The day before Nashville SC players hit the field for individual workouts at the team’s Curreny Ingram training facility, General Manager Mike Jacobs and Dax McCarty spoke with the media. Here’s what they had to say.
Jacobs: “My guess is guys like Dax – recognizable enough that it’s fans asking for autographs or photos – there’s a greater chance of coronavirus being spread in that fashion than any other way. So from a safety standpoint, I think this return-to-training protocol is really important. We have to be honest with the fact that it’s baby steps to where we all want to be, which is having our team back on the field. I thin kwe have to take it really for what it is.”
McCarty: “Just to piggyback off of what Mike said: the phrase that I was going to use that he used that I think for me makes the most sense is that this is the first baby-step towards hopefully getting back to a normal routine. It’s not a return to playing games, it’s not even a return to team training; these are individual workouts. The best part about all of this is we get to go back to our team facilities – which in my estimation, in terms of the fields, some of the best in the league, the fields are incredible – players have been missing those fields, missing the scenery, missing the smell of the grass. Being able to get out there and have some familiarity again after this month and a half, or however long it’s been. I know there’s a lot of cautious optimism and excitement that comes along with news like this. It’s going to be very interesting to see how it all works out. I commend not only our club, but the league for putting together such a detailed plan and protocol for us to be able to get back out on the field with player safety and personnel and staff safety of the highest importance. So it’s not, I think, ideal in terms of getting your fitness back and getting sharp with the ball and sharp as a team again, but it is ideal in terms of just taking one little baby step towards the potential to return to play hopefully in the near future.”
What memories do you have from that inaugural game weekend?
McCarty: “That was an incredibly special day. Even describing it that way undersells it. For me, it was one of the best moments in my career, even though the result was not what we wanted. That’s only one part of the entire picture of what that meant for the city of Nashville, for what that meant for MLS, for what that meant for all the people that live here and have been supporting this project from day one when they started in USL. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work behind the scenes from a lot of people who don’t get enough credit, and the credit that they deserve. To see a full Nissan Stadium, 60,000 people on a beautifully brisk night, where the atmosphere was, for my money, one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in front of for my entire career, it’s something that I’ll never forget. I had lots of friends and family there. I think the emotion of the game, you got the sense that what we’re creating here is very special. And that’s just a small glimpse of hopefully what’s to come. Definitely a day I’ll never forget. If I get hooked up with cable here in the near future – which I’m not right now – I’ll definitely be trying to tune in and watch that for the memories.
Jacobs: You know what I’;m excited about this weekend is being able to watch it maybe stepping back away from the whole experience. Even more for Dax than myself, but when you’re in it, sometimes it’s hard to totally appreciate the whole experience. When I was coaching, we would talk a lot about process versus outcome. Outcome is winning or losing, and process is “how do you win?” and the steps you take to get there. I think at times for me on that day, I was so focused on what we had to do to get a result as opposed to kind of stepping back and appreciating how special the whole event was. Thinking about 24 hours later, I think it was easier to kind of appreciate how special that was for our city and for our club, and I think it’s an important first step for what we’re building here with out franchise. I guess I’m looking forward to it more as a spectator or as a fan to sit back and watch itand appreciate the things Dax said: to imagine the stadium filled to that kind of capacity, all in gold, chanting and screaming the whole time. It’s pretty special.”
How do you contextualize a the return to training protocol in the big picture?
Jacobs: “First off, I think it is really important because it’s easy to get kind of drunk in the whole euphoria of ‘we’re back.’ The idea of us being like the first sport doing this, of the professional sports leagues in our country. The reality is, this is not a return to play just yet. This is a return to training protocol that will allow our players the same workouts that Dax has been doing in private parks on untrue surfaces: you know, bumpy grass fields, or tracks that aren’t taken care of, with fans that might interrupt him to take photos or autographs, and potentially a greater threat to his physical health with the surfaces that they’re running on, or potential spread of the virus by contact with other people. The idea of this return to training protocol is the safest way for our players to continue kind of maintain their fitness.
