How hot is Gary Smith’s seat heading into the 2024 season?

Nashville SC begins its 2024 campaign on Thursday with a trip to the Dominican Republic to square off against Moca FC. The occasion marks NSC’s debut in the newly revamped Concacaf Champions Cup, the club’s first appearance in continental competition. 

The Boys in Gold earned this privilege on the back of its exhilarating 2023 Leagues Cup run. While that month produced a the most magical moments in club history, what followed left a bitter taste in many mouths. In the return to league play, Nashville managed just two wins in its final ten matches before they limped out of the playoffs with consecutive 1-0 defeats to Orlando City. 

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For some supporters, the ending to the 2023 season erased a lot of the goodwill from the Leagues Cup run and left a lot of questions as to the future of Gary Smith as manager of Nashville SC.    

Temperature check 

Heading into the 2024 season, it is worth looking back on the pulse of the fan base exiting the 2023 season. 

In Broadway Sports’ annual postseason fan survey, over 350 Nashville SC supporters voiced their feelings toward Gary Smith. Among the group, 59.1% of respondents voted that they believed Gary Smith should not be retained. For a majority of respondents, the temperature of Gary Smith’s seat has already risen beyond an acceptable level.

Beyond the disappointment of last season’s results, the usual complaints regarding Gary Smith’s tactical style rang out. Even for those who thought Smith should be retained, nearly two-thirds of those voters responded that they did not enjoy Nashville SC’s style of play.

That is inherently the cost of a pragmatic style. It can be forgiven when times are good and the wins are plenty. However, as soon as the points dry up, the criticism toward conservative play will always amplify. 

The talisman’s thoughts

It is not just fans who are frustrated. 

Last month, Hany Mukhtar voiced his opinions regarding Nashville’s principles of play. In what has seemingly become a yearly ritual, Nashville’s talisman told reporters that he thought that Nashville must become better at playing with the ball.  

A year ago, Nashville made a concerted effort to play with a bit more aggression to start the 2023 season. A shift to a midfield diamond and occasional high pressing, especially on goal kicks, helped to dial up the pressure on opposing backlines. Gary Smith has made comments this preseason that seem to suggest that a similar approach may be in order for 2024. 

However, for any additional amount of pressing, I’m not quite sure Nashville made meaningful strides in its ability to “play with the ball.” The club has continued to struggle to break opposing teams down when they sit into compacted lines. There is little doubt that Nashville can punish teams on the counter or on set-pieces, but there is a real struggle when NSC is trailing by a goal and the opponent is happy to concede the possession battle. 

This is the weakness that Mukhtar identified. 

To fix this deficiency, Gary Smith will need to innovate who he is as a coach and the attacking patterns that Nashville relies on when the opposition is content with compelling the Coyotes to break them down. If Smith can develop these patterns and get Nashville’s attack humming, this team can compete for trophies. If not, it is fair to wonder where this club is headed.   

Can Smith survive a slow start?

Given the poor finish to last season, could Gary Smith survive a slow start to 2024?

Last season provided an interesting test case for long-time managers clinging on despite a disastrous beginning to a season. During a 10-match winless streak to start the year, Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes faced the strongest calls yet to step down from his 15-year tenure as head coach. SKC decided to stick it out and turned their season around as several key pieces returned from injury. 

Could Gary Smith survive a similar 10-match winless streak or otherwise poor start to the 2024 season? 

On one hand, Smith does not possess the same cache as Vermes. Sporting won the 2013 MLS Cup and three iterations of the U.S. Open Cup under Vermes. While Smith does have a MLS Cup to his name, his win 14 years ago with the Colorado Rapids will mean very little to Nashville supporters craving their first title. 

Additionally, Vermes’ dual roles as both the manager and SKC’s chief soccer officer embeds him even deeper into the club. To remove him would require a massive organizational overhaul that is difficult to achieve midseason. 

On the other hand, Gary Smith is the only manager Nashville SC has ever known. From the USL days to MLS, the on-field ethos of the club has been made entirely in his image. Smith may not have the same power as someone like Vermes. But, it is hard to argue that he is not just as much ingrained into the fabric of the club.  

From the top down, Nashville SC, as an organization, has valued experience and stability. Regardless of fans’ feelings, the smart money is on Gary Smith remaining the coach of Nashville SC through at least the end of the 2024 season. 

Nashville supporters seem to understand this as well. Even if a majority of survey respondents are ready to move on from Smith, there is a real recognition that the club will react more slowly and cautiously toward any seismic shift in the club’s structure.

A big year for the future of the club

Regardless of whether or not you believe Nashville SC would ever make a midseason change in management, the 2024 season stands out as a crossroads for the club. 

Entering its fifth season, NSC is now well past the days of plucky expansion side. By MLS standards, Nashville has graduated into an established club. The Coyotes came agonizingly close to its first-ever title last season, falling to Inter Miami in the Leagues Cup Final. With that taste of success, supporters are ready for the full meal. 

Only three managers have been at the helm of their respective clubs longer than Gary Smith: Brian Schmetzer (Seattle), Jim Curtin (Philadelphia), and the aforementioned Peter Vermes. Each of those three men have won at least one title with their current club. 

If at the end of the 2024 season Nashville has drifted further away from its goal of lifting its first trophy, it is fair to wonder if seat becomes too hot for Gary Smith to continue as manager of Nashville SC. 

Author: Chris IveyChris is a senior writer covering Nashville SC. His writings focus on the team at large and often navigate the complexity of roster building around the myriad of MLS rules. Outside of Broadway Sports Media, Chris resides in Knoxville and is a licensed attorney. Beyond NSC, he is always willing to discuss Tennessee football and basketball, Coventry City, and USMNT. Follow Chris on Twitter

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