Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs sat down with the media yesterday. You can watch the Mike Jacobs Press conference here, or you can read the full text below. Caution: there may be a bunch of typos, because 5500-ish words is a lot to proofread!
“Obviously, it’s an exciting time of the year to have preseason here, and this group of guys have been champing at the bit ever since we finished our 2020 season in Columbus. Our staff’s been really busy – I always kind of find it really ironic when you think about the idea of the offseason, because where it is the offseason for the players and the coaches, it can be potentially the busiest time of the year for us. We spend a lot of time evaluating our roster to look and see what areas we need to freshen up and to improve as we head into ’21, and look to try to build off of a large part of what was a very successful first season. Our expectations are obviously very high for our group, and we’re certainly not resting on our laurels. So to look at what we were able to accomplish in Year One, we’re also very honest with the fact that it was a truncated season, it was one that obviously had more challenges than any expansion season has seen prior. For us, we’re excited about getting a full slate of games, to be able to evaluate the players we have, to kind of continue to put them under the microscope to see what we have available.
“What was really important for us as far as areas of focus was not only to kind of continue to build off the continuity that we developed in Year One – you look at the success we had defensively with a record-setting goals against average for an expansion club – but also when you saw the success we had offensively toward the end of the season. After October 14 which was Jhonder Cádiz’s first match away in Houston, we were eighth in the league in goals per game, and third in the league in total goals scored. So having all of our DPs available at the same time really gave us, obviously, some added punch, especially when you see not only what Jhonder added when he arrived as our DP 9, but also what you saw what Randall Leal, who was in the top 10 in goal contributions during that stretch from October 14 on: goals and assists combined, as well as Hany Mukhtar’s ascension during that period also. We were very excited to kind of see that group continue to kind of grow and evolve. By adding the likes of a young attacking player like Rodrigo Piñeiro, adding an experienced attacking player like CJ Sapong to this group of players that really only had three starts out of Jhonder Cádiz in his time here. Handwalla Bwana who’s a bright prospect, who’s obviously gained a lot of notoriety in our league and attention with the US under-23s, to have him really just really arrive here the last month of the season, not only did you have some important, key faces arrive here, but having a full preseason for guys like Jhonder and Handwalla.
“When you think of the significance of the role that Alex Muyl played during the course of the season after his arrival, this will be his first preseason here for us as well. So, we’re very encouraged about the idea of what we built in year one, and the continuity that we kind of really built as our season went on, and to think about having this group together for a full preseason is really exciting.
What was the approach in bringing in players and incorporating particularly the offensive guys in preseason?
“One word you heard me use an awful lot last year – almost as a theme for us – was the idea of ‘cohesion.’ As important as it is to build continuity defensive, you tend to find in the final third of the field, so much of the success that comes down to good attacking teams comes from the opportunity for them to play together, and build up experiences learning how to play off each other, learning what each other’s strengths are. We did see this group really grow in leaps and bounds this season and along.
“When you look at the idea of Gary Smith and I together in USL, from our first season 2018 to our second season 2019, we were able to take stock in what that group had as far as its strengths and weaknesses and really add and enhance that to the 2019 season. I mention the USL experience because that 2018 team was able to create scoring chances, but struggled sometimes to finish. We went into the 2019 offseason – prior to the 2019 season – knowing that we had to try to find some capable attacking players who were going to be clinical finishers, and did so that time with Daniel Ríos – who is still with us – and Cameron Lancaster. For us, we were very excited about the idea of the continued development of guys like Jhonder and Randall and Hany, being able to add a proven quantity in our league like CJ Sapong, someone who’s had great success within our league with Sporting Kansas City, with Philadelphia, with Chicago, as well as for the US National Team, to add a young prospect like Rodrigo Piñeiro: very similar to what I kind of promised to Gary from Year One to Year Two in USL. Our goal was we’d never be in a situation where’d struggle to be able to score goals ever again. Ultimately, execution comes down to the players on the field, but I do feel like, where maybe we were cautious in Year One as far as our roster build, I do feel really good about the fact that heading into Season Two in this project, that we’ve got the right kind of personnel to be able to not only create, but to finish scoring chances.”
What did you like about each of the five players you recently signed?
