Gary Smith’s introductory press conference as Nashville SC’s MLS head coach.
The men sat at a table inside First Tennessee Park, a new logo behind them and The Official Soccer Ball of Major League Soccer® on a stand in front of them. They shuffled and rearranged their little stacks of paper. There was probably nothing written on the sheets.
Nashville Soccer Club CEO Ian Ayre announced that not only would Gary Smith be continuing as the club’s coach for the remainder of its time in USL, but Smith would be the man leading the club into a brave new era as its first head coach when MLS arrived less than a year later. For at least the first three years of its existence as a club of professionals, Nashville SC would know just one man* as the master of the touchline. The man of the hour adjusted his tie and made sure his pin was pointed in the right direction – the logo had only represented Nashville SC for two weeks, after all. His boss spoke.
“It isn’t just about the soccer side in terms of the players,” Ayre said. “The relationship that Gary’s developed over the last year or so with our supporters in Nashville is truly outstanding, and most importantly the relationship that he has with our front office at Nashville Soccer Club.”
This… wasn’t necessarily the most popular move at the time. That probably played a role in the slight awkward vibe among the men at the podium.
Smith won the 2010 MLS Cup as the headman with the Colorado Rapids, but by the end of the next season had been shown the door with a 45-40-37 record (1.41 points per game) in three years at the helm. Stints back in England with Stevenage and in NASL with the Atlanta Silverbacks went worse. A 12-9-13 record in his first USL season saw the Boys in Gold sneak into the final slot in the USL’s Eastern Conference playoffs. It didn’t exactly inspire parades and visions of championships in the future.
What a different a couple years can make.
Only a touch of bad luck prevented NSC from taking the top spot in the Eastern Conference in its final USL campaign. While the ultimate second-round loss in the playoffs was a disappointment, the fanbase wasn’t too upset – there were brighter days and a bigger league on the immediate horizon.
Of course, with a “moneyball” approach of sorts – as fellow expansion club Inter Miami CF spent… and spent… and spent on its roster – expectations for Nashville were meager. The typical quote from General Manager Mike Jacobs was some variation on “when you see two MLS teams playing, we hope you can’t tell that we’re the expansion team.” Call it standards-lowering, setting a bar that could be cleared easily, or a lack of confidence in what the squad would be able to accomplish (though certainly only a true cynic would say it was the last choice there), but at the very least, it didn’t exactly indicate that Nashville SC was hoping to play in the MLS Cup Final last season.
Enter the tornado(s), enter a global pandemic, and suddenly NSC’s expansion season saw more adversity than any team had ever faced – or quite frankly, ever will.
In the face of all that, Smith’s team thrived. A rough start and then a hard pause, Pandemic-related disappointment as the team withdrew from the MLS is Back tournament. A more-crowded schedule than any other team in the league. A climb to seventh in the final table. A dominating win and then an upset in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Taking the eventual champion to the brink in the conference semifinals.
You’d be hard-pressed to say Smith’s tenure has been perfect. But you’d find similar difficulty claiming he didn’t earn more time at the helm.
“In a coach you always seek that ability to manage players individually and at the same time bring them together as a team on the pitch to get results,” Ayre said. “Gary has shown his ability to do that effectively and successfully, and in the toughest of years. We are delighted that he will continue to manage our team as we continue this MLS journey.”
Nashville SC’s roster didn’t get a massive overhaul moving from its inaugural MLS season into the sophomore campaign. The club has picked and chosen to add names both exciting and under-the-radar. The old standby of a league vet experienced in the ways of MLS. In a nutshell: the types of moves we’ve seen General Manager Mike Jacobs make throughout the course of his time helping shape the teams that Smith goes on to guide.
May the long-term results follow the same upward trajectory that has been established in Smith’s time thus far in Music City.