Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs met with the media to discuss Major League Soccer’s plans to resume the 2020 season with a tournament in Orlando. Read his full comments here:
“I think we’re all ready to kind of get soccer back up and running again. It seems like it’s been a while for us to all kind of congregate like this, to be talking about Nashville SC and playing. First and foremost, I know everyone’s excited to get back on the field and get back to work. From that standpoint, for our expansion season, we’d obviously hoped to have more information and reference points at this stage. You’d think entering July, we’d have 10-12 games, to have assessed the current group of guys that we have, as opposed to only having two.
“We did have two solid performances against two very strong teams – those were two-plus months ago, and where we were encouraged by where we were at that point, we’re excited to kind of continue to see this current group under the microscope, and kind of see what they have. As well as get back to competing in the league in general.”
Is there an advantage to being in the four-team or six-team group in the early stages of the tournament?
“I joked during preseason when we played Louisville – and beat them pretty handily – I told Gary that’s probably the last easy one he’s going to get for a while. I don’t know that there’s any real advantage in the tournament playing in the group of six versus a group of four, or the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference.
“When you look at how the seeding is set up, you know, the reality is you’re going to have to play against either Toronto or Atlanta. Just look historically in the East: when you see teams like Red Bulls and NYCFC, and you see the success that teams like Philly and DC have had recently. I just would expect each of these games to be a bear, regardless of which group we’re in.”
What does shifting to the East do for rivalry dynamics?
“When you look at where we are right now in what’s becoming this abbreviated or truncated season, I think getting a chance to have more regional proximity, playing teams closer to us, helps with things like recovery time between matches, minimizing team travel. A lot of benefits to that in general. What happens in the future remains to be seen. Obviously, it makes sense for us to be in the Eastern Conference, for a variety of reasons. Other than the teams in Florida or Atlanta, we’re the farthest Southeast in MLS. It just makes a lot of sense to do that, and the hope is – whether it’s rivalries that develop naturally because of proximity – I think it’s a good thing for us in general, and time will tell where the league determines where we play in the future.”
What does it mean for the teams to have the prize money ($1.1 million) and reward (Concacaf Champion’s League berth) be so significant?
“Each team has is own CSO – you think about like a Chief Executive Officer, each team has its own Chief Soccer Officer: essentially each team’s General Manager or Sporting Director. The CSOs all congregated to talk about this format. One of the big challenges was “how do we make this meaningful?” This can’t be like a preseason exhibition tournament. As you mentioned, that’s a good way to look at it: with the carrot of a CCL place in front of all of us, there’s never been a route like this available. With the absence of the US Open Cup this year, it makes sense that an event like this replaces it with a CCL spot. You have some prize money available as well. But there’s no question, I can tell you: when the CCL started this year, we were down in Tampa. I joked with Gary ironically – the room was filled with all guys who had CCL experience. Either playing in it, or internationally – Godoy from Panama, Beckeles from Honduras, Ríos with Mexico, Zimmerman and McCarty and Lovitz with the US. I think our club appreciates how important the CCL is, and relishes the opportunity to, in our first year, to pursue something like that.”
How does the FIFA rule allowing for five substitutions change how the games are approached?
“The genesis of that, when we were first talked about that – like I mentioned earlier with the CSOs – about what’s in the best interest for our players? The reality is, as important as to take preventative measures to protect our players’ health with COVID-19, right up there with that is the challenge of having enough prep time with our players, to make sure that they’re healthy and fit before we play. In a perfect world, you’d probably want 4-6 weeks to prepare before playing matches. The fact that there’s such a quick turnaround from when we resume play to start playing matches, the idea started with FIFA and IFAB, of increasing to the five substitutions. The idea of having that and extended gameday rosters I think will help give us strategically or tactically the opportunity to stretch out players’ minutes. Look at sometimes when you get into – Ben and Tim, you guys were around in the USL days – you think about like what I always referred to like ironman football all the time, or a pitch count in baseball. I’ve always referred to Gary as a great Cup manager, because he’s tremendous at preparing for one opponent, when he has time to prepare a gameplan. I think you saw like ironman football, when you had to play like three games in a week or three games in 10 days. I think where he’s built to measure workloads, and I’m a big NBA fan and I hate talking about like ‘load management,’ but it’s the idea of stretching guys’ minutes out. I thin kthe idea of having more substitutions available to us, a larger player pool will help us – a team like ours – maximize our minutes.”
Have you been able to discuss the tournament with your players and gauge their excitement about it?
“The challenge for us – any time you have labor negotiations – is where we sit kind of in the middle. I’ve mentioned that to both sides. We want to see our ownership and the league grow and thrive, and we want to make sure our players to feel good about where they’re at. From that standpoint, I think I probably talked most with Dax, who not only is our team captain but our player rep. I know all along, he said it was unanimous. 100% across the board with the guys not only wanting to get back to work, but to get down to Orlando as soon as possible.
“When we get down there, we’ll find out who we play, that’s all to be determined. But our group’s ready to kind of get back after it.”
What are the logistics of needing to travel to Orlando on a given schedule, etc.?
The teams now – obviously the protocols have changed quite a bit from where we started to where we are now. Where it now currently sits is: after the draw comes out, the teams are required to be there no later than seven days prior to their first match. I’ve been working with Gary Smith, our manager, and then Jeff Robben, our team administrator, about what’s in the best interest for our players about making sure that they’re prepared physically and mentally for our first match. I know in returning to play, stage three is very important for us, to get that kind of back up and running, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be back to full training next week. If that’s the case, we should have at least 10 full days – or we should have at least 2-3 weeks in our own market before we head to Orlando. I think that it’s better to look at it from a broader conservative standpoint, because that obviously can change. But I think the opportunity to have extended full-team training here in-market, I think helps us as far as preparing for our own times of when we need to be in Orlando. I know a big thing for Gary is making sure – as I’ve mentioned before in managing workloads – is getting back like a normal, where you might associate in your own jobs like a 9-5: if you look at a player’s normal workweek, they’re used to match Saturday, off Sunday, recover Monday, train Tuesday, off Wednesday, prep Thursday, travel Friday, play Saturday.
