Photo by Tim Sullivan/Club and Country
Thursday afternoon, Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs and club CEO Ian Ayre unveiled Designated Player Aké Loba. Watch or read their full comments from the Ivorian’s introductory press conference here:
What does it mean to complete this signing?
Ayre: “Well I think – we’ve been doing this a little while now – and I think when Mike and I and our owners talked right at the start of our journey in MLS, one of the things we said was that we would build the roster gradually and thoughtfully. And Aké was somebody that, even way back then almost just as we were getting going, came on the radar. Unfortunately at that time, we couldn’t make that happen, and I think it’s great testament to Mike and his team, and everyone involved that we stuck at it, we kept our powder dry to some degree, and here we are today with him sat between us. I think that says a lot about being thoughtful and taking your chances at the right time, rather than diving in when things don’t work. We all feel very excited about having him here.
What was the scouting journey like to find and ultimately sign him?
Jacobs: “It seems like it wasn’t that long ago, we were sitting in a restaurant in Querétaro. We watched Aké play, and when the match was over, we visited together. What was interesting was that first match, where Chance Myers, our chief scout, who’s done a great job – him and his staff – of vetting candidates went to watch Aké live. In our sport, it’s not uncommon that players get rotated, and the match he went to, Aké didn’t start. So we thought to ourself, ‘we flew all the way here, and the guy’s not going to play.’ The team’s down at the half, he comes on at halftime, and scored two goals in the second half, and absolutely took the game and turned it on its head. As we were watching, we saw the things that he did on the ball: his clinical finishing. Off the ball: his ability to run past players. We just felt he was the ideal-type player, not only for our league, but for Gary’s system.
“After visiting and spending time with him, we just felt he was the right kind of person, character to be a foundational piece for our club.”
Why are Nashville and MLS a good fit for you?
Loba’s answers are all given in Spanish. They were translated live, but I’ve provided precise translations from the audio.
Loba: “First, I chose Nashville because the leadership demonstrated they value me, they demonstrated they truly fit me. Because it’s been like two years that they looked for me, the opportunity was presented, and I had no doubt about coming here: I took advantage of it and I’m here.”
What portions of his game make this player such a good fit for Gary Smith’s system?
Jacobs: “Aké’s ability to not only play as a 9 [lone striker], but – we talk a lot about, in all the players we’re looking for, being versatile and flexible, being able to play a variety of different roles, but also in different systems – where he is most comfortable playing on the back-shoulder of centerbacks, trying to get in-behind, he’s got tremendous pace to be able to threaten defenses, he can also play in front of a centerback as a traditional target. He can play off a center-forward in a pair, he can play by himself as a lone 9, he can play on the left and come inside on his right foot. So I think he has that flexibility and versatility that we look for in players.
“But also, I think as you’ve seen, in our creative and dynamic attacking players like Randall, Like Hany, we want guys that work on both side of the ball. You only have to see the game in CCL [Concacaf Champions League] when he scored against Columbus, you know, that all started with his ability to press the ball and win it back, and create transitional actions. I just think the way he plays really fits what Gary looks for in players all over the field, specifically for attacking players.”
What has changed in the past year to allow this deal to get completed when that didn’t happen a year ago?
Jacobs: “What was interesting about the pursuit the first time around was that we actually lost out. You know, we made a bid, and Monterrey actually outbid us. So, it’s not necessarily a situation where you pick and choose what you want to do: it’s to the highest bidder. The fact that maybe we lost out on our primary target, we looked at other alternatives. It was one of those things where we always kind of hoped it’d come around again. When Minnesota had signed [Emmanuel] Reynoso, there was an article talking about maybe a year-and-a-half pursuit of him. I’m turning to Chance and saying, ‘it’d be amazing to think if we’re talking about a story like that for Aké,’ maybe like the story hadn’t been written yet for us.
The fact that I had connected with Duilio Davino, the Sporting Director of Monterrey, made sure he knew of our interest in Aké, and gave us almost like: ‘OK, at any point, if you’re thinking of maybe moving on or potentially selling him, we would love to talk to you and explore that.’ And I think that opportunity came around a second time, really I have to give a lot of credit to both Ian, and to our ownership with John Ingram for having the confidence and faith in us identifying the right player, as well as the ability to invest and commit to doing what we had to secure his signature.”
What was the pursuit of Loba like from an administrative end, as well as dealing with a club like Monterrey?
Ayre: “Look, I think when we started out, we were hugely ambitious for Nashville. I think one of the things that people have been complimentary about is the way we’ve gone about our business generally in the last year and a half, and whether we’re dealing with Monterrey or anyone else, I think the deals are always kind of the same. Whether it’s between Mike and I, we have a lot of experience across lots of leagues and lots of countries, and lots of players: the deals are always kind of the same.
“I think you have to be respectful of the three parties: the player and his agent, ourselves, and then the club you’re buying from. I think we were very fortunate last night to have dinner with Aké and his agents, and it was a great get-together. I think it spoke volumes of the way we go about our business. We’ve said at this soccer club that we want to be respectful and be respected. Sometimes that’s difficult when you’re in the heat of a negotiation, but if you do it in the right way – and Monterrey’s a very established and well-known club – and I think the people at Monterrey, the agents, Aké, everybody felt good, and ourselves about the process.
“I think as long as we operate in that way as we go forward – you know, we’ve had to be tough in this process at times – and it’s a bit of a game as always, but we feel very pleased with the outcome.”
