NSC training notes and press conference: Gary Smith and Michael Reed on opening day 2019

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and midfielder Michael Reed met with For Club and Country after the team’s first 2019 practice today. Watch and read what that had to say here.

Training notes

  • The team was slightly shorthanded: new striker signings Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster were participating in their MLS physicals (they are signed to Nashville’s MLS side and will be loaned to the USL team), and won’t join training until tomorrow. International players Ropapa Mensah and Ramone Howell are expected to arrive this week.
  • Other new signings, including forward/winger Kharlton Belmar, midfielder Malcolm Stewart, defenders Ken Tribbett and Darnell King, and goalkeepers Connor Sparrow and Danny Vitiello were present.
  • Midfielder Lebo Moloto, who missed the end of last season with injury, fully participated in the session.
  • Multiple trialists went through training with the team. Former Lipscomb University standout Logan Paynter and NAC Breda (Netherlands) product Vinnie Vermeer were among those trying to impress to earn a role with the club.

Gary Smith

Are you expecting better chemistry with a returning core of players instead of starting fresh like last year?

“For sure, I would suspect that those players that have been in and around the club for a year now, they’ll feel so much more comfortable. We had a welcome meal on Sunday, and I remarked to some of the staff how the atmosphere just felt kind of different. Not necessarily better, but the players looked more relaxed. Of course we have some new faces, but there’s no doubt everybody will be more comfortable and understanding of players and staff.”

How have the new faces looked?

“It’s great. Everyone will be feeling their same on their first day back to work. Offseason’s a long period. We’re all at a point where we’re ready to be back out on the field and working. It’s lovely to see the new guys in town, and interacting and working with the other players. Just generally, it’s just great to be back working, and the players getting some of that energy out of their system. Within two or three days, they’ll be probably wanting a day off [laughs]. At the moment, there’s a lot of exuberance.”

Are there positions at which you still see a need to add depth to the roster?

“I don’t think anyone would ever say, ‘I certainly couldn’t.. there might not be some help needed at some point.’ But when I look at the group, it may well be because of ill health, issues surrounding injuries. I’m more than comfortable with the group that we’ve got. There might be the odd player added, but I wouldn’t think many now. We’ll keep a rather smaller group. There’s more experience in this group from top to bottom anyway, and I certainly wanted the players that are here to be fighting for that, if not the 11, being in the 18, and I want everyone to see a breakthrough to that.”

Is the plan to remain tactically consistent and count on added talent to improve the goal-scoring?

“I think there’s a couple of things that may help us towards that. Every team wants to improve year-on-year if they can, and we’re no different. You’ve already alluded to the fact that we’ve got players who will have a year under their belt. I suspect those players will be in a much better place for us to see a little bit more out of them. There were lots of things I felt we did very well last year: defensively, in possession, creatively. Of course you can always improve, and the one area that we fell short was actually hitting the back of the net. That played uppermost in my mind and Mike’s mind when we were talking about additions. I think a lot of teams try to add a way of adding goals.

“If you look at Cameron’s track record, it’s very good. Daniel, a tad more difficult to maybe judge, but he’s a very very talented young player, and had a wonderful season last year at our level. I’m sure he’s only going to get better. Kharlton also, it’s easy to see his track record. Therefore, you’d like to think that come what may, we’ve added some goals to the group. If we can maintain the sort of development that we saw last year in the rest of our play, we should be in a good shot.”

What are the team’s realistic goals for the year?

“Everyone wants to be in the postseason. We certainly should be holding ourselves accountable for improvement. There will be other teams around the league looking at us, and setting a bar that has nothing to do with us. There are comparisons that will be drawn – just purely for the fact that we’re going into MLS – with Cincinnati, but I think it’s crazy to be comparing yourself to any other team. We’re a second year team. We’ve, I think, done a very good job in our first year, but without a shadow of a doubt we’ll want to improve on that. What that improvement is will depend on a lot of factors. As I’ve already mentioned, can we keep players healthy in a small group,. can we improve year-on-year with the players that have stayed, and probably as importantly as anything, are the players that are coming in, are they going to fulfill the role that we maybe lacked a little bit of last year. There’s so much that can affect where you finish, but for sure we want to improve, and we certainly want to be competing with any other team in our league for any silverware that’s on offer. Anyone that’s saying they don’t want to be top, they don’t want to win the championship, at this stage of the season, there’s no point in even starting, is there? Everyone’s in the same spot.

