LOS ANGELES — Dax McCarty in his decade and a half in Major League Soccer has seen expansion clubs succeed from their first steps, some of them eclipsing established powers to set standards of excellence that have prodded the league's immense growth as it heads into its 25th campaign.
That's what he's looking for in his first season with Nashville SC, one of two first-year teams taking the field in 2020, and he doesn't think he's being unreasonable.
“I'm telling the younger guys on the team that our expectation is to win,” the 32-year-old midfielder said during his media session at the MLS Media and Marketing Tour last week at Banc of California Stadium. “I think I would be doing myself and my new city and our fans a disservice if I was going to sit here and [say], well, making the playoffs would be a successful season for us. Because I've never once in my career, even when I was young, believed that just making the playoffs was ever a measure of success.
“I've always held myself and my teams to a high standard.”
The Seattle Sounders were a powerhouse upon their debut in 2009, Atlanta United won MLS Cup in their second season, and LAFC set records last year while romping to the Supporters' Shield in its sophomore season.
“There is a certain recipe that certain teams have followed to be successful, and other teams have done it differently,” said McCarty. “I think the beauty in MLS is there's no one-size-fits-all category for being successful in this league.
“And no one market can emulate any other market, especially in Nashville. We can't try and emulate LAFC, we can't try and emulate Atlanta United. We don't want to emulate Cincinnati. I think that all of these clubs, you can learn little things from where they've done things well and where they haven't done things well.”
Nashville FC has a revered general manager in Mike Jacobs, an MLS Cup winner in head coach Gary Smith, committed and dynamic ownership, a few would-be stars — starting with German midfielder Hany Mukhtar, the club's first Designated Player — and several respected league veterans, such as forwards David Accam and Dominique Badji, winger Jimmy Medranda, midfielder Anibal Godoy, defenders Jalil Anibaba and Eric Miller, and, of course, McCarty.
“I'm excited,” McCarty said. “I know the city's buzzing, everything you hear from the people in the city, everything you hear from the people involved in the club is nothing but positive things, which I'm sure is to be expected. ... This was a new challenge for me, and this was something that I feel really grateful for because I was actively involved in the process in getting to choose where I ended up. And Nashville was at the very top of that list.”
The 24-year-old Mukhtar, who evolved into a multifaceted attacker during four years at Danish power Brondby, also is thrilled to be part of the first group
“It's a big experience for a soccer player,” said Mukhtar, once considered among Germany's brightest prospects. “In Germany, or Europe, you don't get the chance to come to a new team. You can create or build a team [here], and that's an amazing thing.”
McCarty knows what the construction plans should be.
“First of all, you have to have a strong base,” he said. “I think you have to have a strong foundation in the core, and the spine of your team has to be strong if you want to be competitive right away,” he said. “That starts with your goalkeeper, with your center backs right up the spine of your team to your midfielders and your strikers, and if you can build that to be strong, then you can pick and choose the other areas of need that you need to make better.
“That's where I'd like to see us start, is with the foundation. The attacking side of the ball, it always comes a little bit later than the defensive side of the ball. If you can be strong in the back, you always give yourself a chance to win games. That might not be the sexy answer, it might not be the answer that people want to hear, but if you're good defensively and you can keep the ball out of the back of the net, you always give yourself a chance to win games.”
It's what he expects from a Smith-coached team.
“I think that's a big focus, especially from what I remember from Gary Smith and his Colorado Rapids teams when he won MLS Cup [in 2010]. They were always extremely hard-working and extremely sound at that back. If that's a good foundation and that's somewhere you can start, I think the rest will come as the season progresses.”