What has been your experience and impression with Major League Soccer, including matches against Columbus Crew in Concacaf Champions League?
Loba: “First, I believe that MLS is a league that is very good for most-all incoming international players who come to play here. I believe it’s a dense league, where there’s plenty of strength. And in regards to the game against Columbus, it was a good game for me, and for the team. Because we played away and took a point, but I saw the team very well, and so I thought that I learned that this league is a true competition to which I can contribute plenty.”
You’ve talked a lot about wanting this club to represent Nashville. How does a major signing like this help you get closer to that goal?
Ayre: “I think, for me, in some ways, it’s similar to the journey we saw in USL, where we gradually approached it. I said that earlier: I think it’s impossible – it’s my first time at an expansion club, so I would imagine it’s kind of impossible – to put all of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together in one go.
“We were very clear – our owner John Ingram and the board – at the start that the support would be there, the investment would be there for the right opportunities. And I think we did some fantastic work in the last 18 months in building the roster we already have prior to this signing. But we’ve always been conscious that we would keep adding and keep developing and changing some pieces out. I think this is a big step forward. It’s obviously our biggest signing, and a designated player.
“But I think it’s doesn’t stop here, you know? We’ll keep assessing the squad; we’ll keep assessing the opportunities, and we’ll keep moving the pieces around the board, really. But I think it says a lot about the ambition of the club, I think if you look at the start we’ve had – look at the season we had last year and look at the start we’ve had this year – and add in somebody like Aké at this point in the season, which is fantastic, gives us a chance to make another step forward. That’s not to put any more pressure than is already on everybody than is every game, but it shows real ambition, and I think he’ll fit really well into the group, and I think everyone including our fans will be excited to see him come out to join this group.”
Has the early success of the club on the field – including the opportunity to move to second in the East with a win [narrator: this did not happen] sped up the timetable for investment from ownership into things like the roster?
Ayre: “Mike can answer as well. I think for me, we’ll never make a signing on the basis of where we are in the table today. We’ll make our signings based on really well thought-through, hard work and opportunity. And this was a combination of both: the hard work that Mike and his team put in continuing to look not just at Aké but at other opportunities, and always saying that when the right opportunity rises up, we’ll go to the well and we’ll dig deep and we’ll find what we need to get our man.
“And that’s what happened here, but it happened because of opportunity, rather than league position. Our ambition will always be there. It’s just about, ‘does the right player or the right opportunities present themselves?’ and if they do. As Mike said – again, both of us have experience with this – sometimes you just don’t get what you want, and it’s not because you don’t try hard enough or put enough money on the table sometimes; it’s just the way it it. But I’m really pleased that this is a great example of keeping at it.
“We could have gone in a different direction in the last 18 months or two years. We certainly looked at those other opportunities, and never felt that anything was quite right. Here we are with getting what we wanted.”
Jacobs: “I feel like it’s a process. For us, we’re always evaluating the players that we have Our goal from the very beginning was to be as competitive as possible in the matches we’re playing. I had a friend today reference the fact that with a win today, joint second in points, and obviously I appreciate that, but I couldn’t tell you who was second place last year after 12 games. So the reality is, we just keep moving along.
“As Ian said, I keep not only evaluating the pieces we have, but keep adding where they’re needed. It’s an ongoing process of us evaluating our group. Adding Aké was the right time, and I think for us, it’s important to make sure that, not just that Ian and I have poker faces, but I think that we can remain calm and not get too high when we win, and not get too low when we lose, because it’s still very, very early in the season.”
With a stacked striker depth cart, do you have a chip on your shoulder in terms of proving yourself?
Loba: “El fútbol is not just what is here: to treat and show who individuals are, but contribute as we must for the team. So I came to contribute however I can to grow the team and and to grow my teammates as well. Because one person cannot do everything. So together, we’re going to do many things well, and we will win many things.”
How does the financial consideration of the international slot ($230k GAM to Portland) play into this signing?
Jacobs: “The price for the international spot, the market value dictates that: we don’t dictate it and Portland doesn’t dictate it. The reality is, with COVID making it harder to flip green cards this Summer versus years past – someone like Randall Leal who has everything set to get a green card, we just can’t get him an appointment at the embassy in Costa Rica – we’re not the only team, not only in Costa Rica but with other embassies in other nations having the same issue.
“So I talked to other General Managers around the league, and the feeling was the market was dictating an increase in price for international spots during the Summer. For what it’s worth, not only was the last international spot – before we purchased one – also sold at $230,000, I actually had another team try to hold a gun to our head and ask for $300,000 for an international spot.
“So for us, we’re also in a situation where – I talk about this all the time with our staff, about the exercise: In the past, Ian’s talked about when he signed [Roberto] Firmino at Liverpool, people say he spent too much money. Now nobody says that. For us, the exercise was get Aké sorted out, whatever we had to do. So the fact that we were able to get an international spot, maybe it was a little more than last Summer, but right at market value we felt good about the fact that we didn’t get our pants pulled down. But I also think about the fact that the exercise was getting him sorted out and having him sitting here, and we wouldn’t have gotten that done if we didn’t have an international spot.”
Have you followed Nashville SC at al over the past couple years, thanks to knowing that they were tracking you?
Loba: “I believe that I don’t know the face of every player, but from there, I watched a lot. I know that there are plenty of talented players here, and I have respect for every player as I arrive. I was impressed with the welcome that they gave me. They’re incredible players, and I believe we’re going to come together very well.