What do you try to take away from the first day of training?

“The things that strike me most when players come back is, have they kept themselves in a reasonable shape. Some of the testing will give us an idea of what they’ve been doing in the offseason. They all go away with programs. The new guys that’ve signed are given programs. If we can, I like to be in front of the game – and when I say that, I want to be in a better spot than just using preseason to get fit. We, I felt, did a very good job in preseason last year – or the players did – of coming in in good shape, and therefore we can push on a little bit more. There’s work that we can do with the group, less time needed to recover because their bodies are in a better place. And when I look around the group today, admittedly we’re missing still a couple players like a lot of teams will be, everyone looks like they’re in very good shape, and that should bode well for the preseason.”

Michael Reed

How has it been to reconnect with the teammate?

“Seeing the guys, whether they have a belly or not off the break – No [laughs]. First days are always great because everyone’s enthusiastic, passionate in everything that has to do with want you want out of soccer. It’s a great game, and it’s nice to see everyone fresh. We’re all happy, it’s all nice, and it’s a lot of fun on the first day, that’s for sure. We’re all good, guys are professional off the field which is great to see, and it makes life easier as we go through preseason.”

What is the chemistry of the team?

“I think you build a culture in the locker room that everyone can kind of agree on. I think we have that, and it makes life a lot easier whenever you have a stable culture, a stable environment, and we’re all on the same page, so we know what to expect of each other. It’s just a smooth engine: everyone’s running on the right cylinders, and we’re driving along nice right now. It makes life easier for the new guys, as well. They come in, they see everyone doing it. It’s not like they follow like sheep, but ‘OK, this is what we want to be a part of, how can we build on it,’ and go from there.”

Does that established culture shine through on day one?

“It’s an identity for the first day. Now that this is round two, it’s just exciting. We just keep picking up from last year, and keep moving forward. I think that’s the goal, and we progress into a more successful year, and I think that’s what everyone’s on the same page about.”

How have the new signings looked through just one training session?

“It’s funny, because the touch there. It is there, but guys are a little rusty, including myself. It’s just knocking the dust off, so everyone’s passionate right now. It’s fun; it’s a good environment, and that’s what we get to look forward to throughout the preseason.”

What do you aim for on the first day?

“It’s getting guys together: off the field is one thing, on the field’s another. It’s this thing with business, and what we’re trying to create. It’s just nice to kick the ball around with the guys, and play some footy, and enjoy the soccer while you can. I think that’s what we’re doing right now.”

What are the realistic goals for the season?

“Just like anyone else, you look at the previous year and you’re gonna want to do better. I think the goal is to be better than we were yesterday, and to keep moving forward.”

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Tickets for NYCFC Friendly available today

Stock photos for days. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Club release:

NASHVILLE (January 22, 2019) – Single game tickets for Nashville Soccer Club’s home friendly against future Major League Soccer foe New York City FC will go on sale at Noon CST on January 22, exactly one month from gameday at First Tennessee Park. Tickets start at just $15 for Nashville SC’s featured home preseason friendly.

“We, like our fans, are ready for kickoff of our 2019 home schedule,” said Nashville SC VP of ticketing and corporate partnerships Michael Schetzel. “The fans create an electric atmosphere at First Tennessee Park, and we are excited to see a full house on February 22.”

Tickets for the game against NYCFC can be purchased beginning at Noon CST at NashvilleSC.com/tickets or over the phone through a Nashville SC ticket representative at (615) 457-8200.

Last season, a capacity crowd at First Tennessee Park saw Nashville SC’s inaugural friendly, and first goal as a club, against eventual MLS Cup champion Atlanta United FC. This year will feature the likely home debuts of many of Nashville’s newest players including Nashville MLS signings, Cameron Lancaster and Daniel Ríos.

