Nashville SC’s offseason, so far, has yet to produce the fireworks of heralded arrivals. The trade for Fafà Picault and the exercising of Jacob Shaffelburg’s purchase option headlined a relatively quiet winter.
While supporters eagerly await a splash signing from Mike Jacobs and company, the club has been busily building out a roster for Huntsville City FC.
Huntsville City, the reserve team for Nashville SC, begins play this year in MLS NEXT Pro. Fielding a second team requires mapping out uncharted territory for the club and supporters alike.
While Robbie Alsentzer made the inquiry that spurred this article, I have fielded similar questions from other supporters this offseason. So, let’s break down how contracts work for Huntsville City and how the two clubs will interact throughout the season.
About Huntsville City and MLS NEXT Pro
First, a quick primer on MLS NEXT Pro. The league began play in 2022, primarily as a reserve league for MLS clubs. One independent team, Rochester New York FC, competes in MLS NEXT Pro with a couple of other independent teams in the pipeline to join in 2024 and 2025.
The principal purpose of MLS NEXT Pro is to bridge the gap between the academy and the first team while also helping to build overall depth.
Previously, MLS clubs approached this step of professional development in a disjointed fashion. Some clubs fielded reserve sides that competed in the USL Championship and USL League One. While others, including Nashville, opted to utilize loan moves to find developmental opportunities for its young players.
Now, with its own reserve team, Nashville can continue to develop draftees and eventual academy graduates through an in-house reserve team rather than an outside club.
The roster rules governing Huntsville City
League officials designed MLS NEXT Pro with flexibility in mind. Gone are the byzantine roster rules of MLS’s top division. Comparatively, the roster guidelines for MLS NEXT Pro read like a children’s book.
There is no salary cap, contract maximum, or age limit. Teams are permitted seven international slots. Theoretically, if a club secured a green card for them, an MLS NEXT PRO club could field a roster entirely of Messis and Ronaldos and never violate a roster rule. But of course, that would defeat the purpose of a reserve team.
A club can register up to 35 players, here is how those roster slots break down.
- 24 roster slots (1-24): may be filled with professional players. These roster slots include International and Domestic players, and players on loan.
- 11 roster slots (25-35): may be filled with amateur players. There shall be a maximum of five (5) MLS NEXT youth academy players per team on the field during an official match.
A player may participate as an amateur (academy) player, provided that:
- he is under the age of 21 before the official start of the season;
- he has not competed in any college or university soccer programs;
- he has never been signed or recognized as a professional player as defined by the NCAA or FIFA; and
- he currently plays, or previously played, for the Club’s MLS NEXT academy, or for a team which has a documented affiliation with the Club.
Reading the rules is one thing, but let’s examine the likely interplay between Nashville SC and Huntsville City.
Huntsville as a developmental destination
Immediately, supporters will notice how short-term loans to Huntsville City will be utilized as a means to aid development and provide game minutes to keep players in form.
Last year, Nashville sent Ahmed Longmire and Josh Bauer on loan to the USL Championship to gain valuable match experience. It required the two young center-backs to depart Nashville and forced them to adapt to different coaching staffs and tactics that may run counter to what would be asked of them by Gary Smith.
Loans to USL aren’t flexible, though. While Nashville retains the right to recall players from their loans at any point, those same players can’t be sent back out on loan when Nashville no longer needs them. For example, once Nashville brought back goalkeeper Elliot Panicco midseason last year, he was back in Nashville for good.
With a reserve team two hours down the road, Nashville can keep its promising developmental pieces in Nashville training each day with the senior team, sending them down to Alabama for weekend matches while having them available for the first team if needed.
Keeping Longmire and Bauer close to the first team became all the more important after last night’s news.
After Dave Romney’s reported departure, there will come a time in the 2023 season when Gary Smith needs one, if not both of them, to step up. Before that day arrives, playing time with the first team may be tough to come by. In the meantime, Nashville can continue to develop Longmire and Bauer through short-term loans to Huntsville City.
A step up for members of Nashville SC’s academy
The same is true for Nashville’s academy players. After all, MLS NEXT Pro was designed to bridge the gap between the U17 team residing at Currey Ingram Academy and the first team making its home at GEODIS Park.
