Smith eager to build Nashville Soccer Club

Friday, November 24, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 47
By John Glennon

Gary Smith is tasked with taking Nashville professional soccer from dream to reality, first in the United Soccer League and then, if all goes to plan, with a major League Soccer franchise.

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When the final whistle blew at last on that cold Toronto night in 2010, Gary Smith recalls the pure bedlam of the moment. He’d just guided underdog Colorado to a Major League Soccer championship, the seventh-seeded Rapids having stunned two higher seeds en route to claiming their first league title.

“It was just incredible, really,” Smith recalls. “There’s so much emotion that flies through you. We had players running all over the field, embracing one another. My wife and oldest daughter were at the game celebrating.

“You’ve had apprehension since before the game, wondering how it would all work out. Then for it to all culminate in you actually lifting some silverware afterward is a truly fabulous feeling.”

Seven years later, Smith finds himself on the opposite end of the timeline, the head coach of Nashville’s first professional soccer team, Nashville SC, as it readies for its inaugural 2018 season in the United Soccer League.

This is the team that – if the MLS awards Nashville an expansion franchise – will eventually transform into Music City’s club in North America’s top soccer league.

MLS is scheduled to announce two expansion cities in December, with Nashville considered a front-runner. But even if Nashville does secure an MLS bid, the team wouldn’t begin playing in that league until 2019 at the earliest.

The immediate focus is on Nashville SC’s team in the USL, a league one tier below the MLS.

Smith’s USL squad will first take the field in March of 2018, but some milestones toward that opener are fast approaching.

In just a couple of months, Nashville SC will begin its first training camp, preparing for a season that will include home games at First Tennessee Park.

In just a matter of days or weeks, however, the team’s first player signings are expected to be announced, culminating months of scouting by Smith and his staff. What was once just a concept will actually start to become reality, with names and numbers occupying a roster.

“It’s almost like the mist is starting to clear a little bit and now you can start to see a bit of what the team will look like,” Smith adds.

“Because part of a coach’s job is creating – in his mind – what the team will look like, how they want to play and some of the qualities he’s after. Then it’s about adding the right ingredients to make it work.

“So once you start adding those players that you can see mentally bringing certain aspects of your team to life, of course it’s much more exciting.”

“A fabulous pint”

Smith has spent most of the past several months settling his family in Middle Tennessee, scouting those future players and promoting Nashville SC.

But the Harlow, England, native has on a couple of occasions managed to find his way to The Pub Nashville, a British-inspired bar and restaurant located in The Gulch, where Smith can pay homage to his roots.

“They serve a fabulous pint of Guinness there,” Smith says of the Irish-brewed beer favored by the British. “I won’t say I’ve had a lot of Guinness in the U.S. But I’ve been at some different places where I’ve tried Guinness, and it doesn’t always travel or taste or look well if it’s not looked after. But they do a wonderful pint at the Pub.”

It was in England that Smith developed his passion for soccer, the son of parents born in Tottenham in North London.

He grew up so close to White Hart Lane, former stadium home to one of the English Premier League’s more storied teams, that he could hear the crowd cheering on Tottenham Hotspur from his backyard.

Smith would actually play his school-boy soccer in the system of Hotspur’s arch-rival, Arsenal, the EPL club he still cheers for to this day. He played professionally for a variety of teams, including Fulham, 1985-1997, before injuries – which included a compound fracture of his leg – curtailed his career.

A midfielder, Smith wasn’t a goal-scorer, but made his mark on the game with his intelligence, fitness and an aggressive style of play.

“I’d like to say I was competitive,” Smith recalls. “Others might describe it as a little bit uncompromising, and they would be the people that were speaking in very decent terms of me.

“I think most of all, I was just determined. I spent tireless hours making sure I was always in very good condition, very fit, very strong and ready for whatever the game would throw at me on a physical plane.”

“A tremendous amount of charisma”

Smith began coaching in his late 20s while in England, eventually moving across the ocean to the MLS’ Colorado Rapids as academy director for Arsenal, part of a worldwide development program for the team.