“Something Dax said about baby steps: what I would echo also is, how well our players and staff execute this stage one, this first phase that as a league that we’ve determined we’re using for our return to training protocol, will be critical in our ability to get to stage two. To small group workouts, or eventually to stage three, returning to team workouts. It’s really important to make sure that our support staff, everything is really buttoned up with regard to our protocols that are being taken into effect here, to enable our players to be able to return to the facility. I think if we do a good job with that, we’ll be able to kind of move forward and proceed to the next steps. If we have any hiccups, there’s a chance that not only we go back to square one, but we could actually be furthger back in our ability to kind of return to getting games on the field. So this is a really critical stage not only for Nashville SC, but really for our whole league.
What is the full timeline?
Jacobs: “We’ll start tomorrow [Thursday]. Ss far as protocols we’re taking to kind of maintain the players’ health and safety. When the guys turn up at Currey Ingram, they’ll have designated parking spots that are about three parkings spots for each car, so they’re not on top of each other. The fields we’re working on will be cut into quarters, so each player will have about one fourth of the field to work on, so no more than four players on a field at the time, so they’re fairly spread out. When they arrive, they’ll have their temperatures taken, they’ll be wearing gloves and a mask. After their temperature’s taken, they’ll remove their gloves and throw them out, they’ll each go onto their individual space on the field. Once they’ve got that space on the field, they’ll then take their mask off, put their boots on, and then start their training session. The session on the field start-to-finish is an hour. Once that concludes, their masks go back on, they go back to the sanitizing station, clean their hands, put a new pair of gloves on, and go home. Before and after that, they’ll have questionnaires to fill out, very detailed. Any player or staff has the same set of circumstances. Even like the staff that’s there will also go through the same protocols our players will. It’s important they also kind of track and monitor any movement they have outside their homes, even with their families, so we can make sure everyone’s keeping themselves safe.”
Has the staff worked on recruitment during the break in play?
Jacobs: “We had a meeting yesterday as a staff with my executive group: with Ally Mackay, Chance Myers, and Oliver Miller Farrell, and we talked also about the idea of really our ascension plan. It’s recruitment really, where you can add players during a summer window, traditionally. For the most part, we’re focusing on 2021 and even 2022 in our recruitment. I think it’s exciting that this time last year, we had two players under contract: both Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster. To see where we are right now and to have essentially a second preseason, more opportunity and more time to prepare ourselves, I like the fact of knowing that we have a chance to not only catch up with the rest of the league, but potentially get ahead in some areas, as well. Where it’s been frustrating to be off the field, I think this time we’ve had during this moratorium has allowed us to dedicate more time to watching players, domestically and abroad, and prepare short-term for the 2020 season, and primarily to get ahead for 2021.
How do you approach potential transfers without knowing what international windows are going to look like?
Jacobs: “The advice that Ian Ayre gave me – and Ian’s got a great reference point when you think of what he’s done in his career – really is kind of just to operate status quo. The players we’re talking to, guys who are scheduled to be free come Summer window in other countries, clubs that have players under contract – potential transfers – we have to just kind of keep going along as we normally do. I think just try to be proactive in our approach to that. At some point soon, we’re going to find out from FIFA and from the league what we can and can’t do. I think for us, it’s where we kind of set up these different scenarios: scenarios one, two and three, when it comes to adding some of these players whether it’s now or later.”
Did the Atlanta United game give you confidence in the future of soccer in this city?
McCarty: “Tremendously encouraging. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I was blown away. Before I got to Nashville, I’d heard the buzz, I knew that it was going to be a big deal here, but I don’t think I quite understood the scope of how important this team is going to be to this city. 60,000 people for your inaugural game, first-ever game, in a football stadium essentially that was filled almost to capacity: it doesn’t get much better than that, honestly. The only way it could have been better is if the result would have been different, if we could have gotten a victory in our first-ever game. So I’m incredibly encouraged, I’m incredibly excited about the future of this club. Like Mike said, you try to find little silver linings in everything that we’re going through right now at this moment in time, and the little silver lining is that we get more of an opportunity to catch up to the rest of the league. We got a little taste of it with two games – two games that I was tremendously encouraged by – I think you saw in that first game specifically we started out a little bit nervous, and then as the game wore on, we grew into the game. We got better and better and better until we were, for my money, the dominant team, trying to push for the equalizing goal and then ultimately push for a victory. Our fans were a big part of that, and if they can continue to do that whenever the season starts, whenever we get going again, if they can do that every home game, then I think Nissan Stadium is going to be a fortress for us, and that’s really important if you want to win games.”