“When you look at our scouting approach, one thing that’s been really important to us is to identify players that come from leagues that translate to our league. Few in recent years in regards specifically to South America have had players come into our league with success than the Uruguayan Premier League. Rodrigo has a very strong pedigree. When you look at his experiences coming through Peñarol’s youth academy, and the opportunities he had at meaningful matches playing in the first division for Danubio, looking at his youth international experience, we just thought that he had the background and pedigree that translated to our league. And specifically about him as a player, he offers some things that we thought that we definitely needed. When you look at maybe how someone like Randall plays when he plays wide, Randall really maybe is like a 10 who comes inside quite a bit, opposed to someone like Rodrigo who’s an out-and-out winger. Rodrigo’s got outstanding pace running with the ball and without the ball, and is somebody who can be a genuine goal threat with more direct play, opposed to being an indirect winger like Randall.
“From a CJ standpoint, obviously I’m very familiar with CJ. Where we did not work together in Kansas City, obviously our paths crossed during the course of the experiences we had in the league and the group of players that he played with in Kansas City and specifically in the role that he had, he was always somebody who was a threat. The idea of being threatening is not just the ability to score goals – which clearly he’s done – but to me when you’re threatening, you’re somebody who worries somebody else. I think from a soccer standpoint, when you’re a threatening attacking player, you’re constantly generating attention, because you’re creating problems for opposing defenses. So whether it’s in the 18-yard box, whether it’s finishing on the ground or in the air, whether it’s making runs in-behind, penetrating runs, whether it’s defensively pressing the other team, CJ is definitely a threatening player from the standpoint that he can put opposing players under pressure, and he’s definitely somebody who can cause problems for opposing defenses. For us, we liked also a theme for us – you’ve seen an awful lot of different signings we’ve made – about versatility, guys who player multiple positions and multiple roles in different systems or shapes. CJ is somebody who’s had success playing not only centrally as a center forward – a lone center forward in a pair – but he’s also played wide as a winger, also. So I think his ability to be a threat combined with his versatility made him someone that we coveted for a while, so we’re really excited to be able to add CJ. Another interesting piece about CJ, when you look at the attacking impetus of this group that we have, and you look at kind of the profile that most of the players in our front four spots are all fairly young. I think the oldest players in that group are 25, 26 years old. so to add somebody with a little bit more experience like CJ, where he’s in his 30s, the reality is – like some of the other guys that we have on our team in that same age group like Anibal or Dax – CJ’s one of those guys who’s found the Fountain of Youth. He takes great care of his body, he’s somebody who plays much younger, and I think really adds a perfect blend to the guys that we have already have here.
“The other guys you asked about, Tim: Robert Castellanos opposed to maybe looking for someone in that role in the SuperDraft, and certainly someone like Sondre Norheim can play as a centerback as well, Robert’s a similar age to a college senior, but has gained really meaningful experiences playing in USL with LA Galaxy II, with RGV. He’s been in and out of the US Youth National Team system. So for us, we like the fact that he comes into the league maybe a little more accelerated than other kids his age.
“Bryan Meredith. When you look at what we’re doing with our pool of goalkeepers, Joe Willis was one of the top goalkeepers in MLS last year; we’re really excited to be able to bring him back. He’s been kind of surrounded by younger goalkeepers, really inexperienced when you look at Elliot Panicco – who we think a lot of, and think he’s got a high ceiling, but has not kicked a ball in MLS yet – Tor Saunders who for us, we feel like back-to-back years we feel like we landed the top goalkeeper in college soccer, also very young and never kicked a ball in MLS. So to add an experienced goalkeeper like Bryan Meredith, who’s been a part of some really good teams, has been a good teammate, has been able to be a part of some strong goalkeeping corps, to add somebody like that to maybe help alleviate some pressure from Joe while also help mentoring some of these young goalkeepers gives us a big plus.
“Someone like Nick Hinds, we’re really both excited about Nick and Tom Judge to have two young left backs – guys who fit what we look for in players in that role. For me, Daniel Lovitz is as good – if not the top – domestic left back in our league. When you look at what he does on both sides of the ball, I think both Nick and Tom offer some similar qualities, and we’re hoping maybe can be future heir apparents in that role. Someone like Nick has been an outstanding attacking player as a left back, in Seattle Sounders youth academy, In college at Akron, and then in Seattle’s USL system, and we just think he kind of fits what we look for in a player in that role.
How do you feel like the team handled a trying first year, and how did it prepare you for further success going forward?
“Chris, when you look back at this last year, literally no club in any sport in their expansion year has had to deal with what we had to this last year. Not just a global pandemic that affected not only every sports team and every franchise but obviously every person. But when you think about specifically being here in Nashville and having two different tornados, we had our season delayed when we had to withdraw from the MLS is Back tournament, we had three different games that had rain delays of over an hour. It’s just, when we talk about guiding principles for our club and our staff, one of the most important ones is resiliency. When you look back at this last year, IU think not only the success our team had on the field, but the ability to demonstrate that kind of resiliency by dealing with the adversity that really no club’s been asked to do before that, it’s created a tremendous foundation for this club going forward.
