If you’re a Nashville person new to soccer, let’s learn a little about the game before the season begins – and as the 100-level course name implies, this is going to be pretty basic as it relates to the sport itself, and some of the specifics about the leagues and competitions NSC will participate in.
How many people play at once? Like I said: the very basics. Each team fields 11 players, one of whom is a goalie. There is no restriction about where on the field any player can go, but the goalie is the only one who can use his hands, and may only do it inside the penalty area (the bigger of the two boxes on the ends).
What are these formations? 4-4-2? 3-5-2? I don’t know what this means. Formations are typically named based on the ten field players (remember, the goalie’s role is pretty constant and rarely involves forays outside the penalty area). The first number refers to how many defenders are on the field, the second the midfielders, the third is forwards. Most modern formations have either four defenders at the back or 3/5 (in a lot of ways, the two end up being pretty similar, despite one sounding a lot more conservative than the other – if you’re of a football mindset, think of it like the 3-4 defense: sounds like there aren’t many d-linemen, but more often than not, one or more linebackers will have a pass-rush responsibility anyway, so the front isn’t as light as it sounds).
I hear people talking about “six” “false nine” and all sorts of numbered positions. Do the pitcher and catcher count as Nos. 1 and 2? This is probably the part of moving from the type of soccer most people of a certain age (low 40s and down) played growing up to following professional/international soccer. It’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds, especially given that only a few of the numbers are commonly used anymore. Without getting too deep into the historical weeds here, the goalkeeper has traditionally worn No. 1, and positions were numbered from back to front based on the formations du jour (and the jersey numbers that were associated with playing a given position).
The numbers still in any sort of serious use today are far more limited, and relate primarily to central midfielders and/or forwards:
- Six – Defensive midfielder. Somebody tasked with staying close to the back line, getting the ball from defenders when they tackle, and distributing it up the field for more offensively-minded teammates to do the scoring thing. If he’s scoring, most of the time it’s going to be on set pieces, long strikes, or when the team is pressing forward heavily. A US-centric example would be Kyle Beckerman, a guy with limited athleticism later in his national team career, but good defensive and ball skills who played alongside a guy with the next skillset…
- Eight – Box-to-box central midfielder. Sort of a hybrid player who is capable of being both a stalwart defensively and a threat going forward. “Hybrid” wouldn’t be the right terminology, but he’s capable of going both ways to an extent. Michael Bradley (in the not-so-distant past) is an example here, as is Jermaine Jones – and the fact that they couldn’t agree on specific roles when paired together and instead were both bombing forward a bit too much was a problem early in the 2018 World Cup cycle.
- Ten – Central attacking midfielder (or support striker). This was traditionally the No. 2 striker, and at times can be considered that still, but it’s moreso become a guy who can create from the midfield, break opponents’ backlines with dribbling skills and passes to strikers. While predominantly considered to be more of an assist-man, he can also be a prolific scorer himself. Christian Pulisic and Landon Donovan are really good US examples of this (Pulisic plays on the wing for his club team, but has been mostly on the inside for the US). Lionel Messi – the best player in the world – is also a 10, and he walks the line between creative midfielder and true forward, while being a very prolific scorer no matter which role you consider him in. This position is one that’s still closely associated with the corresponding jersey number, and a team’s best creator or offensive threat often wears the No. 10, which is why Lebo Moloto’s wearing of it for NSC is meaningful.
- Nine – Striker. Strikers come in multiple forms (Clint Dempsey is one example of a guy who walks the line between nine and ten, a role often referred to as a “false nine” – and at times Messi is classified this way as well), but the true nine typically has a couple key characteristics: he’s usually a bigger, stronger player who can get the ball near the top of the opposing penalty area, box out a defender, and either turn to shoot or distribute to a player running forward in support, and he can also head the ball from crosses that teammates serve. He’s not necessarily the best dribbler on the team (though he can be – Cristiano Ronaldo is something of a pure striker but is obviously, as the second-best player in the world, outstanding on the ball), but can usually shoot with power and accuracy from either foot, and of course heads the ball well, too.
Some of the other numbers are still used to an extent (seven and eleven are the right and left wingers, or outside midfielders, respectively), but the ones you’ll hear most of the time are those in the bullet points above… and as you can see from the descriptions, there’s plenty of overlap in some of the roles, because of the fluid nature of soccer.