Can you close the gap with other teams now that players are on grounds?
Jacobs: “You have Dax here on the call, I can tell you it’s been years in the making for me wanting to work with Dax. The opportunity to bring him here to Nashville SC, that was one of the first goals for us when we were building our roster out. I think as exciting as it is to have him here, what’s frustrating in evaluating he and his teammates is we only have two games that we can use to evaluate for the season. For what it’s worth, statistically, Dax and Godoy have been as dominant a midfield pairing as you’ve seen in MLS through the first two weeks. I think data supports that as far as both sides of the ball. I think for us, when it looks to building things out – I mentioned different scenarios before – a lot of what we’re doing right now is kind of hurry-up and wait. It’s hard for us to assess the future until we get a better idea about the present, what guys can and can’t do.
“Where maybe someone like Dax I’ve got a really good handle on what he’s capable of, I think some of his teammates still have to show us a little more one way or the other before we can make a decision to either add a player or subtract a player in a different role. I think it’d be unfair. I don’t think it would be prudent on our end to make decisions like that without evaluating the inventory we have. Having these guys who are here, I can tell you I think John Ireland and Steven Mason in our performance department have done a great job of monitoring these guys from a standpoint of keeping them healthy and keeping them fit. Whether it’s the Whoop bracelets these guys wear that helps them monitor their heart rate to sleep patterns, to Zoom calls for doing recovery sessions, to an app on their phone, Volt, with their rate workouts: I think our staff’s done a great job of keeping our guys – at a minimum – where they’re supposed to be when they’re not actually on-field training. Match fitness is very very different from fitness you’re getting on a Peloton bike or a treadmill.
“The reality is, I think these guys have done a good job of – at least with the information we’re seeing of them on a weekly basis – I comb through that every week, I know it’s kind of like Santa: who’s naughty and who’s nice, as far as who’s worked out and who has not. I think our guys have done a great job of keeping themselves healthy and fit, and ready to kind of get back and show us what we’re expecting to see after week two.”
What are you looking for back on the training field?
McCarty: “I think just getting the familiarity back at the training facility. I mentioned earlier – in my opening statement, I believe – that Currey Ingram, in terms of how the field are manicured, how the fields are taken care of, the scenery being outside and having a pretty spectacular place to train at Currey Ingram, what it does for your mentality, on the mental side of it. I’ve been trying to get out in the community and go to different public parks and try to keep my distance from whoever’s around, but when you’re there, you don’t know what kind of bumps you’re going to run into, you don’t know what the surfaces are going to be like: sometimes you’re working on turf. When you go to Currey Ingram, you know exactly what you’re going to be doing. You can tailor your training sessions and your workload to how good the field is going to be. So I think that’s first and foremost why I’m so excited about getting back out to Currey Ingram, because of how fantastic the fields are.
“Second, most of the stuff that I think we’re going to be doing – and just from the brief conversations that I’ve had with the guys and from the team call that we had yesterday or two days ago, I believe it was – I think we’re going to be able to start getting position-specific training sessions or individual workouts tailored to our positional needs, and what it’s going to require. Maybe a goalkeeper’s fitness is different than the fitness that I’m going to need. A striker and a winger, their fitness is going to be different than a defensive midfielder and a centerback, what we need. I’ve been really trying to continue my aerobic workouts to be able to cover a lot of distance at a fairly high speed, as opposed to maybe a winger or a striker who has to do multiple sprints a game. These are all the little nuances that go into it. I know the coaching staff is going to be working hard behind the scenes to provide us with workouts that are tailored to our individual needs. It’s a lot of stuff that you would tend to do in the offseason, it just so happens that during this moratorium, it kind of does feel like an offseason. You don’t know where the end will be. For me, just having the mental aspect of it to be able to get back out on a familiar field and know that there’s a possibility of an end in sight when we will be able to eventually return to games, that does wonders for your mentality, your mindset, and just being able to get back out on that field is going to be a good feeling.”
