NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Staring at the empty plot of land that is building an MLS roster without a single player on the books, optimism and cynicism work in tandem.
Optimism anticipates the grandiose possibility of what may be once the fertile land is populated with a full squad of players, while cynicism serves to double- and triple-check every thought leading to a decision. Both exciting yet daunting, with long hours for the most rewarding of projects, Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs is relishing every one of those decisions, from mundane to franchise-altering.
“I have to tell you," Jacobs told MLSsoccer.com on a scorching mid-September afternoon in Tennessee, "the honeymoon period is still going."
"There’s not been one day I left the office and haven’t been excited to come back the next day," Jacobs said. "This is a dream job. To be running an MLS club and building a roster, my whole life I wanted an opportunity to serve in this kind of capacity. To get a chance to pursue a dream, it hardly seems like work.”
Anyone who has dumped more hours than they're proud to admit into EA Sports FIFA or Football Manager over the years will understand that sentiment. There is a ton of work left to be done, of course, as the player personnel decisions will increase as the 2019 season winds down and Nashville SC inch closer to their MLS debut in around five months.
“We always try to err on under-promising and over-delivering; we appreciate we’re not the smartest guys in the room," Jacobs said, two phrases club staffers use often. "It’s not an easy process. We’re happy with where we are right now, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
As the MLS regular season wraps up, the ramp for 2020 arrivals Nashville and Inter Miami into MLS becomes steeper and the calendar even more densely populated.
On Decision Day presented by AT&T, the two expansion clubs will convene in New York City to decide who picks first across the Expansion Draft and MLS SuperDraft, as well as the first slot on the Allocation Order, Penultimate position in MLS Re-Entry, End-of-Year Waiver Order and penultimate position in Discovery Player Ranking.
“We’re trying to finalize both the first-team staff, on the field and backroom, and populate our roster," Jacobs said as he provided a macro view of what's next for Nashville. "I think we’ve been very calculated and strategic in the players we’ve gone after so far, both domestically and internationally. Now to be prepped for the winter window, and mechanisms like the Expansion Draft, Waiver Draft, SuperDraft, Re-Entry Draft, there’s a lot for us to be focused on.”
At the moment, though, Jacobs is living in two worlds. NSC are focused on their final season in the USL Championship before moving to MLS, in which they are bound for the playoffs. As far as Jacobs sees it, though, the team currently competing in USL has little to do with the MLS team.
“I think it’s lost in translation sometimes this notion of it’s a USL team moving to MLS," Jacobs said. "These are two different teams, two different groups in two different leagues owned by the same ownership group. Other than that, and [head coach] Gary [Smith] and myself, that’s where the similarities end.”
There is minimal player overlap between the rosters as well.
Only Daniel Rios, Cameron Lancaster and Derrick Jones are currently signed to MLS deals on the USL roster. Jones is the only member of the trio with MLS experience, albeit limited to a total of 11 starts over three seasons for the Philadelphia Union as the US youth international got to the periphery of the first team.
Unlike FC Cincinnati, who signed Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe and brought them to USL before the team moved to MLS, Nashville left their more established players away from the club until the offseason. Anibal Godoy stayed with the San Jose Earthquakes, David Accam with Columbus Crew SC, Mukhtar with Brondby and Leal with Saprissa.
“Guys like David Accam, Anibal Godoy — they have nothing to prove," head coach Gary Smith said. "I can’t imagine they would want to come play in USL, as much as I’m sure they want to be in Nashville, we felt them playing at the MLS level for the remainder of the year … was the best place. We’re connected to them, they’re excited to be here. Their clubs are excited to have them.”
As for how many players that will earn MLS deals from the USL team? TBD. In the fluid situation that is comprising the roster, Jacobs has no set figure in mind.
“We look at a wide range of clubs that operated a team from the second division in America to MLS, you see teams take as few as two players to as many as 11. There’s not a magic number that we have," Jacobs said. "The fact that we have this USL property to use as a laboratory this year, for our manager to experiment and our staff to assess players. I’d say we have this great opportunity to evaluate the players here, it’s their first crack in the shop window. But there’s no magic number.”
There's also no magic number for Designated Players.
“We’re not going to box ourselves into a corner by saying X number of DPs or X number of TAM signings," Jacobs said. "What I can say, when you look at signings like Randall Leal and David Accam, they give us flexibility with our roster. Guys who can be DP or TAM players. We want to maintain a roster of flexibility.”
"It's a legacy piece"
The league has seen expansion teams enter the league to varying success in recent years. While Cincinnati are experiencing growing pains this year, in the same way as Minnesota United in 2017 and many more before them, both LAFC and Atlanta United enjoyed success from day one.
Nashville have studied everything the last four expansion sides have done, both good and bad, to help inform their own decisions.
“I think we went in with a high level of understanding of not only how to construct an MLS roster, but how to do it from scratch as an expansion team," Jacobs said. "We lean an awful lot on previous experiences, not just people like Gary and myself, but other clubs in MLS. Relationships with other clubs, looking at best practices for previous expansion teams. More importantly, looking at the teams who didn’t have success, because the reality is most expansion teams don’t. Looking at what they didn’t do well, and asking them what they’d do differently if you could.”
A specific example? Nashville have placed a heightened emphasis on off-field care.
“Without using a specific club, we’re appreciating how challenging it is to orient and integrate 30 new players to a brand-new city, or in some cases, a new country," Jacobs explained. "If you haven’t been in it, you probably wouldn’t know that. For us, very early on, hiring of a player care manager to be thoughtful about this process to minimize the noise around players when they arrive. The more we do to take care of things off the field, the more they can help us on the field. The recent expansion teams learned more about how to orient players than anything else.
“In a traditional summer window for an MLS club, you try and add one or maybe two players. We’re trying to add 24, plus 20 staff," Jacobs continued. "It can be overwhelming if you’re not organized or thorough. Our hope is we’ve been very diligent about the process.”
Dilligence and preparation are two areas the club have allocated significant focus on.
“Mike is astute, constantly thinking 'if we do this, then what if will affect that?' He, in general, is a detailed guy," Smith said. "He’s been very good, as have all the guys. We have a good system working here. We have a lot of players we’re looking at, we have a lot of discussions on players. The choices for the future are so important.”
That future is in the hands of Jacobs and the rest of his front-office staff, who he regularly credits. With seven players signed, there's a long way to go for the brain trust building Nashville SC's inaugural roster. That empty plot of land they're staring at, nurtured with the right mindset, preparation, execution and humility, soon could sprout something special.
“It’s a legacy piece," Jacobs said. "The opportunity to see all this come to fruition, it’s remarkable. When you look at where we were two years ago starting the USL franchise to where we are now, with seven MLS players already signed and a staff, it’s humbling to watch this all grow from scratch.”