLS Cup, an extremely undervalued commodity relative to his production, who was selected eighth in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.
Nashville are focused on exploiting market inefficiencies like that and, equally as important, being "uniquely Nashville." They will be on the front foot in analytics, exhaust their scouting department and tap into the eclectic contacts throughout their front office.
“Because of Michael Lewis’ book or a movie with Brad Pitt, people fixate on the term 'Moneyball.'" Jacobs said. "The idea behind that isn’t coming up with algorithms, but in the simplest terms, acquiring things that are undervalued and discarding things overvalued. I’d say we’re definitely data-driven and statistically strategic.”
It sounds a lot like the behemoth that Jacobs' former boss, Peter Vermes, has built at Sporting Kansas City.
Jacobs served as assistant technical director for three seasons at SKC, where he worked with Vermes and facilitated the development of the academy and Swope Park Rangers, the club's USL affiliate.
“Not only has Peter Vermes been a mentor, he’s also a really close friend," Jacobs said. "To have someone to bounce ideas off of, that has been through it already, to building a championship team and sustaining success. He’s been an invaluable resource.”
It's not as if Nashville won't spend money. They just want to be most efficient with their resources.
“It’s pretty easy to see that teams spend money for goals," Jacobs said, then proceeding to rattle off last season's top 25 leading scorers and creators, with the overwhelming majority classified as a DP or TAM-level player. "As far as where we spend, we have a calculated process with scouting and recruitment staff. But it’s not hard to look and understand to get goals that translate to wins, you have to pay for them.”
*NOTE: After this feature was published, Nashville SC announced the acquisition of winger David Accam from Columbus Crew SC, effective January 1, 2020.
The front four isn't where the club is most concerned, though.
Nashville appointed Gary Smith as the club's first MLS head coach because of his ability on the defensive side.
“Most expansion teams hemorrhage goals at an alarming rate," Jacobs said. "When asked about hiring Gary Smith with questions being a ‘defensive coach’, what team wants to have a staff that gives goals up? If our manager is perceived as a defensive coach, I think that’s great! I hope he’s always a defensive coach. Because of Gary’s tactical acumen, it’s hard to refute that this is somebody who clearly knows how to manage in this league.
“If we give Gary the right tools to build how he wants to play defensively, as long as we get the right combination of attacking players, there is a formula for success with our team," Jacobs added. "Whether it’s Year 1, or takes time to build like most expansion teams.”
While memorable, the expansion seasons of LAFC and Atlanta have not been the norm. Jacobs is aware of the task at hand, as Minnesota United, Orlando City SC, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact and New York City FC all missed the playoffs in their first seasons, while FC Cincinnati already have parted ways with their head coach just 11 games into their inaugural MLS campaign.
"When you look at the success that LAFC had last year, Atlanta two years ago, [they have] heightened expectations for expansion teams in our league," Jacobs said. "The reality is everything before and since have gone through trials and tribulations that first year. And for a couple years. We’re trying to manage expectations. We have high aspirations of persuing silverware, but we’re also honest about the process we’re going through, knowing it takes time.”
Another underpromise from Jacobs. Within 10 months, he aims to overdeliver. Even if he does, he'll probably downplay it then, too.