“We talk a lot as a staff among ourselves about not only not resting on our laurels of a successful expansion season, but also not forgetting about what things we had to work through this past year. They should stand as an important reminder for us about not only what we can deal with and absorb, but how we can respond positively in that kind of adversity. For us, I think, where it was a successful season to be able to advance in the playoffs in Year One, the fact we were able to persevere through that kind if adversity, to demonstrate that kind of resiliency, it’s going to establish a foundation for years to come for this team.”
Do you anticipate outgoing player moves before the season, or does the rotation look to be bigger at striker than last year?
“First off, what I would say is – and we talk a lot during the course of the year – we’re always trying to strengthen and improve our roster, and it’d be unfair to talk about the guys who are currently here coming into preseason where they all fit in the whole scheme of things. The reality is that there’s always moving pieces, moving parts. The group of players that we brought in through the SuperDraft, the idea of having them stay with their college teams this Spring, we looked at it almost like a de facto loan to those NCAA teams. The reality is our first official practice is on Wednesday, some of these guys have already played two college matches. They just wouldn’t have gotten games like that, not playing 90 minutes, not playing meaningful games, had they come into preseason and been essentially tackling dummies for most of the next 6-8 weeks.
“For us, getting these guys more matches, and you guys can all appreciate the idea of the college season. I coached in college for over 20 years, and the reality is when the traditional college season ends in November or December, when the traditional MLS preseasons start in January, most of these college kids aren’t really in game shape, and ironically, even at the age that they’re at, as young as they are, they’re probably not match-fit, or fit enough as they have to be because of how long they’ve been off. Our thoughts were by having these guys arrive here in late April early May, maybe only missing eight weeks of preseason, six weeks of preseason, the first couple weeks of regular season – they’ll actually come in probably in better shape, not only physically, but even like technically or tactically, than probably most college kids would in a normal year. Our thought was where they might miss a critical phase of their development in training with our group in preseason, we think they’ll get more games and a more positive experience having played with their college teams in the Spring.
“As far as the significance of those college kids, every club is different, and what I can say for us: until our Academy can regularly populate our roster with Homegrown players, we’re always going to place maybe a different level of focus or emphasis in the college Draft. And we feel strongly with the fact that you can identify players who can help your roister. I think when you see guys like Alistair Johnston did last year, I think it demonstrates that. Saying that, I think it’s unfair for us to pull an Alistair Johnston or Jack Maher out every year. The reality is that the penalty of having a successful season as last year is we were selecting 20th rather than selecting second. I’ve said jokingly, I hope we never draft second ever again, because we hope we’re playing a lot later in the season. For us, we do feel like we acquired some players that can help our group, and the reality is some of those guys will get a chance to stay straight away and be a part of this group when they arrive. Some of these guys will probably need more of like a finishing-type experience in USL, and will probably get loaned out. It’ll be case-by-case for those guys as far as who’ll stick around here for the 2021 season, and who will go to USL.
“What I would tell you is, I think it’s interesting when you follow Major League Baseball, and you hear the idea of a player getting ‘demoted’ down to the minors, for those of you who follow football all over the world, and you’ll find than when players get loaned out, it’s usually the opposite of a demotion. Usually you’re loaning a player because you value them enough that you want to get them games. And the experience I would use of someone like Luke Haakenson lasty year – who we drafted in the fourth round last year – had such a promising season in Charlotte that he came back now as a signed player on our roster. So the reality is if you see players get loaned out, it’s not a demotion: it’s the exact opposite. Because we see some of these guys as potentially part of the future of this club, and we think that getting them some games in a more meaningful level, playing against men and experience in USL is only going to help them come back maybe in 22. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw both of those.
“As far as your second question, about the competition up front, that word I use is really important. One thing Gary always stresses to me is how critical he thinks competition is to get the best out of players. From his perspective, he’s never concerned about having a logjam of players. I mentioned last year how things went: we had to play three matches last year where we had no center forwards. We were using players like Derrick Jones as a false nine, or guys like Randall or Alex up front. The reality is, we went into this offseason making sure that we were not going to be in a situation ever again where we were going to have a shortage of players in those roles – specifically in the nine role – and I think we feel really good about the fact, as I mentioned somebody like CJ, can not only play as a center forward but can also play wide as well, that we’ve created not just competition up front, but some depth there as well.”
Do you feel like the roster you’ve built is basically set as we enter preseason? Or is there more to build?
