Not that a case really needs to be made for Gary Smith – he’s the inaugural MLS coach come 2020, whether it makes us happy or not – but a bit of re-litigation of his track record both in the past and in his first season at Nashville SC is probably deserved. Some of the criticisms of last year’s team were quite warranted, while others were not – or placed into a false context to make them seem worse than they actually are.
So, here are some arguments for optimism here.
Fiction: Smith is incapable of putting up offense
Last year’s team was viewed through the lens of an assumption that Smith has never had successful offenses, and the struggles to score were just always what his teams do, and therefore he was the reason the team didn’t score. That, of course, was untrue from the beginning.
|2008||Colorado Rapids (MLS)||9th (of 14)||44 (in 30 games)||t-4th|
|2009||Colorado Rapids (MLS)||9th (of 15)||42||3rd|
|2010||Colorado Rapids (MLS)||7th (of 16)||44||t-2nd|
|2011||Colorado Rapids (MLS)||7th (of 18)||44 (in 34 games)||t-8th|
|2012-13||Stevenage (England League One)||18th (of 24)||47 (in 46 games)||t-20th|
|2015||Atlanta Silverbacks (NASL)||6th (of 11)||24 (in 20 games)||8th|
|2018||Nashville SC (USL)||8th (of 17)||42||t-11th|
So: his Rapids teams were actually high-scoring until the rug fell out (but really not that far) in 2011, then he made a mediocre Stevenage team lose some ground, and a terrible Silverbacks team gain major ground (they were by far the worst NALS team in 2014), despite folding. Even last year’s disappointing offensive season, placed into context, is not as bad as it seemed: finishing closer to average than it felt in scoring, while fielding an elite defense is a little better than the memory banks seem to recall.
I don’t think anyone will accuse Smith of being a Guardiola incarnate, but certainly the assumption that he’s utterly incapable of putting an exciting product on the field is untrue. Even if you think there’s an ugly brand of regressive, defensive soccer played, the scoring record shows that his teams have typically put up goals despite that, which probably speaks more to the offensive ability.
So do small, individual moments. Nashville SC made the playoffs on an extremely small roster budget last year, despite entering the season with an entire roster of guys who were unfamiliar with each other (though some had been teammates in the past, this certainly didn’t show up as a cohesive unit). A London Woodberry own-goal here, an Alan Winn missed penalty there, a soft equalizer allowed to Toronto FC II… this was pretty close to being not just a good inaugural season, but an exceptional one.
Certainly the quality of the team made it such that those tiny margins punished the team with multiple positions in the table, and that certainly reflects on the overall product put onto the field. It’s very easy to see a little bit of luck (or less bad luck, as it were) and this team could have pretty easily finished about where they were tracking until the final few weeks of the season: around fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
The first season had its disappointing moments, there’s no question about that, but especially given the roster constraints (that aren’t back in 2019), the season was a success.
Institutional knowledge is helpful
This isn’t the most important aspect of the hire, but it’s an important one: he already has a relationship with GM/Technical Director Mike Jacobs and CEO Ian Ayre, both of whom are going to continue in their positions with the club. They get along with him. That chemistry between front office and on-field staff is helpful.
Of course, the interview process for other coaches (and there was a process, including consideration of US U-20 coach Tab Ramos, with the parties mutually moving along after the interview, though I’ve long felt that Smith’s retention was far and away the most likely outcome of a coaching search) can help those executives determine if they’ll get along with other candidates. They have worked with and have a positive working rapport with Smith though, and that comfort helps.
He’s also familiar with the city, the current players – some of whom will be back for the inaugural MLS season – and Major League Soccer (one of 16 coaches all-time to win a title), and that sort of knowledge is a base upon which it becomes much easier to build a franchise and play to the market.
So I’m sold?
Not necessarily. I understand and even share some fan reservations about the hire. Even if you believe (as I do) that most of last year’s scoring troubles were about the talent at hand, rather than a schematic failing, there’s still something to be said for a coach who entered the year thinking Robin Shroot, Michael Cox, and Tucker Hume would be adequate at the forward positions maybe lacking a bit in evaluation or roster-planning (even if Hume ended up working out, along with some later additions).
I think there’s more upside to a coach who has experience (and has had success) recruiting up-and-coming Central and South American players to sell on when the time is right – and that appears to be at least the short-term future of this league.
The tactical purists who love a beautiful game may never see it. While I’m of the opinion that last year’s team was limited by personnel in terms of what they were able to do in the form of free-flowing soccer, Smith’s reputation back to the Rapids days (when I’ll admit I wasn’t watching a ton of MLS, so I’ll take others’ word for it) is… not that. Even a high-scoring team can be ugly to the soccer purist. I will maintain despite that, though, that “attracting new fans” does not correlate with that: the soccer layperson wants to see two things: goals and wins, and that’s what’ll be far more important than how those goals or wins come about over the next couple seasons.
However, I also think we’ve seen enough from Smith – and will see plenty more with a juiced-up roster in 2019 – to show he deserves a shot at the gig. Having made the decision prior to this season also amps up the motivation of the current USL players to prove themselves this year (as they’ll be striving to impress not just the CEO and Technical Director, but also the head coach for the MLS side), and probably raises the ceiling and expectations for the final go-round in USL.
Most importantly, this isn’t a lifetime appointment: a guy who has earned the gig gets his shot. If the worst fears of the pessimists prove to be true, a change can be made down the line. It’s a low-downside option that will almost certainly look to have higher upside when we get a glimpse of the 2019 USL team.