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Meet the man hoping to turn Nashville into the new Sporting KC

Photo: Nashville SC

How do you build a roster with one foot in USL and one foot in MLS? Mike Jacobs brings experience from Swope Park Rangers, where he learned from Peter Vermes.

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The man charged with building Nashville SC may now have a bigger task at hand.

Mike Jacobs was just a few days into his new role as technical director in Nashville when one of the club’s assistant coaches asked him a question, almost in jest: “Have you ever had to build a team out of nothing?”

Jacobs had to chuckle.

“Yes,” he replied. “Swope Park Rangers two years ago.”

As the former assistant technical director at Sporting Kansas City, Jacobs was charged with putting together its USL team when it was founded in 2015. The result: a Swope Park team that qualified for its second consecutive USL final.

It is a unique note on Jacobs’ resume and certainly one of the reasons he was the right choice for Nashville SC, which will begin play in the USL in 2018. There aren’t too many people out there with experience building a winning program out of thin air.

In the wake of a vote by Nashville’s Metro Council to approve a $275 million stadium plan, however, Nashville’s future seems all but set for MLS, with only a brief stop in the lower divisions. That brings to the forefront a bigger ask of Jacobs: Can he deliver the Sporting Way to Nashville?

After years working by the side of Sporting Kansas City coach and technical director Peter Vermes, Jacobs will be asked to do exactly that. Sporting has been one of the most consistent winners in Major League Soccer to the tune of seven consecutive playoff appearances, an MLS Cup and three Open Cup titles.

If there is a blueprint to follow, it’s the one Vermes has executed in Kansas City.

“The experience of getting to work at the side of Peter Vermes, at arguably the most successful club in MLS, offered me not only a chance to help build a culture on and off the field, but to [learn to] maintain a high standard of excellence,” Jacobs said. “We’re going to have a different coaching staff, a different model of play, different players, but my hope is to model the same level of expectation and demands as Sporting. If we can replicate some of those things, maybe it will be a bit of SKC South in Nashville.”

The stadium bid has certainly excited the Nashville soccer community and laid out a clear path to MLS, but Jacobs said it hasn’t much changed his focus for this offseason. Nashville is still set to play in the USL in 2018. That hasn’t changed.

Speaking from a scouting trip in Africa, the former Duke assistant and Evansville head coach said the club has put in a lot of work toward identifying players for the 2018 roster and will go “across the country or across the world,” to “turn over any rock we think is going to unearth a player.”

“Everyone in our city is excited about the prospects of a future in MLS, but we have a franchise that is going to be competing in USL and my job is to populate a roster that will help [Nashville SC coach] Gary Smith succeed,” Jacobs said. “We’re going to be as competitive as possible this next season, and we’re going to do so in a vision that is entertaining and attractive to fans. How that relates to the future of our franchise, we’ll see, but the full focus is about the 2018 season. All we can control is the season ahead.”

Photo: Nashville SC

Photo: Nashville SC

For Jacobs, populating a roster has many different strategies. The approach differs for a USL team, an MLS team or a USL team transitioning to MLS. What doesn’t change, however, is the philosophy behind that club.

It’s the biggest takeaway Jacobs had from his time at Sporting Kansas City, where Vermes has been able to balance dual roles as technical director and head coach and still have success on the field. Jacobs said it begins with a “commitment to excellence in every facet of the club,” that creates a stability within it.

The most obvious element of that is on the field, where Vermes has implemented an identity that doesn’t change year-to-year.

“What Peter is able to do is have a clear vision for how he wanted to play and the players he wanted to have,” Jacobs said. “That’s the first thing Gary and I hit on and aligned with quickly, is having an understanding of what he thinks is important in a player, in how we are going to play and to find players to fit that mold.

“For Peter, a system is not a 4-3-3. A system is how a team attacks and how a team defends. Peter never deviated from that. … Any team that comes into play against Sporting Kansas City, they know certain things regarding what to expect. Nashville SC will have certain qualities where, before going into a match, you know certain things Gary’s team brings to the table. That consistency helps build success because it builds a foundation for players and they know what to expect.”

Jacobs hopes to foster those similarities now that Nashville SC is building the team. But he also insisted he would not be in Nashville if he didn’t think the foundation for a club like Sporting Kansas City was not already there: the infrastructure and resources, a local ownership group, excitement around the sport. A soccer-specific stadium is only the latest box to be checked off.

“It’s a city that has become an absolute hotbed for soccer and one that looks a lot like soccer cities in the south,” Jacobs said. “Look at Atlanta and Orlando, Nashville has a chance to be on par with those cities with the energy and support it’s generated. … We’re a city that loves soccer.”

The vote means the task at hand is growing larger for Jacobs, but his time with Sporting Kansas City might make him the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

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