Nashville SC officially announced that it has named Gary Smith to be its manager of its MLS team, ahead of its debut next season.
CEO Ian Ayre, in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC, said he mined his contacts in Europe, looked to South America and scoured the U.S. in trying to find a manager. As it turned out, his top choice was already working right in front of him, as Smith has been managing the organization's USL team since the start of 2018.
"We never really saw anybody who blew us away beyond what we had with Gary," said Ayre by telephone. "[He] ticked a lot of the boxes; a good mix of experience with different leagues, both domestically here and in Europe, great with the players.
"Then it's just a bonus more than anything given the fact that he's already here, because the continuity that we get from having him here in 2019 in USL, and then obviously on to MLS next year, just means that we can do some of the stuff that we'll do in the summer window [regarding players] and that type of thing."
Given that MLS welcomed high-profile international managers like Frank de Boer, Matias Almeyda and Guillermo Barros Schelotto to its coaching ranks this offseason, it's easy to conclude that Smith doesn't measure up. But not only does Smith have prior coaching experience in MLS having managed the Colorado Rapids for parts of four seasons, he has an MLS Cup title on his resume as well, winning the trophy with the Rapids in 2010. Ayre said that history was a factor in Smith's hiring.
"It was really important to me that even if the manager didn't have experience in this league, they knew a lot at least about the league," said the former Liverpool executive. "But the fact that [Smith] had coached in the league, and the fact that he'd won MLS Cup... to have a guy who as the incumbent has already achieved that is fantastic.
"It's good to have a winner in the building when you're starting out."
Ayre said that he and VP of soccer operations Mike Jacobs started out with a lengthy list that was whittled down to about 12 candidates. When asked if Nashville had observed the league's policy on interviewing minority candidates, Ayre confirmed that NSC had, and that more than one of the finalists was a minority, though he declined to name any of the other finalists. He stressed that the ability to see Smith work up close -- he led Nashville to the USL playoffs last season -- carried the day.
"Gary is what I term a 'tracksuit coach.' He's out on the field every day with the players, he has a good banter with them, a good attitude," said Ayre, who oversaw five coaching searches during his time at Liverpool. "He knows when to be tough but also knows when to pick them up when they need picking up. There's a combination of all those things."
Smith's teams in Colorado were defensively stout thanks to the central midfield pairing of Pablo Mastroeni and current Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, relying on the forward tandem of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey to score goals. That said, the group was not known for its creativity. Ayre didn't view that as a negative, especially given the circumstances under which Smith operated.
"I think my analysis -- and I had a lot of discussions with Mike Jacobs -- is Gary builds teams that are hard to beat, and I think that's a great place to start when you're starting out in a new league as a new franchise and you have to build from that," said Ayre. "I think that a big part of it is how well and how smart we are about [player] recruitment. Putting a good offensive resource into his team helps with that.
"In a lot of cases when Gary's coached, and not just in the U.S. but in other markets, he's often not had very good budgets available to him, I would say. When that's the case you often revert to almost survival and not getting beat rather than having a real go."
Smith's regular season record in Colorado was 38-31-35. With Nashville last season he went 12-9-13, good for eighth in the USL's Eastern Conference.