Season tickets remain on sale for 2019 at NashvilleSC.com/seasontickets. A Season Ticket Membership will secure your place in line when MLS tickets become available and will include exclusive access to fan events throughout the season. This game is a part of the season ticket package. Single game tickets for the USL regular season at First Tennessee Park will go on sale at a later date.

So, uh, go buy ’em.

Nashville SC extends radio partnership for 2019

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Nashville SC games can be heard in the same place they were last Summer:

NASHVILLE (January 17, 2019) – Nashville Soccer Club will have a bigger footprint on the radio in 2019. The club and ESPN 94.9 Game 2 in Nashville announced the sides have renewed their partnership for the upcoming season, as the station remains the official English radio home of Nashville SC.

“We are fortunate to have a radio partner in Cromwell Radio that is committed to the growth of soccer in Nashville,” said Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre. “With expanding coverage of Nashville Soccer Club in 2019, we are confident that 102.5 The Game and 94.9 Game 2 will continue to provide our fans first class programming throughout the season.”

Beginning with Nashville’s game against New York City FC on February 22, ESPN 94.9 Game 2 will broadcast at least 24 Nashville SC games including 15-minute pregame and postgame shows, a 20% increase from 2018. Nashville SC content will feature on ESPN 102.5 The Game throughout the week and preliminary discussions around additional regular soccer programming are in the works.

“We are excited to extend our partnership with Nashville SC,” said Cromwell Radio market manager Jana Hampton. “Nashville is a great sports town and we’re excited to offer our listeners exposure to their favorite teams. Soccer is growing in Music City and expanding our coverage enhances that growth and delivers on our daily promise of being Nashville’s Best Sports Talk.”

Nashville will open its home schedule with the friendly against NYCFC of Major League Soccer on February 22 at First Tennessee Park. Season tickets are available for as low as $10 a game at NashvilleSC.com/seasontickets.

Not the most exciting announcement (I honestly would have guessed it was a multi-year deal from the outset), but the importance of a big local footprint shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Nashville SC to play preseason friendly in Birmingham

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Here’s a picture of Bolu Akinyode. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

From club release:

NASHVILLE (January 16, 2019) – Nashville Soccer Club will be the opponent for USL Championship expansion club Birmingham Legion FC’s inaugural home friendly on Saturday, February 16 at 4 p.m. CST at BBVA Compass Field. The friendly will be a precursor to the two regular season games between the clubs in the 2019 USL Championship season.

“I’m delighted to have such a challenging game as part of our preparations,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “Birmingham have recruited well and have a wealth of experience on their technical staff, I expect our preseason game will be the start of a competitive rivalry.”

Legion FC are one of seven USL Championship expansion teams this season, and one of four joining the Eastern Conference. The club will play in a newly renovated BBVA Compass Field, home to the University of Alabama-Birmingham soccer teams, which will hold around 7,500 fans. Nashville is scheduled to play at Birmingham on May 22 in the USL Championship regular season and will host Legion FC on September 17.

“We learned a lot about our team last preseason by taking on top USL competition, and expect any group led by Jay Heaps and Tommy Soehn to be among the league’s elite this season,” said Nashville SC VP of soccer operations and technical director Mike Jacobs. “It should be another good test for our group.”

Limited tickets to the game will be available for Nashville SC fans. Details on how to purchase tickets to the game will be announced in the coming weeks.

Not a ton to react to here. NSC played multiple regular-season opponents in the preseason last year, as well. It’s a reasonable road trip if fans would like to make the trip (and while there’s a mention of tickets being reserved for Nashville… come on, they aren’t selling out 5,000 seats for a friendly).

It’ll be a good first measuring stick against the expansion team, too. See the full Nashville SC schedule here.

Pitch Points promotes, relegates

Let’s round up the latest links relevant in the world of Nashville SC and US Soccer! With commentary! As always, feel free to share with a friend or share anything you’d like me to include on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

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Ghost of USL Future. USL President Jake Edwards has a Big Mood about where the United Soccer Leagues will be come the United States’ 2026 host year for the World Cup. The USL has made eyes at pro-rel talk since the launch of League One was announced, but Edwards was fairly unequivocal that he hopes it’s in the long-term plans if the lower league proves itself to be sustainable:

“A lot of focus and attention needs to go into building [League One] up over a short period of time. But we’ve got to get the right owners in League One, the right stadiums and infrastructure.”