How long do you think re-conditioning will take?
McCarty: “I don’t want to speak for my teammates, I’ll just speak for myself: I’m 33 going on 25, guys. I don’t know if anyone knows that. I feel fantastic; I have been blessed with some good genes – knock on wood – that my parents have me. I don’t ever really lose too much fitness. I take a lot of pride in staying in good shape, and keeping my body ready to play at a high level, because I feel like this is what you have to do, right? That’s just how I feel. Now technically, on the technical side of it, I’m not saying that I would be too good. I would definitely be able to run. I don’t want to speak for other guys. I think realistically – and if you were to take the total commitment of what everyone would have to do to get the team ready to play – I think four weeks sounds about right, in terms of getting back familiar with each other, letting the coaches implement their different tactical views, running through a miniature preseason where there has to be agility, and strength, and conditioning work involved, I think four weeks is probably a fair timeline to say, ‘OK, when these guys are actually allowed to get back out on the field together as a team safely, how long is it going to take to play games?’ That’s probably the bare minimum, and you’d have to speak with people inside the league office and the health professionals about that if you want a more in-depth answer, but I feel good whenever they tell us that we can play games again: I’m going to be ready to go.”
Jacobs: “Let me say this first: our league is no different than any other league from a standpoint that everyone understands – whether it’s players or staff alike – we need to get on the field as soon as possible. I think our country needs that and our fans need that, as well as our players and staff need that. I think in a perfect world if you ask sports scientists, they’d probably say 4-6 weeks is what you’d need to kind of get ready to start playing. As Dax alluded to, we’re going to have another mini-preseason, that we’re going to have to do, it’s just not possible to pick up and start playing right away. I would say from a past precedent, our league changed a couple years ago in preseason so the teams competing in CCL they can start training two weeks earlier to give them a full month before the games started. My guess is – gun to my head – you’re probably looking at four weeks based on what we’ve seen previously from the league.
“As far as the next steps for phase two or stage two, truly a lot’s going to depend upon how things go in this first phase. I can’t stress that enough. I mentioned on a call with our staff: we need as few people at this facility as possible, to make sure our players are kept in the best position to succeed in staying safe, staying safe and staying healthy. If we can keep our players as healthy as possible during this process, that’s our best chance to explore later on this month the idea of going to small group workouts. But I think as far as the phases are set up, there’s going to be another phase in between what we’re doing now and full-team training. I think you look at other leagues in the world, and you’ve seen like the Bundesliga in Germany, to a similar set of standards you’d look at as far as a set of best practices or a case study to look at, I think depending on how things go where in the first phase, that’ll give you some indication toward the end of the month when we can expect to see phase two.”
What did you most learn about your team through two games?
McCarty: “To be completely honest, I knew that we were going to be a very good, organized team defensively, but I think quite frankly, what has surprised me the most is how good we really are defensively, or how good we have been defensively. If you look at the raw numbers – we’ve played two games, we’ve given up three goals, no shutouts – not on the surface the best numbers you can have. But if you really break it down, and you look at actually the total number of shots, the total number of shots on-goal: I’m not a huge expected goals guy, but I think we have, in terms of defensive, the lowest expected goals against in the entire league. Maybe one team below us, I’m not sure exactly. But the amount of chances that we’ve actually given up is few and far between. If you look at all three of the goals we’ve conceded, all of them are probably what I would consider world-class strikes, that actually you want to tip your hat to the opponent and say ‘great finish.’ But actually before it gets to that point of being a shot on goal, little miniature mistakes that we made on the field that led to that. So I look at the chances we’ve given up, and I say to myself, ‘we have the potential to have something very special here in terms of how organized we are and how disciplined we are with our goalkeeper and our back four and our midfield, and even our attackers putting in the work defensively.’ So that is the baseline for me for what a successful team should be and can be. Now it’s just: how can we turn – like you said – the possession that we had against Portland into goals? And that’s the name of the game. I’m very encouraged by what we did in the second half against Atlanta, taking that into a hostile place to play in Portland, and essentially controlling the entire game. Diego Valeri got one chance, and he put the ball in the top corner, and that’s what tremendous players like him do. For us, I’ve settled into things very well in my thinking that we’re going to be a team that can control more games than we think. Even going on the road: going on the road, playing at home, you might have to switch up your tactics a bit. I think our team – and I truly believe after two games – that our team is going to be able to play the same way at home, and the same way on the road. Obviously depending on game states and what the score is, you might have to adjust the tactics here and there, but the Portland game, for me, was extremely exciting. I think think anyone is happy with not getting a win in those first two games, but in terms of the overall performance, so many positives you can take away from those. So it gets me going, it gets my juices flowing just talking about it, because we want to be back on the field so bad. But ultimately, we will do that when it’s safe to do so.”
