The most visible evidence of Nashville SC’s growth can be found at the Nashville Fairgrounds in the form of a sports hall which, with a capacity of 30,000 people, will be the largest football-specific stadium in the country. But the club is also growing steadily in other ways in the Middle Tennessee community and the football world more generally. One of these initiatives, its Youth System, will likely be as big a contributor to the long-term success of the franchise as an attractive and profitable stadium.
Speaking to reporters after the 2021 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs explained in detail why the draft was perhaps more important to the young club than to any other team in the league. . Jacobs had to build a squad from scratch in an area that didn’t produce much talent in MLS – as part of MLS, Nashville SC has territorial rights over all young players living in Tennessee. And he has to do it without a development team, or âBâ team as he calls it, which puts more emphasis on developing and transmitting talent through the club’s youth academy.
âWhen you look at other territories in MLS, the state of Tennessee is one of the territories, if not the least populated of players who have signed up for MLS,â said Jacobs. âSo the challenge we have is to take this territory that traditionally hasn’t had a lot of players who have become prospects in MLS and to be able to turn the tide. “
The MLS team academy initiative, which began in 2007 as a way to complement the development of elite young players and provide a clear path to MLS, is a concept that Jacobs and his team have. spent a lot of time going through it thoroughly. comb. The club’s youth programs are based at Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood and are run by former MLS player Jamie Smith. (NSC’s MLS players are also training there at the moment; the club has started building a 15-acre training facility for them in the Century Farms development in Antioch.)
At SuperDraft, Jacobs maintained that his immediate goal was to build an academy that can start fueling NSC’s main roster fairly quickly. Currently, right-back Alistair Johnston is Nashville’s only regular contributor of the club’s two SuperDrafts; center-back Jack Maher and winger Luke Haakenson are both typical late-game substitutes.
The “dream” for Nashville SC under Jacobs would be to have at least half of the club’s game roster coming from the team’s academy. It would be similar to what Sporting Kansas City – Jacobs’ former employer – did, listing up to nine local players on his bench for a recent game. In hockey terms, think about the pipeline of players from the Milwaukee Admirals to the Nashville Predators in recent years.
The last five spots for MLS teams are usually reserved for players 24 years of age or younger. Clubs without a fully established academy, like Nashville, have the opportunity to recruit local players from other teams for these positions and Jacobs has been active in recruiting midfielder Alex Muyl, winger Handwalla Bwana and defenseman Nick Hinds to the over the past year.
âIt’s put together that way by the league to encourage teams to sign players in that age group and kind of helps foster this MLS academy initiative,â Jacobs said. “Until we develop players in these locations, we need to use our SuperDraft selections and maximize our college players.”
MLS changed its academy concept in 2020 to fill the void left by the closure of the US Soccer Development Academy due to a lack of funding from the COVID-19 pandemic. The new MLS Next program encompasses more than 11,000 players in 113 clubs and six different age groups. In 2021, the Nashville Academy will field teams in the U12, U13, U14 and U15 age groups, with plans on the horizon to expand to the U17 and U19 groups as these players move up the pipeline. .
âWe will be flexible in how we put the players on our roster together,â said Jacobs. âNext year we’ll definitely go from being only 13, 14 and 15 and then moving to a 17-year-old team as well. “
There are currently no U23 groups under the MLS Next umbrella. A possible next step for Jacobs and his team would be to form a Nashville SC 2 club in the lower level United Soccer League. Atlanta United, DC United, New York Red Bulls and Kansas City are among the MLS clubs that have taken this route to give promising youngsters more playing time earlier in their careers.
“MLS is strategically looking at what to do in this space right now between 17 (-years) and MLS – whether to continue with USL or to have MLS 2 teams as you saw in certain groups, âJacobs said. âSomething in the future that we’re very serious about having a reserve team. It’s super important for the young players on your team to play regularly.
âIn a perfect world, we would have our own reserve team rather than sending them out on loan to Charlotte or unknown parties, but we’re not there yet. But I will say, when you do it right, your reserve team is a bridge between your academy and your first teamâ¦ Our hope is that one day we will have our own reserve team here in Nashville.
(Shortly before this issue went to press, The Athletic reported that MLS executives are far behind plans for a lower division league to better connect the academies of many teams to their higher-level teams. . If completed, the league should start next year.)
While the primary goal of a youth academy is to ultimately help fill the MLS roster – graduating one player per year is considered a very high success rate – there are also some solid success rates. financial incentives to cultivate a pool of promising young people. Clubs such as FC Dallas have positioned themselves well in the global football market by selling talented local teens – for whom they did not have to spend transfer fees – to major European clubs and reinvesting the profits back into youth organization.
âFrom a business perspective, it makes perfect sense to be able to develop your own players,â says Jacobs. “The idea of ââbeing able to sell your players and take the money you made by developing a player and sell it abroad, then buy other players, to reinvest it in your academy or others players abroad … This is really how the business of our sport [works]. “
Nashville SC have firmly established themselves in the MLS ranks in its second season only. For its CEO and team, the next steps are also to become a key cog in the global game.