Nashville SC has decisions to make on bringing players from USL to MLS

Nashville SC midfielder Matt LaGrassa. Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country

The minute the final whistle blew at 90’+4 Saturday evening, Nashville SC’s 2019 season ended. With it ended the club’s tenure in USL Championship. The focus immediately shifted – had to shift – to the future.

With three of the team’s players (strikers Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster, and midfielder Derrick Jones) under contract for the team’s inaugural MLS campaign, their situation for 2020 has been set since they signed to become Boys in Gold. For the rest of the roster, the waiting game has begun, in large part.

“We’ll meet again on Monday,” head coach Gary Smith said after the game. “We’ll have a meeting about the protocol moving forward, to sit down with players and discuss their futures and what that looks like. I’m sure the guys that are staying want to know, and the guys that are not going to stay want to make plans. That will be really what happens throughout this week.”

Many of the players from the 2019 roster are hopefuls to join the squad in 2020 as the group moves to the top tier of American soccer. However, the reality is that not all – not even most – will make the jump. There’s a wide range of philosophies in bringing players to the next level when a club earns a Major League Soccer build, and a number of different mechanisms for how franchises are able to acquire players for Year One in the league. FCAC recently sat down with NSC General Manager Mike Jacobs and Chief Executive Officer Ian Ayre to discuss how their club plans to approach it.

“From the USL priority list, all of our players on our current USL roster are priority-protected,” Jacobs explained. “This year, as an expansion team, any player on our USL team, we have Right of First Refusal. We have ROFR for them through that priority player list.

“All these guys know, there’s different pressures they’re playing with: there’s high expectations for them to try and make the jump. They look at a group like Cincinnati last year that had so many players matriculate and move forward and think it’d probably be like that. They see groups like Orlando that moved and only had two players move forward. There’s a huge disparity of what happens.”

For the outgoing Nashville SC roster in USL, there’s something to be said for the quality of the side. While they didn’t take home the regular-season points title or the USL Cup, the Boys in Gold were one of the better teams in the league in 2019.

That means – regardless of whether it’s in Nashville – everyone in the side should have the opportunity to continue making a living playing the game, should they so choose (while others may be ready to make the transition into coaching, or other aspects of the soccer industry). Jacobs had plenty of contact with other franchises to indicate that all will have the ability to continue a career.

“What I would say in relation to the chance for the guys we have, you have to really have a clear picture of how an MLS roster works, also,” Jacobs said. “You have players that – where they’re all eligible to fill our senior roster, based on age – they’re not all eligible to fill the roster spots off-budget, off senior roster.

“When teams have come in to play us, I get a phone call every-other game about a player on the other team, with their agent saying, ‘hey, what’d you think of so-and-so, he’d be great for your team.’ Even by the other USL teams, how they reach out and ask about our plans for our guys next year. None of the guys on this USL team will have a problem finding a home if they’re not in Nashville next year. The outcry for other clubs who have reached out asking, trying to get their foot in the door first for the player: none of these guys will have a problem whether they’ll be with us in MLS next year, or somewhere else doing really well.”

With that said, Ayre has made it very clear that the goal on the field is to win. Fans of the USL side feel their personal attachments to players, and that’s inevitable given the two-year relationships built with many of them. From the postgame forays to the front of the supporters’ section, to even bumping into members of the roster outside of First Tennessee Park, the emotional attachments are strong. Fans will naturally be disappointed to see some of those men move on.

It may, however, be necessary to field a competitive squad in 2020. That is what will have fans excited – in the world of professional sports, the strongest bond is the love for a winning team.

“I think sports fans, whether it’s soccer or other sports, at the end of the day, everybody loves the players, but they’re really supporting the team,” Ayre explained. “I think ultimately our supporters, our fans will want to see us put the best 25-30 players in that roster that are available to us, whether they have played for Nashville before or not. 

“A guy who runs a little bit harder, tackles a little bit more, has some sort of relationship with the supporters, is the guy that the supporters really latch onto. We either already have or will find the players that become that. They’re the heroes of 2020 as soon as they pull that jersey on.”

Among Nashville SC’s 22 players on the roster at season’s end, three have their futures spoken for by NSC’s MLS side. Two more – centerbacks Jimmy Ockford and Forrest Lasso – have other MLS franchises (the San Jose Earthquakes and FC Cincinnati, respectively) in control of their futures. For the rest, however, there’s a hope that they’re deemed one of those 25-30 players to take the next step with Nashville SC, and that they can fit into the team’s future plans.

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