NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It's been a long, winding road back to Major League Soccer for Gary Smith.
In 2010, the Englishman was riding high after lifting MLS Cup with the Colorado Rapids. It was the apex of his three-year stint in MLS but, such is the nature of peaks, the view was not sustained for long. Smith led the club back to the playoffs the next season and won a Knockout Round game before falling in the conference semifinals. It would be his last game marauding the Rapids' touchline, both club and coach citing behind-the-scene riffs that left the situation untenable.
Fueled by that successful period in Denver, Smith returned to England to manage League One side Stevenage. He lasted little more than a year under difficult financial constraints at the club. His ill-fortune continued when he returned stateside with the Atlanta Silverbacks, where he managed for a season before the club folded. His luck turned with his next job, becoming Nashville SC's inaugural coach as they began play in USL in 2018.
Now, a decade after winning MLS Cup, Smith is on the precipice of his second stint in the league as Nashville's first-ever MLS head coach.
“Experiences change a person, full stop," Smith told MLSsoccer.com from his office in September, with a handful of half-empty sunscreen bottles sitting within touching distance, a necessity in surviving a Nashville summer.
"I can only think of someone who sits on a parole board at a prison," Smith continued. "The prisoner comes in and telling him 'yeah, I’ve changed.' But the parole board are experienced so they’ll look at them and say, 'you know what? I’m not sure you have.' I remember a few years back saying the experiences of Colorado and Stevenage, like, yeah I’ve learned from that, but if I was drawn on the subject, I’d get very animated. I feel it inside, the anger of what had gone on. I genuinely feel, in this opportunity, those experiences have served me incredibly well for the job I’m trying to achieve. The stresses and strains that go with it."
The beautifully simple yet complex thought of whether a person has changed can be granularly examined in a philosophical sense: What, exactly, does it mean for a person to change? At his core, Smith is the same. But the near-decade between MLS jobs, including a few humbling experiences along the way, has only added to his knowledge and appreciation of the game.
And at least in the area of tactics, a bit less complex than metaphysical debates of self, Smith is certainly preaching change.
"I want to be Nashville, not Red Bull"
Known for his time with the Rapids as a defensive-minded coach, Smith is evolving with the game.
“To achieve in modern MLS, to win in modern MLS, is going to take something slightly different to what I did back then," Smith said. "If I do the same thing I did, I won’t get the same result."
Nashville have signed a number of players to MLS deals, including German attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar, Costa Rican winger Randall Leal, Ghanian winger David Accam and Panamanian center-mid Anibal Godoy. Since Smith spoke, they have also acquired midfielder Dax McCarty and defender Dave Romney. All players have positional flexibility and were signed with one universal trait in mind: Work rate. With this group as the foundation, and more in their mold to follow, Smith is looking forward to playing a more high-octane brand of soccer.
“With the energy I expect to have in the group, there’ll be a big emphasis in the attacking half of the field in terms of pressing," Smith explained. "Being aggressive with our outlook without the ball — I think the Red Bulls do it best but I want to be Nashville, not Red Bull. The players who have been recruited have the mentality to do that, they’re at their best doing that. In terms of possession, there’s a decisive nature about these players. They’re going to be better pressing higher up the field then retaining the ball. ... As a foundation, that’s something to look at. If I wanted to be a low-block counter-attacking team, I’d have looked for bigger, stronger attacking players and players that are less individualistic.”
Still, Smith doesn't want everything to change.
That defensive foundation is a point of pride, and given the issues at the back that expansion teams have traditionally endured, any expertise on that side of the ball would be welcomed. FC Cincinnati set a new record for most goals conceded in a single season this year. Minnesota United gave up 141 over their first two seasons in the league. Even with the success that Atlanta and LAFC had from the jump, they weren't particularly defensive fortresses. LAFC conceded 52 times in their expansion season, second-most among playoff teams.
“I’d like to think that anyone who looks at my teams that, fundamentally, they’re difficult to play against," Smith said. "But what’s happened over a period of time in MLS and around the globe, the game has shifted slightly, where we’re seeing teams like Red Bulls, Atlanta and LAFC who have a positive mindset, whether it’s with the ball or without the ball, positive re-press. There’s a lot of energy. You can point to the fact that two of those sides who have invested tremendously.
"When I look back at where the Red Bulls were when I was in Denver to where they are now, the needle has shifted dramatically in style of play. That style of play has reaped dividends for both the team and league, how the players have progressed and competition.”
Without knowing who a majority of the roster will be behind those currently signed, Smith can plan for the type of player he wants in all positions. The club, similar to how LAFC and others built their inaugural roster, laid out the characteristics they sought in each position and began compiling options from there.
“There’s no players who are going to be added to the MLS roster that won’t fit my vision of how the team will play," Smith said. "The recruitment process has served us incredibly well to this point."
"As we’re building our roster out, the collaboration we have with our staff and manager, Gary is dictating the type of player he’s looking for with roles on the field based on his team system, we’re shortlisting players all over the world that fit that profile," GM Mike Jacobs added. "We’re very focused on carefully signing guys specifically like Hany and Leal, they’re universal players. To pigeon players as a left or right wing, a No. 6 or No. 8. Guys like Hany and Randall, they’re universal. They’re flexible playing multiple roles and excel on both sides of the ball. The novelty of a designated attacking player, a No. 10 that doesn’t defend, I don’t know that it fits our DNA of the club.”
After Smith led Nashville SC to the quarterfinal of the USL Championship playoffs, the club's next competitive game will come in MLS. Good vibes are flowing.
"It hasn't always been easy"
Smith isn't shy to talk about his past, he doesn't avoid it, but he's focused on the present and future. His time with Nashville has gone exceptional thus far and couldn't be happier at the club.
"This organization, their personalities and qualities have filtered down to everyone in the group," Smith said. "They’re good people, good leaders. I can’t always say I’ve had that, I don’t have to refer to that or where, but that’s not always been the case. When you’re in a good environment, it fosters a certain personality around the team. And the type of city we’re in. The city is very different, the weather is very different.
“I think it’s really important, in any sport, that the coach and GM have an intimate work relationship," Jacobs added. "I think teams you see where the GM acquires players the coach doesn’t want, or the coach didn’t collaborate with the GM, doesn’t work. Gary and I have a strong working relationship, with a lot of trust and understanding. We’ve been fortunate to have the collaboration we have so far.”
That open-communication and organizational synergy has helped Smith cope with the arduous task of having one foot each in two leagues this season: Day-to-day boss of the USL team as well as helping craft Jacobs' vision for the inaugural MLS roster.
“No, it’s not easy, that’s the simple answer," Smith said. "I can sympathize with some of the coaches who have gone through the same process. It’s a difficult concept, in simplistic terms, of trying to get the most out of the group but for a good part of the week, preparing for a team that has no relevance to the time that you’re in."
It's just another unique experience Smith now has under his belt. Words, as he alluded to with his parole board metaphor, aren't nearly as important as actions.
In under four months, we'll find out how much Gary Smith has changed since he was last in the league, back in the big chair on the bench as Nashville's inaugural head coach.
“In terms of changes, you get an idea of the journey I’ve been on since I left Denver at the end of 2011," Smith said. "It hasn’t always been easy. When you go full circle and find a great place, good people, terrific organization and fabulous opportunity, I think you can only look back and be grateful for what happened. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d have the same tools that I do now.”