“I think for us, getting back – whether it’s intrasquad matches, whether it’s getting down to Orlando and playing some exhibitions down there – it’s really important for Gary to get back into that rhythm as quickly as possible. Kind of getting back to normalcy for us. I would tell you that I think whatever gives us the best opportunity to get exhibition matches or friendly matches in, be it intra squads or against other teams, that will probably dictate a lot about when we arrive in Orlando.
“As far as different stages down there, once the knockout stages start, the teams that don’t avdance go home. Really, how long you’re in Orlando depends on how long and how far you advance. From our standpoint, we hope we’re down there as long as possible. We hope we’re down there until the very end. We’ve got three group-stage matches that will dictate that, and we’ll learn an awful lot about our team in general, and our ability to survive and advance based on that.”
From your perspective, is a move to the East positive for Nashville SC?
My opinion is – I’m not in the product strategy committee, I’m not going to ultimately gonna dictate where we land – but the reality is as we’ve mentioned before, it just makes a lot of sense for us to be playing against teams in closer proximity to us. You think about our game in general, it is very tribal. People want to not only support Nashville SC or soccer fans, they want to support Nashville. Along with that, they like the idea of competing against Atlanta, and Miami, DC, Orlando. Those cities are closest to us. I think it makes a lot of sense for our fans, so I would love that.
“From a scheduling standpoint and the ability to maximize our own travel, it’s easier for us to have shorter trips. You think about before the pandemic hit, we were on track to have as much travel as far as miles as any team in MLS history, to have a team in the Southeast playing in the Western Conference. The reality is, whether you’re in the Eastern Conference or Western Conference, you’re going to play teams from both conferences anyway. We started the season in the Western Conference, and we played Atlanta in our first game. So even this season, being in the Eastern Conference now for 2020, we don’t know who we’re going to play, and we’re preparing to play teams in both conferences.”
What are the challenges of the tournament?
“The biggest challenges I think are going to be how quickly we’ll develop a rhythm of playing back together again. These guys have been working individually, and now they’re in small groups. I think they’re looking forward to kind of getting ready to kick people again. That hopefully will start next week, and the sooner we can do that, the better. I have to say I think Gary’s done a great job of really focusing on the guys’ fitness this period. One thing I think he’s been really strategic about it: thinking that the things you can control versus the things you can’t control. As a former coach myself, it doesn’t mean that fitness isn’t important, but when we resume team training, if he has to spend a lot of time getting the guys fit, you’re losing an opportunity to actually get the guys practicing. Those are two very different things.
I think because he’s focused so heavily and intensely during the moratorium and during these first two stages on the players’ fitness, that the hope is, when we start getting together for team training, that we can just practice, and we can work on building the cohesion that we had before hte moratorium. To me, that’s first and foremost. I think secondly, as I mentioned earlier, I think the big challenge is the workload for these players getting heavy legs. Managing that figurative ‘pitch count’ as far as minutes these guys play. The reality is in some positions, you run between 7-12 minutes in each game. Somebody like Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy, I don’t know how often that they can absorb minutes like that during the course of a workweek.
The guys who saw us in USL, you saw how Gary was, I wouldn’t say diplomatic or arbitrary, in how he rotated guys like Matt LaGrassa or Michael Reed during those spells. Especially in midfield, you start with a heavier workload on your legs as far as how much running you’re doing. I just think his ability to rotate players the right times of games, right times of tournament, will be really important to kind of maximize what our guys can and can’t do.”
Has there been any indication from the league in terms of what the remainder of the season will look like after the Orlando tournament?
“The league has been very thorough about trying to see the best way to resume as quickly as possible after the tournament. Unfortunately, I don’t have an awful lot to share at this point. I’d rather tell you nothing than make something up, and I hope you can appreciate that. I would just tell you that at least right now, we’re expecting to resume play in some capacity once we return from Orlando.”
Last week, Dan Lovitz said your team has the advantage of having taken the return to play a little more seriously than some others. Do you share that view?
“It’s funny, you’d think two or three months ago what a disadvantage we have with the limited time we’ve had together with the group. In some ways with a quick turnaround when you think about how active teams are in scouting, I think teams probably know less about us – other than maybe Miami – than any other team in the league. By the time teams figure out who were are, we might already be though group stages, I think we could sneak up on some teams.
As far as group dynamics, and what teams are dealing with as far as who’s excited to play or not, I have to tell you I can’t speak for other locker rooms: I think it’d be unfair of me to do that to my peers also at other teams. We’re too busy worrying about our own team. I just know that I think that what you lose sometimes – all the time – with an expansion team is the idea of building this continuity, and I talk about cohesion a lot. We played against a team like Portland who had had some combination of guys who had been together for six years. We had guys who hadn’t been together for six months; closer to six weeks.
These two and a half months, where we have had a moratorium, and we haven’t had team training, you’d be surprised at how much time these guys have spent together, and I think how much closer the group’s gotten. Those of you around our team, I think you’ll be able to see it more and more each day. I think this break’s kind of let us catch up a little bit, to kind of building that continuity. I think our group is very hungry. Whether others are disadvantaged by their feelings about coming back to play in Orlando, I just know our groups very excited and looking forward to it.”
Mike Jacobs (left) photo from file. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country.