Nashville will soon make its first-ever homegrown signing from its nascent academy. In particular, Eli Wachs (MF), Alejandro Velazquez Lopez (MF), and Adem Sipic (ST) have garnered praise from the club and outside sources.
If any of these academy starlets sign their first professional contract, it will be with Huntsville City rather than with Nashville SC. It will be an important step in their development as soccer players. Even if that professional contract is not presented until the end of the year, any member of Nashville’s academy can still make their debuts with Huntsville as part of the 11 roster slots permitted to amateur players.
A means for maintaining sharpness and building fitness
With MLS NEXT Pro, the only limit on the number of loaned players from the senior club to the reserve side is 24, the upper limit of professional players that can be registered to the MLS NEXT Pro side.
Now, Nashville is not going to loan 24 players at once to Huntsville. However, you may be surprised at how many could make the bus trip down I-65.
The Colorado Rapids provided an example this past season of how MLS clubs can spring a surprise in how to utilize their MLS NEXT Pro affiliate. On June 8th, Colorado Rapids 2 fielded an entire starting roster of first-team players against St. Louis CITY SC in an MLS NEXT Pro match.
The match fell in the middle of the June international window with the senior team on a three-week hiatus between games. Rather than schedule an intra-squad scrimmage or a closed-door friendly, the Rapids were able to utilize its MLS NEXT Pro club to keep the first team fresh and in form.
Nashville could do the same during the September international window. The club’s schedule includes an 18-day gap between games. A one-match loan to Huntsville City could be in the cards for several higher-profile members during the September break.
Beyond keeping guys in form, Huntsville is also a likely destination to build back a player’s fitness as part of the rehabilitation process after an injury.
The addition of five substitutes across the soccer world has been beneficial for finding cameo appearances to aid players in their return from injury. However, there remains a need to find low-risk opportunities to get a player match fit prior to being sent back out with the first team.
I predict that we will see at least one senior member of Nashville SC make a short pit stop in Huntsville to rebuild their fitness by the end of 2023.
Short-term signings from Huntsville
The roster movement between Nashville and Huntsville will not function as a one-way street. If Nashville finds itself hit with the injury bug, the club can utilize short-term agreements to fill the gap and provide an opportunity to one of its developmental players with Huntsville.
MLS rules permit clubs to sign players from the MLS NEXT Pro club to a series of four-day contracts labeled as “Affiliate Short-Term Agreements”. An individual player can sign up to four of these short-term deals per season, but may only appear in two league matches.
The last clause is key. The MLS roster rules only apply to MLS matches, ie. league play. An entirely separate set of competition rules govern the U.S. Open Cup and Leagues Cup (which have yet to be made public). An early-round U.S. Open Cup match against a lower-division side presents an opportunity to call up a member of Huntsville City to test them with the senior team in Nashville.
Huntsville City’s first-ever signing, Isaiah Johnston, could be one that makes that short-term jump for an Open Cup match. Johnston, 21, is a promising young midfielder acquired from York United FC of the Canadian Premier League.
Mike Jacobs thought enough of Johnston to pay an undisclosed transfer fee for the midfielder. It was a move reminiscent of the fee paid to the Charleston Battery for Brian Anunga in the buildup to Nashville’s first MLS season.
Johnston, a Canadian, would require an international slot if brought up to the first team for an official MLS match. Given how much Mike Jacobs values those slots, a four-day cameo with Nashville in league play would be shocking, absent exigent circumstances. Nashville parked Johnston with Huntsville, rather than Nashville, for this reason. It gives the club time to obtain a green card for the promising Canadian while providing further developmental minutes.
The U.S. Open Cup, however, allows for an unlimited number of international players. An early-round matchup presents a prime opportunity for Johnston, or another member of Huntsville’s roster, to be called up for a brief spell with the parent club.
This covers some of the ways in which we can expect to see movement between the rosters of Nashville SC and Huntsville City FC. I am sure that we will see an unanticipated wrinkle at some point down the line. When it does occur, Broadway Sports Media will be here to cover the move and break it down for supporters.