I’ve said many times that an incremental move toward promotion and relegation is the way to go (while I still remain skeptical that the American sporting culture would ever support it at the top level in the country). I would like to see it in USL, not least of which because – and this isn’t the most honorable thing I’ve ever thought – if a League One club folds, it means a lot less in the grand scheme than somebody dropping from the top flight and eventually folding.

Edwards, like MLS commissioner Don Garber, has Bad Ideas about expansion, though.

“We’re looking at the ideal number [in the Championship] somewhere around 38 or 40, and that’s where we’re going to top out and cease expansion.”

Yo, that’s dumb. I don’t need to explain the size of our country to you (well, I shouldn’t need to). Limiting the size of the first tier makes some sense, but I don’t agree that the limits it imposes are worth the benefits in scarcity of supply, etc. Artificially limiting the second division in a country comes with all the downsides and essentially none of the benefits (aside from minuscule administrative costs compared to allowing them into League One instead).

(Meanwhile, Indy Eleven’s stadium proposal looks awesome, and I would like for them to have the opportunity to compete at the highest level possible).

I promise it will come around. This is a story about basketball. I really liked one of the quotes used in it as it relates to soccer, though:

“I guarantee you that he played so much basketball without a coach, or without a ref, or without a scoreboard. Just playing. Where out of bounds is the grass, or out of bounds is the street … there’s such a difference between guys who just play and guys who are manufactured by a trainer.”

We often talk about problems with player development in our country, and about how they come back to lack of coaching, poor scouting of underrepresented communities, etc. etc. Those are all valid complaints, and complaints I’ve made multiple times in this space. However, it’s also worth noting that just as huge an issue in our nation is a lack of a pickup soccer culture.

We hear every four years about about [Brazil/Argentina/France] is built on kids who grew up playing pickup games in the streets and turned into [Neymar/Maradona/Mbappe], and those who consume soccer outside the World Cup hear it occasionally, too. There hasn’t been an American who can up with that origin story, aside from maybe Clint Dempsey. There aren’t soccer Jordan Pooles out there.

MLS Playoff format change. This is the first year of a new MLS playoff format, something that will become relevant to Nashville in very short order (hopefully, at least). Does the new format actually improve higher seeds’ chances of advancing, though? Maybe not. The kicker:

The stakes just got higher for winning the Conference in the regular season. But in general the new format does little to change the perspective of most of the teams

I don’t like the expansion to an odd number of teams in the least, but it’s whatever. I still like the idea of using group play and a smaller knockout bracket, rather than what we’re seeing nowadays. It would make it easier to fit the playoff into a smaller calendar – which seems to have been the primary motivation for the recent change – and would appeal to the mainstream American sports fan in the same way that the World Cup does: it sets soccer aside as different, but in a fun way.

Danny Vitiello is popular. This may be the lowest-profile signing to get its own bullet in a pitch points, but hey, the available literature is the available literature. The Long Island Roughriders PDL program, UAlbany athletics, and a soccer-specific site covering NYC and Long Island(!) have all covered the keeper’s signing with the Boys in Gold.

That last one is mostly an aggregation from the other two (and Nashville SC’s release), but regardless, that’s a lot of ink.

Americans Abroad. The big news of the past couple weeks has been a record-shattering transfer for US international Christian Pulisic: his $73.1 million is not just the largest for an American (by a huge margin), it’s one of the top 25 transfer fees ever. There are two confounding factors here: 1) the numbers are on a consistent upward trend worldwide, particularly in recent years, and 2) Chelsea is certainly spending to get a talented winger, but they’re just as much spending to develop business in the American market. Is it possible for Pulisic to live up to that hype? On-field, it may not be as unlikely as you think.

