MLS teams are just a few days into their full-team training protocols, and Nashville SC hit the field for the first time this afternoon.
The squad has been incrementally approaching a return to play during the coronavirus pandemic, beginning with individual training at team facilities, and then small-group training with no contact between players. There’s nothing like the real thing, though.
“Like a lot of people, we’ve been sitting around for a long time,” said defender Eric Miller. “It was really good to get back to a sense of normalcy. I think all the guys have been waiting for a long, long time to compete.
“We did a lot of really hard work the last couple weeks with small-group stuff. I think the key is just building on that. We have a good base of fitness now, so we just have to kind of work towards soccer stuff, and work toward the more technical side of the game.”
Of course, the time spent away from the team environment wasn’t wasted. While the players did what they could to prevent the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus, they also managed to keep up the cardiovascular part of their training regimen. From working on exercise bikes and going for runs close to home, followed by the gradual return to organized team activities, there’s full confidence that they’re athletically ready to play the game.
“The work’s already started, in all honesty,” said head coach Gary Smith. “We tried to compartmentalize some more focused work, if you like, in the group and the individual stages. We tried to work heavily on some of the fitness work to keep the guys in a very good condition, which means we can now go into some larger-scale work, knowing that the players are in a fit, strong, and healthy shape.”
Getting back to the field is not merely about staying involved in the game, of course: all this work is a build toward returning to competitive play. Nashville SC will join the rest of the teams of Major League Soccer for a tournament in Orlando, Fla. that begins July 8, with NSC’s first game expected to fall on the following day. The team is hopeful that a pre-tournament friendly (likely against another MLS team going through similar health protocols) will be possible.
Either way, they’re ready to his the ground running. A three-game group stage and 16-team knockout bracket awaits.
“First and foremost, the tournament’s going to be a very different format, of course, to anything that most people have encountered before,” Smith said. “We’re coming off – all of us – a long layoff, a lack of activity. There’s not really any form or fluidity that we can look at from any team.
“You’ve got to get off to a good start. As we’ve seen multiple times in Euro Championships, World Cup qualifiers or [group] stages: if you don’t start well, you’re constantly playing a bit of catch-up. Of course, the confidence that we could get out of an early result would be hugely beneficial.”
While there’s certain to be some rust to shake off throughout the squad, this group has plenty of individuals who are no strangers to adversity – whether World Cup veterans or those who have participated in MLS playoff atmospheres or continental competitions with their club and national teams.
“We have a lot of guys that have been in tough environments before,” Miller said, “and I think we’re going to be ready for the challenge, whatever it is.”
It begins with a contest against either the Chicago Fire or Philadelphia Union, and Nashville SC full intends to show up to compete not just for a win or two, but to take the whole thing.
Press conference video provided by Nashville SC. Gary Smith photo from file: Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country