Speaking of fluid nature, I’m guessing the “pieces of string that can’t cross” method of learning positions as a youngster is still used at the professional level? Did anyone else’s youth teams do this, or was mine just nuts? To learn spacing and the difference between defense, offense, etc., we held long pieces of yarn across a given line that were supposed to not cross each other (defenders stay behind midfielders as a unit), while the yarn was supposed to neither get stretched completely tight nor go slack enough that it dragged on the ground.
Anyway, that’s not a thing at higher levels, especially if it was never a thing outside of AYSO teams in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Outside defenders (the two fullbacks on the far left and right of a four-man defensive line, or in a three-man back line, the two widest midfielders will drop back to play wide defense and make for effectively a five-man line, with similar roles in a true 5-4-1 or whatever) often find themselves far up the pitch, where they’re able to stretch the defense with or without the ball, and can send crosses into the box for their strikers or offensive midfielders to turn into goals. USMNT standout DeAndre Yedlin is an example of this, getting far up the field for both club (Newcastle) and country.
You’ll also see – again, thanks to the fluidity of the game – somebody whose primary role is a defensive midfielder (a “six”) or defender carry the ball up the field, while a corresponding offensive player (be it an “eight,” a winger, etc.) lags a little behind defensively to cover him if/when the ball ends up in possession of the other team. More often than not, once that player recovers, the personnel will settle back into their primary roles.
Anything else you want to know? These were the frequently asked questions I’ve heard more of in recent weeks, obviously one extremely basic and a couple increasing in complexity. If there’s something you’d like to know about the game, drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter.
Aren’t we in MLS? Not yet. The team will be making the jump to the highest level of American soccer in – most likely; the timelines haven’t been firmly established yet – 2020. Right now, the team is primed to play in the second division of the sport in our country, USL. More on that in a moment.
What’s the origin story of the team? This could be a novel on its own, but I’ll break it down to the barest-bones I can for the sake of relevancy (if you want more details, I recommend listening to the excellent first episode of the Speedway Soccer podcast). Cliffs Notes version: a group of like-minded individuals wanted to form a semi-pro team, so they did, and called it Nashville FC (“Football Club,” it has changed to “Soccer Club” since). It participated in the semi-pro NPSL (National Premier Soccer League). A few interested parties with a whole lot of money (led by local billionaire John Ingram) purchased the intellectual property of NFC/SC in hopes of turning the franchise professional. The team entered USL as an expansion side, and last year fielded only a U-23 amateur team in the PDL (Professional Development League), with the USL (professional) set to launch this year.
So what is USL/PDL/MLS, etc.? There are a number of leagues throughout the country, but only one, Major League Soccer, is at the top flight in our country. Others (like the USL) would be considered “minor leagues” – and in fact the baseball analogy is a good way to start to understand it. USL would be Triple-A in caliber, with some guys in the league who could – and perhaps eventually will – ply their trade in MLS. Unlike baseball though, it’s not a pure farm league. These guys are just professionals, and not all USL sides are considered developmental tools for MLS teams – though some are – and not all the guys playing are youngsters hoping to work their way up to MLS as their careers blossom. Indeed, many are former MLS players, some are guys whose careers will top out in USL, and some are just guys out here carving out a bit of a career in soccer.
With Nashville SC play Manchester United? When are they eligible for the World Cup? There are two questions to unpack here, both relating to the competitions in which the team participates. First, the World Cup is for national teams – which have a much greater importance in the world of soccer than most sports Americans are used to following. Think of the Dream Team, for example – Michael Jordan represented his country at the Olympics, but his job was the Chicago Bulls. Likewise, the United States (which didn’t qualify for the World Cup in Russia this Summer, unfortunately) participates in the World Cup, but individual “club” teams – we’d consider them franchises in the US – do not.
While there is a Club World Cup, American teams have never participated, and at the very least a USL side won’t be doing so any time soon. Check back in a couple years when NSC is playing in Major League Soccer (and hopefully that league has improved enough to send a squad to the Club World Cup). That means NSC won’t be playing Manchester United – or any European team – in a competitive match any time soon. If we see a European club in Nashville, it’s for an exhibition match (a “friendly” in the terminology of soccer).