Meanwhile, fellow USMNT winger Timothy Weah has gone on loan from Paris Saint-Germain to Scottish Premier League juggernaut Celtic. He’s expected to be a game-changer with his speed, which sounds like a potential striker role along with the wider position we’re accustomed to seeing him play with the Nats.

American “prodigy” (ESPN’s word, not mine) Ben Lederman has had a rough go since moving to Barcelona as a youngster, for reasons both external – Barça was punished by FIFA for violating player registration regulations, preventing him from playing for the youth setup for a while – and just because it’s difficult to break into such a setup. A cautionary tale that “move to the highest level possible,” while it sounds good on the internet, is not always the best fit for every player. Finding the right move (which sometimes includes staying domestic) is far more important.

Former US international David Wagner was sacked by Huddersfield Town this week, meaning the German-born manager is out of work. He intends to take some time off, but it’d be cool to see him come to the States. He has limited experience (outside of MNT camps) on this side of the pond, so the connection you might expect aren’t there, though.

Etc.: Not a ton of new information in this radio appearance from NSC Technical Director and Nashville MLS GM Mike Jacobs, as long as you’re paying attention to the day-to-day. … Nascar at the Fairgrounds will require upgrades to the track. … Former Nashville SC CEO Court Jeske takes a gig with the USL. … The company that puts on the International Champions Cup has purchased a Latino-focused multi-platform company – the one that puts on Alianza de Futbol in the United States each year. … Donate donate donate. … I like Peter Vermes. … NSC defender Justin Davis joins the FiftyFiveOne pod for a nice long discussion.

Nashville SC and the MLS SuperDraft

The MLS’s annual draft took place over the weekend, and it’s looking increasingly likely that the entire concept of a draft for the league is on its way out, at least as a functional piece for most MLS teams.

Jacobs and Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre

The Philadelphia Union traded all of its picks to expansion side FC Cincinnati, indicating that the front office for the former team simply doesn’t see a lot of value in the draft. While it’s unlikely we see the draft completely disappear any time soon, such a move could expedite the demise of the Combine, which took place a week earlier in Orlando.

Nashville SC will obviously take place in the draft in its expansion season next year, and I would expect that, while they won’t rely so heavily on USL/Draft talent like it appears Cincy is set to do, nor with NSC completely ignore the draft (or the potential to add some key piece through its mechanisms). Club GM Mike Jacobs spoke with the official website about some of the idiosyncrasies of the draft, as well as his vision of its usefulness.

First and foremost, it’s unlikely that you’re going to see a ton of game-changing or long-term MLS players come out of the college ranks to be drafted:

“Since 2015, only 30% of selections of from the MLS SuperDraft actually step foot onto an MLS field. The gap between the college game and the pro game in USL or MLS has gotten vast in the last five years…

“Just looking at the 2017 U.S. SuperDraft the No. 3 and No. 4 picks have been called in to the U.S. Men’s National Team’s January training camp, Jonathan Lewis and Jeremy Ebobisse. Then, there is the No. 8 pick Julian Gressel, who played a key role in Atlanta United’s in MLS Cup victory. The top 5-10 picks have the highest success rate in MLS.”

Let’s take a look at the 2018 draft (which included LAFC as an expansion team, obviously the closest analogue to where Nashville SC will be next year), and see what the first year held for the players selected:

  • First overall: João Moutinho, LAFC (872 minutes in 14 appearances, traded to Orlando City this offseason).
  • First round total: 23 players, averaged 411 MLS minutes and 716 USL minutes. Nine players did not appear in MLS. Six total goals (three from Orlando City forward Chris Mueller, drafted No. 6 overall).

As you can see… not a ton of immediate-impact success (which isn’t a surprise), and if you’re expecting to build a team primarily through the draft, you’re probably not going to have a Real Good Time. The returns from rounds 2-4 didn’t turn out to be a whole lot more promising.

Attending the draft – as Jacobs did – helps NSC learn a bit about what previous expansion teams (including FCC) thought before and after the process. The former Assistant Technical Director of Sporting Kansas City was no stranger to the process, but getting a new perspective with an eye toward what he needs to do over the course of the next year remains enlightening.

