Building an expansion team is hard work. It's building an entire club from nothing. There is no fanbase, no logo, no kit, no players. The entire thing is a blank slate, for better or worse.
But building an expansion team in the shadow of David Beckham? That's even harder. Since the moment the English icon announced his intention to bring soccer to Miami, Beckham's project has commanded attention. Battling to build your own project in that shadow of that behemoth is a big task.
And that's exactly what Nashville SC faces this season. Before even kicking a ball, they were cast as the little brother. The 2020 season was all about Beckham's Miami, and Nashville is along for the ride.
It would be easy to say that they're simply to balance the conferences. The expectations set for the two clubs couldn't be more different: Beckham's Miami is supposed to provide the glitz and glamour. Nashville, not so much.
That's not the way they see it, though. No team goes into a season expecting to be anyone's poor relation; and no club starts life in a new league expecting to just make up the numbers. They're aware of the unique challenge they face, of course, but that doesn't mean they're buying into the narrative.
"This is a new beast," said midfielder Dax McCarty, an MLS veteran who is entering his 16th season in the league. "Coming up to MLS is a new challenge, and I think for everyone involved in the club.
"It’s not just the players on the field, it’s the front office, the coaching staff , the technical staff and even for the fans. It’s a challenge for us to step our game up and make sure that when February 29 rolls around, we’re ready to step on the field and win. I think the narrative surrounding certain expansion teams is that’s not possible, but I don’t believe that for a second."
He added: "I have a goal for myself and this team in that we want to win a trophy. What that is and how it will come, I don’t know. I haven’t even stepped on the field with my new teammates yet. It’s still to be seen, the areas we need to improve, but I’m extremely optimistic."
That optimism is the result of a process, one that is several years in the making. It's been over three years since Nashville submitted their formal bid for an expansion team. Only two years have passed since soccer first came to Nashville in the form of a USL team. This process, although long, is also still all very new.
It's also been a little over two years since CEO Ian Ayre joined the club, effectively kickstarting the runway to MLS. The former Liverpool executive was the man tasked with building a club from the ground up, and that requires answers to a number of different questions.
Ayre says he broke those questions into three different buckets, the first beingpersonnel. The club needed to not just hire the right people, but also hire them at the right time.
There's no use in hiring ticket people before you have a stadium, Ayre says, and there's no use in bringing in players before you have a fundamental idea of how what kind of players you need. General manager Mike Jacobs was brought in from Sporting KC to head up the player side while head coach Gary Smith, previously an MLS Cup winner with the Colorado Rapids, was chosen to lead the team's leap from USL to MLS.
The second bucket was a little less sexy: infrastructure. The club's stadium search appeared to be wrapped up before the local government forced the two parties to come back to the table in recent months. Those issues were sorted just several weeks ago, and the club's plan to move from the temporary confines of Nissan Stadium to their permanent home at the Nashville Fairgrounds is full steam ahead.
And then the third: branding and culture. The club has looked to become uniquely Nashville, a city that is known for its uniqueness. It's a city of country music, bar crawls, destination trips and entertainment. Finding that mix is difficult. The club's colors match the NHL's Nashville Predators. The logo references the city's musical history. A club anthem was unveiled to give supporters something all their own, even if it wasn't universally acclaimed from the start.
— Nashville SC’s MLS Debut is THIS SATURDAY (@NashvilleSC) February 27, 2020
After that, you get to the fun part, building a squad, but the 11 men that will take the field for Nashville are only a single piece of the massive puzzle that is an MLS expansion team.
"In terms of the most challenging, there are two parts," Ayre told Goal. "One is, as a new club, to build a whole roster of players, and you don't know. We still don't know 15 days from the start. We'd like to think we know how good we think we are or will be, but you really don't know, right? That's the same whether you're at Real Madrid or Nashville Soccer Club. Until you put 11 players on the pitch, even then it takes four or five months into the season before you know how you shape up relative to everyone else.
