Each week, we spotlight one USL club, looking at the history of the club, the players, the fans, and the prospect of success in the near or distant future.
If you missed the previous Spotlights, catch up:
Home Ground: First Tennessee Park; Nashville, Tennessee
Manager: Gary Smith
2017 Finish: Did Not...Exist
Nickname: None (Yet!)
Despite my lack of playing time, I have only scored one USL goal fewer than Nashville SC have managed in their entire history. Granted, I have existed roughly 23 years longer than the upstart Tennessee club, but the point still stands. On May 19, 2016, Nashville’s USL side was announced. On March 31, 2018, they scored their first -- and thus far, ONLY -- regular season goal.
Their origin story involves some confusing and convoluted steps. In 2013, Nashville founded a supporter-owned NPSL side, Nashville FC. One of the club’s former chairmen, Marcus Whitney, teamed up with a pair of health care moguls to form the core ownership group which was granted the rights to found a new USL franchise. When the USL side was established, they purchased the name, logo, and colors from the lower league club, which disbanded shortly thereafter.
However, in March of 2017, nearly a year after the club’s founding but over a year before its first competitive match, John Ingram swooped in an purchased a majority stake in Nashville SC. This name may be familiar, as he is also the man who presented (and eventually won) a bid for Nashville to house the MLS’s 24th franchise. It’s unclear how the USL and MLS sides will be related at this point, but the foundation has been laid, at least in the boardroom, for a solid bond between the clubs.
PUTTING THE SOCCER IN SOCCER CLUB
Moving on now, the business out of the way. The club exists on paper. Only problem is that paperwork alone can’t actually play a match. At least I don’t think so. Pretty certain paperwork can’t put on shin guards, which is definitely against the rules. So, they need to build a squad. From scratch. But businessmen aren’t known for their scouting prowess, so first, a coach!
April 12, 2017: Gary Smith is named manager and technical director of Nashville SC. At this moment in time, the 2010 MLS Cup champion is manager of precisely zero players. It would be nine months before the club would make their first signing, a metaphorical (and, by the timeline, literal) gestation period for Smith to birth a scouting strategy.
November brought a perfectly balanced 4v4 team to Nashville. In goal, and with only the slightest hint of nepotism, was Matt Pickens, the goalkeeper which had led Smith’s Colorado Rapids to MLS Cup glory at the turn of the decade. Sitting in front of him was another man of championship match pedigree, albeit as a two-time bridesmaid. Defender Oumar Ballo joined from Swope Park Rangers, just over two weeks after the final whistle was blown at their second straight USL Championship defeat. Providing the creative spark in the midfield was Matt Lagrassa, formerly of Reno 1868 FC. His 1,783 passes in 2017 were third-most in the USL, but not one of them was to the final inaugural signing, forward Robin Shroot. The Northern Irish international came to Nashville by way of the Norwegian second division, where he had managed just over a goal every two matches over the course of three seasons. With a name like that, it’d be criminal if he played anywhere but up top.
PLAYING THE GAME
So, with the building blocks in place, a further three-and-a-half months of team building brought us to the moment of truth. Game one. The creation of years of figurative blood, literal sweat, and who knows what kind of tears was finally ready to be put to the test.
The result? A respectable two-nil loss to defending champions Louisville City FC. Yeah, as great as it would be for the narrative, it’s tough to write off a side that managed to hold 2017’s second-most potent home offense goalless for over 60 minutes.
And the Nashville defense has been putting in work. In the two weeks since that opening day defeat, they’ve managed two clean sheets, including a nil-nil draw in their home opener against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
18,922 supporters came out for the inaugural match and were treated to a night of celebration, revelry, and an incredibly dull defensive stalemate. The offense was yet to start firing on all cylinders.
Two weeks, no goals. Not terrible signs, but fans can be impatient. ‘Tis a fickle game. All this tension would be broken, however, on March 31 in Bethlehem. In the third minute, a long ball over the top saw Michael Cox turn on the jets and slip behind the Steel defense. With no one left between Cox and the goal, defender Brandon Aubrey did what he had to do and pulled the forward down inside the box, resulting in a red card for Aubrey and a penalty for Nashville.
Only one problem: Cox was quite clearly outside the box, and it should never have been a penalty. No matter, let’s not rain on their parade.
With the cool and collected confidence of a man who knew he had just been blessed by the referee’s poor depth perception, Michael Cox placed the ball on the 12-yard spot. A hop, skip, and a soft dink to the corner opposite the outstretched Jake McGuire later, Cox had delivered the ultimate gift to the city of Nashville. It took 186 minutes, but Nashville SC scored a goal.
This talismanic goal would prove to be enough, and Nashville SC left Pennsylvania with all three points. The victory was not without its ups and downs, however. Despite the man advantage, clear cut chances were just about even between the two sides. Alan Winn will hope to find his composure; the forward was denied by Jake McGuire on two separate breakaway attempts. On the other end, poor marking on set pieces led to multiple opportunities for Bethlehem to find an equalizer, but Pickens was up to the task in goal.
Now with a goal under their belt and four points to their name, Nashville SC find themselves in seventh in the Eastern Conference. Smith’s 5-3-2 formation seems to be providing a solid defensive foundation, but they need goals to support them. With Shroot looking short of fitness (subbed off before the 60th minute in each of the first two matches and unused in the third), Cox and Winn will have to step up and start banging them in. It seems they’re still trying to find a rhythm in Music City.
Saturday, April 7 vs. Charlotte Independence; 8:30 PM EDT
All USL matches are streamed live on the league’s Youtube channel at www.youtube.com/user/USLPRO
Author: Busby Cagle