“For us, we are one year away from being on that stage ourselves. To get a chance to pick the brain of expansion teams previously, LAFC, Atlanta United, Minnesota United, helps us get perspective of what this process is like. The hope is to arm our staff with as much info as possible heading into our picks a year from now. We know there is the potential of landing a key building block for this club’s future in the MLS SuperDraft. Nashville soccer fans will want to pay close attention to college soccer next year as we get ready for our first SuperDraft.”

Nashville SC is in an interesting position when it comes to next year’s draft, and indeed when it comes to the long-term plans for how to build the franchise. There’s certainly no huge talent pool in the state from which to build out of an academy (so strike out the Union’s philosophy there), and the draft will have to play some sort of role. Will the club be a big-spending Atlanta United-type, willing to shell out for Designated Players from abroad? Will the first couple years end up being pretty meager as the focus is on simply getting a product onto the field, getting a stadium complete, and looking toward the future? (We call that the “Minnesota United technique” and that’s what Cincinnati seems resigned to in year one, as well).

I’ve obviously been a huge proponent of college soccer in terms of how it helps build a culture for the sport in our country. In terms of producing professional talent at the MLS level, though… it’s unlikely that it will return to the pipeline it was 10 or 15 years ago without major changes to the structure of the NCAA (a modest suggestion: burn it down and start over).

Still, a GM with a keen eye for talent – and there’s no denying Jacobs is just that – can still extract some value from the SuperDraft, and I’d expect we see just that in a year.

Mike Jacobs announces Lipscomb friendly on Fox 17

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Alan Winn went from depth player to squad regular during last year’s preseason.

On an appearance on Fox17 this morning, Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs announced another preseason friendly for this USL season: the Boys in Gold will play a second annual game against Lipscomb University. The game will take place on Lipscomb’s campus Feb. 27. A 5 p.m. kickoff awaits the city’s top professional and college men’s teams.

Nashville played primarily depth squad members in last season’s game and emerged with a 2-0 win over the Bisons. However, several who made an impact on that game ultimately turned into key players for NSC over the course of the season, including Alan Winn, Ropapa Mensah, Bolu Akinyode, and Taylor Washington. The game’s goal-scorers, midfielders Ian McGrath and Martim Galvão, did not see regular-season action for the club, however.

The Bisons went on to make the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament, the best season in school history.

This is the fourth known preseason game (and first against an amateur club), with more on the way. See the full preseason and regular-season schedule here.

Club release:

NASHVILLE (January 15, 2018) – Nashville Soccer Club will have a second preseason game in Music City in 2019. The club announced it will make a return to the campus of Lipscomb University for a preseason friendly against the Bisons on Wednesday, February 27 at 5 p.m. CST. It will be the second consecutive preseason that Nashville SC has played at Lipscomb. In 2018, the teams met for a friendly at Lipscomb Soccer Complex where Nashville SC took home the 2-0 victory in front of more than 500 soccer fans.

“I am delighted to be playing Lipscomb again,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “Last year’s game was ultra-competitive and we know Lipscomb will give us a good preseason test. At the same time, this game allows us to keep an eye on the young collegiate talent in our city.”

The Bisons are coming off their best season in program history. Lipscomb won the ASUN regular season and tournament championships, qualifying for its second consecutive NCAA Tournament. Behind an improbable run, the Bisons advanced to the Sweet 16 of the tournament with a shootout win against Washington and an OT win over Central Florida.

“An exhibition with Lipscomb gives our fans another opportunity to see the 2019 club in action here in Nashville,” said Nashville SC VP of soccer operations and technical director Mike Jacobs. “[Head coach] Charles Morrow and his Lipscomb team had a magical NCAA Tournament run in the Fall, and gave soccer fans here in Nashville something to be very proud of.”

This game is the fourth on the preseason schedule so far for Nashville as it will kick off its preseason in Florida at IMG Academy against Montreal Impact of MLS and defending USL champions Louisville City FC. The club has also announced a home friendly against New York City FC of MLS on February 22 at First Tennessee Park at 7 p.m.

Tickets to the game at Lipscomb are available through lipscombsports.com and are $10 for adults and $5 for children.