Throughout the process of putting together the inaugural Major League Soccer squad in Nashville, General Manager Mike Jacobs has been open that fans may have to bid adieu to some of their favorites. That happened yesterday, when Nashville SC announced the signings of four former USL Boys in Gold to the MLS squad – and in the process, revealed that the remainder of the team wouldn’t be able to make the next level with this franchise.
While Matt LaGrassa, Ken Tribbett, Taylor Washington, and Alan Winn provide a link (along with USL loanees Derrick Jones, Cameron Lancaster, and Daniel Ríos) to the previous teams in Nashville, the rest will find their future soccer played elsewhere, if at all on the professional level. It’s a bittersweet moment, but important in the growth of a team that has yet to kick its first ball. There may be disappointment in saying goodbye to some familiar faces, but fans ultimately want something even more badly: wins.
“All along, I think I was very transparent as far as where I saw this vast gap between USL and MLS,” Jacobs explained. “Not only would that be unfair to the fans, it’d be unfair to most players to ask them to do that. I think every player’s aspiration and expectation is to play at the highest level, but the reality is we had an outstanding team in the USL with players who are at that level. As we’re shifting gears to a different level, it’s just another step or jump – because of that, it’s going to be a different situation with the players who are involved.
“As we build things out, our commitment is to the fans, and it’s a commitment to build the best team possible. If that means some players who are attached to players from USL are unhappy, my guess is that in a year’s time they’re going to be happy with the players in MLS also.”
Three of the four signings played both USL seasons for Nashville SC, with Tribbett – whose lone season was limited by injury – the lone exception. The relationships those players have with the fans are certainly a positive. What’s more important is what each brings on the field.
“I think as a central defender – which is Ken’s most comfortable position – he’s somebody who can blend in with the guys we have,” JAcobs said of Tribbett. “As we start putting out group together, we kind of thought that he would fit in with the guys we have at the back, and kind of felt would combine well and connect with the guys here that we have with him. I think his ability on both sides of the ball – his playmaking as far as his passing out of the back I think is going to help him with the change in the speed of play. I think defensively, his ability to not only close guys down well, but also I think an overall one-v-one defending, his ability to win balls in the air on the ground is something that will make him that will probably assimilate much quicker from USL to MLS than most players who played in that role in USL this year.
For Matt LaGrassa, you think about his versatility: the fact that Matt was versatile enough to play a variety of roles in midfield. Athletically, he’s fantastic and will cover a lot of ground – he chews up ground out there. You’d probably find his data as far as distance coverage per match will probably support that. I think the combination of those things, plus how hard he plays: his intensity, his drive, I think fit perfectly with the NSC DNA of kind of who we are: I think he best fits that, and I think he’s somebody that can provide depth at many different midfield roles for us.
“From a Taylor Washington standpoint, somebody who can cover for us on the left flank, both as a left back and and is at left midfielder/winger in a pinch,” Jacobs continued. “I feel he’s pretty versatile as far as left-sided players go. Athletically, that’s always been a strength of his. His ability to get up and down the line is something that first got him drafted into MLS. I would say in Taylor’s case and in Ken’s case, I think they’re both much more equipped to be in the league now than when they first came to the league [with the Philadelphia Union].
“Alan took quite a gamble from a standpoint of being Colorado’s top draft pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft. Rather than signing with them in preseason, he left preseason there to come here with us. It was quite a gamble from his standpoint, and I appreciate people who gamble on themselves. I think Alan came here, he demonstrated that he can do the things that Gary’s going to ask of wide players. For us, Alan was someone that we thought pretty early on in this process, distinguished himself as maybe someone who could jump to MLS.”
The question then becomes not whether those players will make the team – their spots are secured – but whether they’re largely depth pieces (or even token holdovers from USL) or if they can play more significant roles. Jacobs stresses that they are signed because of their ability to play in this league, rather than because of their popularity among fans. He also cautions, however, that they’re still likely to have to earn every minute of playing time along the way.
“For us, I think the idea of adding some of these guys to the roster is very important, but the expectations that we have because of that vast difference in the standard – we’ll probably try to under-promise as far as the roles those guys have, and hope that they’re able to kind of find their way with this other group.”
With the season less than 100 days away, and now 19 players signed to the inaugural MLS roster, things are starting to take shape. Certainly you’d be unwise to assume any or all of them won’t continue to prove the ability to impact the MLS squad.