So what are we playing in? As mentioned above, Nashville SC will play in USL, the second-division professional flight of soccer in our country – whereas most countries with multiple leagues around the world see the best teams promoted to better leagues (unless they’re already in the top league) and the worst teams relegated from each flight, the United States doesn’t have that. NSC will stay in USL the next couple years, and it’s money that sees a team move up to MLS, like we’ll see our team do in a couple years.
There’s more than just that, though. If the team finishes in the top eight in the conference, they’ll make the USL playoffs (similar to other American sports, but dissimilar from most other soccer leagues globally). The winner of the playoff is considered the USL champion.
Then there’s the US Open Cup, in which every US Soccer sanctioned team in the country has a chance to win what is essentially the “national championship.” In various countries it’s a bigger deal (see the FA Cup in England, for example), and my hope is that it gets more traction in our country going forward. It’s essentially a 68-team tournament with 34 sides from the amateur ranks qualifying through their various governing bodies’ (such as NPSL or PDL) own processes, with the professional sides joining when we get to later stages of the process. Sporting Kansas City is the reigning champion, with the last non-MLS team to win the USL’s Rochester Rhinos back in 1999.
Why does everyone say “Boys In Gold” when the team wears blue? This is a call to the history of the team – and a disappointment for the longer-time fans who were hoping to see the tradition of gold jerseys continue. While the team appears poised to wear gold on the road, the home jersey is blue for this season (unless the team is trolling in the ultimate Punk’d move). We’ll see what happens in future seasons.
What are some other soccer resources I should know? I’ve published a couple helpful guides in the past, whether soccer bars, social media accounts to follow team-related news (this one is due for a major update with some changes, as well as the proliferation of more outlets covering the team), and some things you can do in the short-term to support the team and soccer in the Mid-State.
Is NSC the only game in town? At a high (professional) level, yes, but there are various semi-pro teams, such as Inter Nashville FC, club and recreational teams, and several college sides in the area.
Anything else? As in the previous section, if you have a key question I didn’t bring up here, feel free to comment or hit me up on the Twitter machine.
Nashville in general
This section is more for those who have familiarity with soccer, but aren’t familiar with the city – away fans, for example – and want a baseline level of knowledge. If you want to come down from Cincinnati to yell about how Nashville bought its MLS team instead of earning it, this is the section for you.
What is the pro sports scene like? Nashville SC will join the Triple-A Nashville Sounds baseball team (an Oakland A’s affiliate) in First Tennessee Park this Summer. The NHL’s Predators and NFL’s Titans are the only top-division teams in the area. The Preds have grown extremely popular, with a recent boom after the run to last year’s Stanley Cup Finals. The Titans are what you know them to be – a middling NFL franchise that isn’t terrible enough to be funny (Browns) nor excellent enough to inspire a great deal of civic pride (Patriots or whomever).
There’s definitely a niche that NSC is expected to fit into as a soon-to-be top-flight team in a season that there isn’t a whole lot else going on.
Playing in a baseball stadium you say? Yes, but it’s temporary. The USL team will play two years in the Sounds’ brand new First Tennessee Park, the first year of MLS play (should it come in 2020) will likely be in the Titans’ Nissan Stadium, and a soccer-specific stadium is being built on the State Fairgrounds, near the Southeast bound of what most consider the downtown area proper (though there are some murky definitions of what the average person considers downtown).
What else is there to do? Nashville is considered the home of country music, and multiple areas of town – downtown or “Lower Broad” or “The District” is a tourist trap with a country music theme, Music Row has some live music as well, and most bars throughout town have some form of writer’s/live music night at some point in the week – are happy to oblige.
There’s plenty of eating and drinking to do, naturally given the tourist-centric nature of the economy in the boom of the past 10 years or so, and basically any area of town is going to have at least some items of interest. There are a bunch of colleges and universities (led by Vanderbilt, Belmont, and Tennessee State, though bringing up specifics is going to enrage the partisans of Lipscomb, Middle Tennessee State just down the road in Murfreesboro, etc.). I’m not a travel agent; I trust you’ll be able to figure it out.
What else? Like I said in the previous two sections, feel free to raise any other points of inquiry through the various methods of contacting me.