What does BJ Callaghan bring to Nashville SC?

Nashville SC announced on Wednesday the appointment of BJ Callaghan as new head coach. The former United States Men’s National Team and Philadelphia Union assistant has a renowned reputation, despite his limited head coaching experience.

After a decade coaching at the collegiate level, Callaghan joined the Philadelphia Union as an assistant in 2014. In his five years, the Union reached three U.S. Open Cup finals, but finished as runner-ups in all of them. He was also able to help the Union build one of the best academies in the US and develop numerous players.

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Callaghan spent the following five years with the USMNT, first as a strategy analyst before moving to the role of primary assistant. He won multiple continental competitions and helped lead the USMNT into the 2022 World Cup. He also had a short stint as the interim head coach, in which he was able to win the 2022/23 Concacaf Nations League.

Player development

One of the biggest criticisms of Nashville SC has been their inability to develop young talents. Former head coach Gary Smith depended on a veteran core, and while it often delivered good results, it was very hard for young players to break into the first team.

Aside from a few exceptions, Nashville SC struggled to develop young talents. International players like Rodrigo Piñeiro and Aké Loba, as well as many domestic talents, had to leave Nashville for playing time.

That is undoubtedly one of the main reasons Callaghan was brought in. Going back to his days with Philadelphia, he helped develop multiple young players into becoming MLS starters, national team regulars and some even earned a move to Europe. Callaghan worked with the likes of Brenden Aaronson (RB Leipzig, Leeds, Union Berlin), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Auston Trusty (Arsenal, Sheffield United) and many others who have found success in their careers.

“He’s unbelievable too with young players,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin. “And you talk about now the Philadelphia Union and the guys behind the scenes that really do the developing. Ask Auston Trusty, ask Mark McKenzie, ask Brendan Aronson about BJ Callahan and they’ll all give him a ton of kudos and credits for their development.” 

His success in scouting and developing with the Union was enough to earn him a position with USMNT as an assistant coach and strategy analyst under Gregg Berhalter. Callaghan helped lead and develop the US “golden generation” in the last five years. His work ethic and commitment to building a healthy culture has also been praised by multiple people in and around the USMNT camp.

“Being somebody that worked with and for BJ, I don’t think you’d be able to find a staff member or player that didn’t have respect for him,” former U.S. men’s national team scout Michael Stephens told The Athletic. “Based on the way he goes about his job, how hard he works and his commitment to the team.”

Style of play

It is very evident that both the Union and the USMNT play a different style than Nashville. It’s also safe to assume that “Callaghan ball” is heavily influenced by those two.

While it won’t be full-on “energy drink soccer,” Callaghan’s style will almost certainly involve more pressing than Nashville have implemented so. Fans will probably notice a change in energy and alertness, especially off the ball. Pressing and counter pressing have been key elements in Callaghan’s former teams.

On the ball, Callaghan will likely oversee some major changes. Counter attacks are expected to continue being a big part of Nashville’s plan, but he’ll look to diversify chance creation actions. Callaghan’s previous teams relied on the perfect balance of both methodical buildup play and directness when needed. To implement that, Nashville will need to change their current system, formation, and likely personnel, especially in midfield. With Callaghan taking charge almost at the start of the summer transfer window, expect to see his stamp on Nashville’s summer moves.

The new style will largely depend on interchanges between the midfielders, as well as linkup play. Nashville will most likely see a decrease in long balls and crosses and an increase in short passes.

All that said, changing the system almost entirely will take time. Callaghan might opt for a more gradual shift to his ideal way of playing, something seen across the world when a new manager takes over. Signing, coaching and selling players will also play a huge role here. Nashville will need to make sure that their new coach has the needed tools to implement his ideas.

Familiarity with US Soccer and MLS

The most important quality Callaghan brings is his familiarity with the US soccer system and landscape. He has been involved with US-based players on all levels, overseeing their development from academies, to the professional ranks and eventually the national team.

“He’s a guy that has seen it at every level. So he’s a guy that maybe didn’t have a professional playing career, but man, you talk about a guy that studied the game [and] worked his tail off at the college level,” said Curtin. “I was with him at Villanova, I saw him work there. Unbelievable work ethic in terms of scouting. Then we worked together in the youth academy, and again, no one would outwork the guy.”

Looking at a Nashville team that is almost entirely made of players from the US system, Callaghan will know exactly how to motivate the squad. Also, Nashville under GM Mike Jacobs have been more likely to sign domestic-based players. A good understanding between the head coach and GM will be vital for Nashville in the upcoming months. Staying on the same page in terms of recruitment and scouting will serve Nashville well in the locker room and on the pitch.

Callaghan also has experience working with international talents, both with the Union and the recent USMNT squad. His familiarity with the system doesn’t make him one-dimensional; rather it’s an asset that can improve the environment.

Conclusion

Time will obviously tell whether this is the right move for Nashville, but based on everything on paper, this at least does not seem like the wrong one.

Nashville are taking a risk on a somewhat inexperienced, yet already accomplished, coach. The potential of what he can become is enough to convince the front office to take that risk.

Going for a more established MLS coach would’ve been more of the same, while going for a European coach might be too big of a shift. Regardless of their background and experience, all coaching hires are risks, and this is the one Nashville chose to take.

Callaghan will officially take over on July 22, right before Leagues Cup. He has a lot of work to familiarize himself with the city and squad. There are also some unknowns in terms of his coaching staff, those decisions will probably need to be made before his arrival.

Until then, the Boys in Gold have five important MLS games. Callaghan will most likely be watching those from the comfort of his home, but there’s a chance he will be present for the only home game in that stretch. On July 17, Nashville take on Orlando at GEODIS Park. Nashville fans might be able to have the first sighting of their new coach.

Author: Valair Shabillamoved to Nashville as a refugee from Iraq at the age of 14. A fan of soccer from a young age, he used soccer to connect with a larger community in Nashville and adapt to life abroad. He's covered Nashville SC since 2019, co-hosting Pharmaceutical Soccer, and analyzing soccer from an audio/video perspective.

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