He would be named Colorado’s interim coach in 2007, took over as head coach in 2008 and guided the Rapids to the title in 2010.

It was also in Colorado that Smith met Nashville SC CEO Court Jeske, who was based there while working for the business side of MLS.

When Jeske first began to shape Nashville SC, he knew exactly who his choice was to be the team’s first coach. Smith had most recently been coaching the Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League, but that franchise had suspended operations in early 2016.

“Gary was the guy that I wanted,” Jeske points out. “First and foremost, he’s a good person. Again, he has the credentials and the pedigree. He is very deliberate in the way he’s building the sport here.

“He does have a tremendous amount of charisma, and he loves to tell us and remind us all the time that he was (recently named) one of Nashville’s 25 Most Beautiful People (by Nashville Lifestyles).

“When you can get all that and a truly pleasant English accent to go along with it, it helped me know we had the right man for the job.”

Smith may not have coached his first Nashville SC game yet, but he’s already making an impact on Middle Tennessee soccer.

Nashville SC last June partnered with the Tennessee State Soccer Association, an organization that boasts a membership of more than 50,000 soccer players – mostly youth – across the state.

As part of Nashville SC’s efforts to develop soccer in the state, the team is focusing on TSSA’s under-12 program, with Smith taking a leading role in the initiative.

“Gary got together with our player development coordinator, Bryan Johnson, and Gary quickly came up with a 42-week training program – with the different sessions and everything broken out,” explains Hans Hobson, the TSSA’s executive director. “The details on this thing are incredible. We were so impressed.

“As part of this program, Gary will come in and do a demonstration (at various sites across the state), and U-12 coaches will see it and then they actually put it into play across the state. To be able to have our USL head coach involved with our youth … what a tribute that is to what (Nashville SC) is doing over there.”

Following Sir Alex

It won’t be long now, though, before Smith will be turning his attention full-time toward his own team.

Expect Nashville SC’s players to have an average age of 24 or 25, and they’ll likely come from all over the country – those who participated in the various pro leagues of the U.S. last season, those who are leaving college, and perhaps some who played for Nashville’s Under-23 team in the Premier Development League last season.

It’s possible Nashville SC will have an advantage when it comes to luring players here, since there is the very real possibility of Music City stepping up to the MLS in years to come.

“If you’re a young player and we’re confirmed as an MLS franchise further down the line, you might look at that as a little further attraction,” Smith explains.

“But I think on this occasion, to gamble on what may or may happen, is unnecessary for us. So whenever I’ve spoken to the players that are coming here, what I’m keen to find out is: Do they want to be in Nashville? Do they want to play in a particular style and format I’m laying out for them? And are they excited by the future?

“If somebody’s saying money this, money that, or, ‘I’m only coming if you’ve got MLS,’ it tells me that really their heart’s not in being in Nashville, or being part of this excitement.”

Smith is looking forward to the start of training camp in January, when he’ll begin to shape his first Nashville SC team. In addition to implementing strategies and game-plans, Smith hopes to pass on to his players advice gained through his own experiences – as a player whose career was shortened due to injuries.

“I would say don’t pass up any days to continue to improve and to get better in your own game, without a shadow of a doubt,” Smith says.

“Because in my career, it ended all too quickly. The days come thick and fast when you’re a professional, and you get distracted by results, both for good and bad. You lose sight of the fact that the career doesn’t last that long.

“But secondly, make sure that when you are playing, that you do enjoy all the good times.”

Smith recalls the elation of winning that MLS title in 2010, but adds the feeling didn’t last all that long, replaced as early as the next day when Colorado had to start offseason work preparing for an upcoming expansion draft.

Along those lines, Smith thinks back to an article he once read about Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s legendary former manager, who said winning his many titles turned into a craving – a needing – of winning that many more.

Smith appreciates that desire.

“Only by winning that silverware,” Smith acknowledges, “do you get that feeling back again.”

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