“It was a very, very deflating time,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said on Thursday, speaking publicly for the first time since Nashville was withdrawn from the MLS is Back tournament after nine players tested positive for Covid-19.
Nashville has endured a rocky start to their time in Major League Soccer. Entering the league in 2020 as an expansion side, the Boys In Gold fell to Atlanta United 2-1 in front of 59,000 fans at Nissan Stadium in their MLS debut. Two days later, devastating tornadoes swept through the city, damaging the homes of several players. Nashville went on the road that weekend, falling 1-0 to Portland Timbers despite dominating large stretches of the match. The 2020 season was suspended four days later.
Their withdrawal from the MLS is Back tournament was understandably a blow to fans who had been waiting for four months to see their team play. The players and staff were no less devastated.
“To a man, staff and players were adamant that they wanted to continue,” said Smith. “They were adamant as though they had enough bodies, they were in a good enough place physically to deal with the rigors of the games that were going to be thrown at us.”
The disappointment in Orlando is in the review mirror now, though. Nashville are back in market, training for a return to the field in the near future.
“I don’t know an awful lot more than I did, probably, as we went into the tournament in Orlando,” said Smith. “The picture that had been created for me… was a home and away schedule that would possibly see us play nine home games and nine away games. To this point, that’s really what I’m working on.” Smith pointed out that none of the plans had been set in stone by the league, but that the start date was tentatively proposed for the second or third week in August.
“We’re very much into what can only be described as a third preseason for the group,” admitted Smith. The four months between matches pre-tournament was over twice as long as a typical MLS offseason, and if Nashville do play in mid-August, they’ll have gone five months between games.
“A big part of our preparation now has to be a real building process of getting the guys’ minds back on track and focused. Physically, we’re working through those levels and those foundations that can offer us the best possible opportunity to compete… It’s not an easy environment or position to be in, but it’s one that we all understand, and realize that if we’re going to get any form of success out of this season or enjoyment, then we’ve got to be ready again come the middle of August.”
With the tournament nearing the end of the group stage, Nashville will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. The rest of the league (save Dallas, also withdrawn due to Covid) will have played at least five matches. Nashville will have played two.
Smith has nearly a full roster at his disposal today, with only a couple players currently out of training due to injury. With a few weeks left before they’ll play again, having a fully fit squad will be a huge boost for the new outfit.
“I think with a month to prepare, we’re going to be in a really good place,” Smith affirmed. “I will be certainly putting out the most competitive and the most productive team on any given day. If that means that there are players that get an opportunity that might not have come before, then that’s great for the squad, of course.”
It will certainly be an uphill battle. Playing against sides with plenty of prior experience was always going to be a challenge. Factor in the five months off and disappointing stay in isolation in Orlando, and it’s not ideal.
“I am more than comfortable with every player that we’ve got in this squad,” Smith concluded. “When all is said and done, I think we all want to see this remaining period of the season get under way and completed. 18 games certainly would feel like a real win for us at this point if we could get it going.”