Is there a silver lining to a break in play?
McCarty: “Of course. That’s a tremendous silver lining: being able to spend a little bit more time at home with my son who just turned 1 on April 18. To be able to spend a lot of time with him, and be here at home getting sewttled into a new city with my wife – helping her around the house, helping get moved and stuff – is a big silver lining. I think my wife would probably tell you that she would like me out of the house a little bit more, to be completely honest. But it’s been fantastic. It’s actually kind of crazy: my son’s birthday was April 18, my birthday was April 30, my wife’s birthday was Cinco de Mayo, yesterday, so we’ve really been knocking out the birthdays right now. Just the fact that we’ve been able to spend time with each other, it’s something that you don’t always get during a normal schedule in a normal MLS season, where you could potentially be traveling or on the road, or preparing for games. So that’s definitely something that I’ve looked at as a positive in this difficult time.”
How is the team maintaining or building a tactical identity right now?
McCarty: “I’m not sure what the technical staff and the coaching staff, what their conversations have been like. But as a player, we have our programs, right? We’ve been staying physically fit, and we’ve been trying our best to get touches on the ball where and when we can. In terms of our tactical identity, the coaching staff has done a great job of reaching out to us and having individual meetings, and not only with individuals, but with midfielder groups, defensive groups, attacking groups. Sending us video clips not only from our first two games of what we did well, but things and areas where we can improve. Having open and honest discussion about the different areas we can get better at. I think there’s a couple of teams around the world of soccer that our coaching staff appreciates the way they play, they appreciate the style that they have, the will to win that they have, and they send us games and video clips of those teams: what it looks like at the absolute highest level of, let’s say, a Champions League game. So we’re trying our best to stay mentally sharp as well as physically sharp. I think the synergy within the coaching staff and the players: everyone’s really dedicated to not let this time go to waste. So that’s from a player’s perspective.”
Jacobs: “I mentioned earlier about process versus outcome, and I think the hardest part sometimes is staying focused on being present: the idea of what you’re doing right now and not getting distracted by getting either a positive result or a negative result. We’re not looking for participation trophies like little league, but the reality of our sport is that the strongest team on paper probably draws or loses more frequently than other sports. For us to look at how we performed in those first two games Atlanta and Portland, as Dax said before, those are really encouraging performances, and through the first two games, we conceded the least number of shots in MLS. I think – Dax mentioned xG before – and the reality of the chances we’re creating, and the chances we’re minimizing, I think we’re kind of where we want to be after our first two games as far as performance, and I think we have to make sure we keep ourselves from getting distracted from peripheral things we can’t control. I just feel like, for us right now, where we are into May now, we’ve only played two matches, and maybe for the staff’s perspective, it’s important for us not to hit the panic button or look at trying to blow things up. We haven’t seen things yet, and we really have to take a good chance to assess the two games we’ve had – one home match and one away game against two very strong competitions – and I think taking it for what it is and keep trying to build off of that. Even though we’ve got a preseason phase all over again, we’re starting in a much better place than we were five months ago when we first assembled. I think we’re pretty happy with where we are to date, and kind of how we’ll build from here.
Sorry for the delay in getting this up! It was 5,000 freakin’ words!