“Tom that’s a great question. What I would tell you is we have worked very hard in maintaining roster flexibility. Having open roster spots on our senior roster, having open international spots – maybe now obviously we’ve sold a couple of those – having enough allocation money to put us in a position where, depending on what Gary’s needs are in preseason, whether it’s adding someone short-term within next month or two versus waiting for summer window – we have the roster flexibility, the cap flexibility, and the assets to add other players.
“To your question, what I would tell you is, for me, I always like the idea of using this time of the year for evaluation, mentoring and kind of taking stock of what you have and what you don’t have. Where I think, while it’s easy to look at them as magnets on a board, I joke with our guys here that come preseason, we take all these magnets and kind of hand them to Gary, and now he puts them on the field. For us, I think it’s kind of an encouraging time of year to see what we have, but also to see what we don’t have. What we might need to try to freshen up during this window – during the primary window – or in the summer window.”
[Club declines comment on the status of Eric Miller’s contract negotiations]
What are the practical considerations of beginning preseason training under COVID protocols?
“It’s funny that you ask that, I mean last year we always talk about the fact that we really had three preseasons when you think that we started in January, a resume before the MLS is Back Tournament, and we had a third one when we came back from the MLS is Back Tournament.
“Right now as far as the COVID protocols, there is heavy sensitivity to close contact, so whether it’s maintaining the six feet in the locker room and players wearing masks whenever they’re not on the field. Our players test every-other day during the course of the season. So we probably are more conscious of the safety protocols this time of year than ever before. It’s amazing, I was just driving into the office and listening to a commercial for ESPN 30 for 30 talking about March 11, 2020, how that was the day that the first game was postponed for COVID. It’s amazing to think where we are right now in the world a year later. I think knowing what we experienced the last year, it’s giving us a good reference point to draw from as far as how to keep our players and staff in the best possible position to not only succeed on the field, but also to be safe off of it.”
[Club declines comment on the progress toward green cards for players currently occupying international slots]
Are you expecting that college players will need to fit on the 30-man rosters when they finish their college seasons, or that the rosters will be extended given the circumstances of this season?
“I would tell you that we’ve been pretty calculated about how many reserve-minimum spots we were going to leave open for SuperDraft players for this 2021 season. There’s also a mechanism the league has instituted this year to make it more user-friendly for college players, knowing the nature of having to play this spring season, as opposed to the traditional season. In the past, we’ve always had a 31st player we could roster and go on season-long loan to the USL. That was Luke Haakenson last year. Not only do we still have the 31st player, they’re also going to allow us to sign potentially a 32nd and 33rd player as a concept that’ll allow you to sign those players to MLS contracts, and either have them stay in-market training but not on the active roster, or players that you can loan to USL. I think that kind of flexibility based on the uniqueness of COVID and the college season – the impression we’re given right now is for at least one year – have these extra roster spots to be able to sign those players, is what we’d take into account as we kind of look at how we’d use these college players and how we find a home for them.”
Do you have benchmarks in mind for offensive production?
“It’s interesting comparing the USL experience from Year One to Year Two. I remember talking to you at, I think the end of the first USL season and we talked about creating chances versus finishing chances. Whether I have a number or not that I think this group has to hit – we obviously benchmark them and we spend a lot of time working on KPIs or Key Performance Indicators – I think it’d be unfair for me to give numbers out, expectations, because I certainly don’t want to box players or the staff into corners.
“What I would tell you maybe rather than a hard number that you must hit or not hit for goals scored, I just feel like, maybe similar to a conversation we might have had years ago after Year One USL, I think my expectation is that we’re going to create chances this year at no worse or same level that we created the last month of the MLS season, which was really, really encouraging. You have objective and you have the subjective, and it’s not like it’s my opinion, it’s fact: we were scoring significantly more goals in that last month of the season compared not only to our team the first half of the season, but the rest of the league. Our expectation is to maintain those standards with more players now in the fray that can help create and finish scoring chances.”
What logistical factors had to go into the planning of this preseason?
“Drake, that’s a great question, and it’s an interesting perspective, because there’s so much uncertainty. Look, we still don’t have our game schedule yet for ’21. The idea of being able to pivot, to be flexible, I think it’s something that we all learned as a staff. I have to give a lot of credit to our team administrator, Jeff Robben, who I think did a really good job helping us be flexible and resourceful when we found out that we can go from spending our entire preseason in-market – which was the intended expectations – to then being permitted to travel. Both Jeff and Gary worked really diligently in trying to see what this team needs in getting ready for preseason, then for us it was helping try to execute that. The idea of spending time in-market, especially early on in preseason: even though most clubs travel during the first phase of preseason traditionally, I don’t think it’s too challenging to be in-market because it’s usually the first… usually you’d have two phases of preseason. Maybe the first phase would be 2.5-3 weeks, and your second phase would be 2.5-3 weeks, with a break in between.
