Gary Smith’s Nashville legacy

NASHVILLE, TN – The Gary Smith era is over in Nashville, ending with a Thursday morning press release announcing that Nashville SC had parted ways with the only manager they’ve ever had.

Building from the ground up

The Englishman joined the organization in 2017, arriving in the Music City a full year before the club debuted in the USL Championship as the head coach and technical director to help build professional soccer in the city from the ground up. No roster, no support staff and mobile trailer outside of a K-12 school serving as the training center. Smith started things essentially from scratch.

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Smith joined a Nashville club already on a sharp upward trajectory. Hired as the club’s first head coach and technical director in April 2017, Major League Soccer awarded an expansion franchise to Nashville just eight months later, before Smith’s side ever set foot on the pitch. Two successful seasons in USL, with the foundations of the roster hand-built by Smith, marked by significant improvement in year two, earned Smith the job in Major League Soccer as Nashville entered the top flight of American soccer.

Unprecedented success

In MLS, Smith started with unexpected and unprecedented success. Weathering the 2020 gauntlet of an expansion year marred by a devastating tornado, Covid-19, the MLS is Back Tournament debacle, and resuming play in a cavernously empty Nissan Stadium, Smith was a steadying and calming presence.

The stable foundation he provided was the baseline for Nashville’s initial success, one of only four clubs in the expansion era to qualify for the playoffs in their first year. After a thumping 3-1 win over Inter Miami and a dramatic extra time upset over Toronto, Nashville fell in extra time to Columbus Crew in the Conference Semifinals, shocking MLS with a remarkable debut year.

The following seasons had plenty of highs. In 2021, the Coyotes scored 54 goals, the fifth-most in MLS, again advancing to the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

In 2022, they weathered a brutal eight-game road trip while moving to the Western Conference, again qualifying for the postseason after opening the 30,000 seat Geodis Park. Hany Mukhtar continued his development in 2022, winning the MLS Golden Boot and MVP awards in a stellar 23 goal, 11 assist campaign.

2023 saw Nashville start the season on Supporters’ Shield pace, winning 10 of their first 18 matches as Mukhtar’s red-hot form continued. 2023 also saw Nashville make a magical run to the Leagues Cup final, beating Liga MX giants Club América and CF Monterrey in the club’s most comprehensive performances ever. The month-long tournament was the standout moment of the club’s history, ultimately falling to Lionel Messi and Inter Miami in the 11th round of a heartbreaking penalty shootout.

And of course, the defensive solidity Smith immediately instilled was the identity of the club. In his four-and-a-half years, only Philadelphia conceded fewer than Nashville’s 1.04 goals allowed per game. His 2021 and 2023 teams were among the best defenses in the last decade, and until the mid-way point of 2023, no MLS team had a better defensive rate than Nashville’s 0.98 goals allowed per game. This solidity raised Nashville’s floor and set a high bar for whoever comes next.

Struggles to evolve and develop

The highs under Gary Smith were incredibly high. The lows were quite low.

Too often, players the club spent heavily on came to Nashville, stagnated, and left, only to improve once they left. Jhonder Cádiz, the club’s first DP No. 9, scored just five goals in 35 games. He’s currently the fourth-highest scorer in Portugal. Rodrigo Piñeiro, Nashville’s first U-22 initiative signing, was an absolute failure. He played 16 minutes in two appearances, publicly voicing his frustration with Smith before leaving after one year. His departure was never publicly acknowledged by the club. Most notably, Aké Loba, then the club-record signing, started two games and was a complete non-factor with the Coyotes (although his downward trend has continued since leaving Nashville last winter).

Most crucially, Nashville struggled to consistently develop young talent. During Smith’s tenure, Nashville had the second-oldest distribution of minutes, with young players generally struggling to break into the team and find consistent minutes. Some of this is certainly in part due to an overarching roster building philosophy, but much of the blame lies with Smith.

Some players certainly developed under Smith; Hany Mukhtar, Walker Zimmerman, Dave Romney, Alistair Johnson, Jacob Shaffelburg and others elevated their game in Nashville. But when it came to young, unproven attackers, his track record was less than stellar, particularly those from South and Central America. This limited Nashville’s ability to capitalize on a hub of talent that has been crucial to MLS’s recent strides.

The attack was one dimensional. Hany Mukhtar carried an unfair burden, scoring or assisting 58% of Nashville’s goals under Smith. The Coyotes attack finished in the bottom 10 of goals scored in two of Smith’s four full seasons, and were in the bottom 10 when Smith left. Smith consistently relied on crossing as the primary means of chance creation, one of the lower-percentage options in the game, and struggled to develop consistent patterns and rotations in the final third.

As Hany Mukhtar’s reputation grew, Nashville were unable to develop alternatives in the attack. Teams were able to effectively hone in on Mukhtar down the stretch of 2023 and into 2024, and Smith could never quite crack a formula to get his talisman back to top form.

By the end, the downward trend was too much to ignore. Smith’s once-elite defense was a shell of itself for the final half of 2023 and into 2024, conceding 36 goals in his final 29 games. Coupled with the spiraling attack, the drop was too much to overcome.

Smith was fired the morning after his 100th win in all competitions for Nashville SC. Zero playoff wins in his last two seasons. Six wins in his final 29 regular season matches was damning.

Smith’s legacy

Unfortunately, managers in soccer don’t usually get happy endings. It’s rare to see a head coach leave on their own terms. It’s much more common to see an early-morning press release unceremoniously announcing their “departure”, avoiding unpleasant words like “fired” or “terminated”, leaving the manager alone to take the fall for the shortcomings of an entire organization. It’s easier to move on from an underperforming coach than it is to turn over an underperforming roster. Smith was no exception.

Despite the sour note on which Smith’s seven years in Music City ended, his tenure has to be evaluated in its entirety. Guiding Nashville from an amateur team, through two successful years in USL, to one of the most successful starts an MLS expansion has had is no small feat.

Smith was the public face of a new club in a crowded market, handling often ill-informed or naïve questions from a media market new to soccer with patience and grace on a weekly basis. Even during the final 10 months of his tenure, when results were poor and pressure grew, he continued to handle his media duties with class.

Soccer in Nashville will be forever linked with Smith, who took the team fully into its professional era and built a foundation for long-term success. As MLS continues to grow and develop, it’s time for Nashville SC to evolve from 1.0 to 2.0. But in the rapid and rabid demand for results and progress, history is so often overlooked and discarded in search of what’s next. As Nashville moves on from Smith, it’s paramount for a club that is still building its culture and identity to remember the standard and foundation he set for the future.

Gary Smith leaves Nashville soccer in a much better place than where he found it.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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