Mike Jacobs and Ian Ayre. Photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
An inaugural MLS season is rarely easy. Only a handful of expansion sides have made the MLS Cup Playoffs, while Chicago Fire in 1998 was the last expansion team to win a playoff game (under the tutelage of Bob Bradley, the Fire lifted MLS Cup that year). Add in the difficulties of natural disaster and a global pandemic, and life was even more difficult for Nashville SC in 2020.
Nashville SC not only won one playoff game, the Boys in Gold managed to upset the East’s No. 2 team, Toronto FC, and play eventual champion Columbus Crew to a stalemate for over 90 minutes later. While the ultimate goal is to win the title, the best playoff run for an expansion team in over 20 years is nothing to scoff at. That Nashville did it while employing a roster that didn’t break the bank – or draw a ton of headlines before the year – is a credit to the strong work put in by the front office, led by General Manager Mike Jacobs.
After building the team with a contract that expired at the conclusion of the 2020 season, Jacobs has received three more years in Music City to continue the project. Club CEO Ian Ayre announced an extension through 2023 for Jacobs this week.
“Reaching the semifinal of our conference doesn’t happen by accident, and it was a testament to great amount of work by an awful lot of people,” Ayre explained. “As I personally reflected on 2020, what became clear to me was that it was the quality of the people we assembled overall at the club that got us through these most difficult times and were able to achieve what we achieved – whether that was players on the pitch or staff elsewhere, our owners, our partners – it was the assemblance of that group that really did it.”
Nashville SC didn’t bring in the big names of fellow expansion team Inter Miami CF – at one point in Nashville’s dominating 3-0 win over IMCF in the playoffs, the Boys in Gold had barely over a third of the opponent’s player value on the field – and didn’t search far and wide for international players on the global market to the extent that recent expansion teams like Atlanta United and LAFC did.
What Jacobs was able to do was find the right players, and even if some of that came on budget pricetags, the major acquisitions tended to work out well. You wouldn’t have known in basically any game of 2020 which team was the expansion side seen as being cobbled together, and which was a high-budget squad, or a long-tenured franchise with a roster-building philosophy that had years to implement.
“I’d like to thank John Ingram and our ownership group for continuing to have the confidence not only in myself, but our staff and players to continue to build off of this proof-of-concept that we developed during our inaugural season as an expansion team,” Jacobs said of the outcome. “The opportunity to work day-to-day like this wouldn’t be possible without those who I’m closest with on a day-to-day basis. I feel so appreciative to be able to come to work each day with the likes of Assistant General Manager Ally MacKay, Chief Scout Chance Myers, Director of Strategy and Analytics Oliver Miller-Farrell.
“Being able to work so closely with Gary Smith as our head coach really enables the leadership on the sporting side of the club to move in-sync every step of the way. Being able to lean on the direction, management, support of Ian Ayre – after leading one of the biggest clubs in the world, executing some of the most successful player deals in English football history – really gives me the ideal setting to continue to kind of thrive and be successful.”
Of course, while any success is a team effort, you’d have a hard time finding anyone who didn’t step between the white lines this season who had a bigger say in Nashville’s achievements than Jacobs. Whether or not his “Moneyball” philosophy was a way of life or a way to deflect from a more modest budget than some other MLS sides, his ability to assemble a talented group speaks to his ability in identifying and acquiring talent that fit together well – and that Smith was able to coach into the playoffs.
“He’s a hugely talented individual, committed, extremely dedicated, and anyone who knows Mike, that spends any time with him, knows that not only does he do a great job, but he eats, sleeps, and breathes this thing,” Ayre said of his GM. “I sometimes have to tell him to relax, you know, and not just think about it every moment of every day. That’s a great asset to have, particularly in a new club that’s kind of going places.”
With the General Manager’s role secured for three more years, Jacobs can continue to use his individual talent to implement a philosophy that was an unqualified success in year one. With a year that hopefully provides fewer opportunities to overcome off-field adversity, that ideology can be taken to another level.
Jacobs has already been busy in assembling a war chest of allocation money this offseason – and doing it in a way that adheres to his Moneyball philosophy. Even with his contract running out (albeit with a strong understanding that he and Ayre would be able to come to an agreement), he spent December turning an asset – international slots – that NSC likely won’t need by the time the season rolls around into a valuable currency for signing and paying higher-caliber players.
That may not seem like it’s within the philosophy that NSC executed in its inaugural build. On the contrary, Jacobs has never been interested in spending less money, but rather about making sure that which he does spend in building his team is used wisely. With more General Allocation Money to spend this year – and a returning core upon which to add key pieces – taking that same mindset to a higher level of expenditure should see Nashville take incremental steps forward without abandoning its key qualities.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to kind of be able to try to work towards sustaining success,” Jacobs explained. “And from the get-go, we looked at this with the idea of putting a team together that would help us be successful straight away in 2020, but we always had an eye on what was going to happen in the future. When you look at our build, the idea of having young players – in either guys who came right in the team like Randall Leal or Alistair Johnston, whether it was players who gradually worked themselves in the group like Brian Anunga, or young talents that everyone’s really high on like Jack Maher – I think the thought was that this group was getting the chance to kind of all grow up together, and we’;re really excited about watching this.
“We saw obviously an encouraging first chapter here this last season, to think about this exciting young group that’s going to continue to grow and learn under the tutelages of these established veterans that we have here, really it’s exciting to think about not only what happened in this first season, but what’s on the horizon for this group.”
The intertwining of core beliefs from the front-office staff to those who actually see the field is a perfect marriage to continue seeing that level of success. There’s nothing more crucial to getting a task done – whether that task is signing a key player or nailing an impressive free kick – than hard work. And Nobody knows that better than Jacobs.
“To me, I think if we’re always doing that on the field, I think if our staff is always a collection of guys who are willing to kind of grind hard, and be willing to work hard and play hard, I think we’ve only kind of scratched the surface of what this group’s capable of on and off the field.”