“We’re doing this kind of in three phases, and the first phase traditionally really is about you. It’s about your team. It’s about getting fitter, developing more cohesion, working on things. Gary is an outstanding teacher when you think about team tactics as well as just a man-manager and a coach on he sidelines. That first phase I think is super important for him to spend time with his team. Opposed to doing that in Florida – last year we played one match during that first phase, on our last night – we’re really going to kind of mirror that from the standpoint that we’ll spend 2, 2.5 weeks here, really weith intensive training with the group from a fitness standpoint, from a tactical standpoint. We’ll play one match with a USL club the last night before we go down to Bradenton.
“The second phase – so it’ll be three phases, rather than two – the second phase will be match-heavy. This group in a two-week period will play four matches, probably Wednesday-Saturday. It seems like a lot, but as Chris touched on earlier, when you think about everything we went through last year, this group probably now is used to playing two games a week. This time of year we’re also – the analogy I use an awful lot – is like baseball with a pitch count. For those who follow the NBA, I know it’s like a four-letter word: people talk about ‘load management.’ The reality is, you’re really sensitive when you look at guys like Alex Muyl and Dax McCarty or Aníbal Godoy, guys can run 9-10-11 miles in a game over 90 minutes. It’s really hard to ask guys to do that twice in a week. I think at this stage of the season, you see a lot of a rotation, not only from one game to game, but I think it would not be uncommon to see Gary play almost in waves, different in combinations of players for 30 minutes at a time, building to 45 minutes at a time, building to 60 minutes at a time.
“And then when we come back from that second phase, we’ll have a third phase here that’ll be two weeks. Usually we have one week when we come back from Bradenton until the start of the regular season. This year we’ll have two weeks, so we’ll play one more game either here in-market or away the week before the season starts. But to go from not knowing what we were going to do as far as where we could go – in-market or out-of-market – to then being able to go out-of-market, to be resourceful and flexible, to have people like Gary and Jeff work so hard to try to find a way to accommodate what we need to do as far as getting matches out-of-market – which is very hard to do in-market when you think there’s not a lot of teams in proximity that you can play. So to be able to go to Florida and play those games, come back here, I think really give Gary everything he needs to have the right amount of time with his team to be ready for the regular season.”
How do you and Gary work together to evaluate and sign players?
“Hey Wes, that’s a great question. I think when you look at – whether it’s our sport or other sports – when you have a General Manager or Sporting Director and a manager or head coach where they don’t work together in that process, it’s almost always a recipe for failure. For us, we feel really strongly about the fact that we just never going to sign anybody unless Gary feels good about them.
“So when this process first starts, even before we start presenting players to Gary, we’ve got a really good idea about positional profiles. Gary sits down with Chance Myers and our scouting staff, Oliver Miller-Farrell and our analytics department, and we look really closely at what things Gary looks for in certain positions on the field. You take someone like Rodrigo, where he really can play any of the front four spots, but primarily as a direct winger, we ask Gary what are the qualities he’s looking for in a player in that role: technically, tactically, physically, and psychologically. The reality is there’s thousands of players all over the world to present to Gary, but rather than have a player that you might rate or I might rate, to me it matters less about what we like, and more about what fits the profile that Gary’s looking for in a specific position. To me, once we know what the attributes are that he’s looking for in a player, it then allows guys like Chance and Oliver and their departments to be able to scrub lists of players that they have either that they’ve been tracxking, that they have data on, that they think best fit the profile of what a player looks like that Gary’s looking for in that role.
“For us, Chance might come to me with 5-10 players, we then go to Gary with maybe 3-5 players, but by the time it gets to Gary, we have a really good idea about what we think he’s looking for in a player in that role, and I would say at that point, that’s where you look at Gary and say, ‘look now, based on these handful of players, which player or players do you think best fits what you’re looking for?’ For us, we’re looking for – specifically about someone like Rodrigo – he just fit the profile that we were looking for in a winger in our team. For those of you that have followed NSC for a while and have watched things that we try to add in certain roles, that can probably give you some insight into what Rodrigo looks like – not just physically or his height and his weight – but as far as the attributes he has. so Gary is intimately involved in that process.”
Jacobs (left) with club CEO Ian Ayre. Photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country