"That's the hardest, I think. At every club I've been involved in, you're buying three, four, maybe five players in the offseason. Here, we were assembling a roster of 30 players, and that's a lot to get right and a lot can go wrong. That's the most challenging and the most unknown at this stage.
"The second piece is that we start with no fans, right? We start with no club, no fans, so it's like you're selling fresh air to some degree. We had fans from our minor league team in USL, but you're building something different here at a different level. You're marketing what's coming and telling people how great it's going to be, but everyone is acting with a lot of good faith, really. It's challenging to get that right."
At least in the off the field portion, Nashville seems to be on the right track. The city is a "late arriving" market, Ayre says, and they've certainly arrived in a big way. The CEO says over 50,000 tickets have been sold for the club's home opener on Saturday against Atlanta United. Ayre joked that Saturday's attendance will likely be bigger than his first game as Liverpool CEO in 2011.
But on the field? As Ayre says, that's harder to predict. The club has taken a number of big steps to bring in the right pieces, but you never really know how things will go. For years, it was understood that expansion teams would struggle in their first years because it happened each and every time. That isn't true anymore thanks to the rise of Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United, two teams that became MLS Cup contenders the moment they stepped on the field.
Nashville may not be that because that, in many ways, is very, very difficult. But McCarty is confident in the group that has been built around him. That includes a number of MLS veterans, players like U.S. men's national team defenders Walker Zimmerman and Daniel Lovitz, speedster David Accam and midfield destroyer Anibal Godoy. By and large, Nashville focused on assembling a talented spine of people familiar with this league, and that will help avoid the pitfalls that plagued the likes of Minnesota United and FC Cincinnati in their opening years.
That MLS foundation is the key to any expansion team, but the most important part when it comes to taking the next step is supplementing it with outside stars. LAFC did that by bringing in Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. Atlanta United added Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. Nashville, meanwhile, have handed the keys to German playmaker Hany Mkukhtar and up-and-coming Costa Rican star Randall Leal.
Those two will be compared with the names mentioned above, but also those brought in by Inter Miami. Beckham's side have turned to Rodolfo Pizarro and Matias Pellegrini as their Designated Players, while bringing in familiar faces like Luis Robles, Lee Nguyen, Wil Trapp and Roman Torres.
"There is a certain recipe that certain teams have followed to be successful and other teams have done it differently," McCarty said. "The beauty of MLS is that there’s no one size fits all category for being successful in this league. No one market can emulate any other market, especially in Nashville. We can’t try to emulate LAFC. We can’t try to emulate Atlanta United. We don’t want to emulate Cincinnati. All these clubs, you can learn little things well and where they haven’t done things well."
He added: "It will be interesting to see the different paths that Nashville and Miami take because we will be compared, rightly or wrongly."
Those comparisons will go on much longer than this weekend, when both teams take the field for the first time. Both Nashville and Miami are intertwined, even if they don't necessarily see it that way.
For Ayre, success won't be measured on that sort of scale. It won't even necessarily be measured on how they perform this first year, on or off the field. There's no specific target, no specific number set that would define a successful season.
McCarty sees otherwise. The playoffs, he said, are an expectation, and there's no purpose in playing if you don't set those lofty goals from the start. There need to be an attitude, a belief, a culture, from the very beginning, and that begins in this first year.
But regardless of how this season goes, regardless of how many people are in the stadium, regardless of how Miami does or how Nashville finishes this season, Ayre believes that Nashville's challenge will end in something special.
"If you do this job in this sport for any club, the big moments, whether it's seeing your team in a big final at Wembley or in the Champions League or opening day here in Nashville on the 29th of February, you just hope that you feel proud of what you've achieved with your team," Ayre said. "You're one person in a group of people, so you can't, and you shouldn't get carried away with the idea that you did it. We all did it.
"I'm absolutely certain that I'll feel proud. Somebody asked the question about how we'll measure success this season and, for me, the way we measure success is if we can look everyone in the eye, whether it's owners, supporters, sponsors, ourselves, and can we say that we feel proud of what we did?
"I know that, and I hope that, on the 29th when they walk out, we'll feel proud that we spent the last two years pulling this thing together."