By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 28, 2019) US Soccer Players – FC Cincinnati is currently suffering through a painful MLS expansion season. They’re dead last in the combined league table with a -37 goal differential. FCC has already changed course in year one, firing coach Alan Koch 11 games into the season. The club also hired a new general manager midseason to replace club president Jeff Berding in that role. Koch led the club during its final two seasons in USL when FC Cincinnati was in the upper echelon of that competition.
The reasons for FCC’s struggles go beyond coaching. With a shorter-than-usual buildup to its MLS launch, they chose to stock its roster with several USL holdovers, a smattering of MLS veterans, and a few budget-minded international signings.
FC Cincinnati, unlike Minnesota United in its inaugural MLS season, did make a pair of Designated Player signings. Those players, Fanendo Adi, and Allan Cruz fit squarely in the “budget DP” category. Tightfisted spending on DPs is just one sign of the club’s philosophy on finance and ambition. Now, they’re dealing with the consequences of that approach.
Nashville SC and Inter Miami start play in 2020. While Inter Miami scoops up talented young South American players from places like Venezuela and Argentina, the Tennessee expansion franchise is taking a different approach. Nashville is building in a manner most reminiscent of FC Cincinnati. That might cause some worry among the Music City’s burgeoning fan base.
That includes making at least one DP acquisition. Nashville SC announced on Tuesday the signing of 24-year-old German midfielder Hany Mukhtar from Brondby IF of Denmark. Independent reporting from The Athletic pegged the fee for Mukhtar at $3 million.
It’s a low bar for expansion spending. FC Cincinnati traded MLS assets for Adi and added Cruz from Herediano in Costa Rica as a Young DP. With that in mind, Nashville outlays doesn’t look too bad. There are plenty of clubs around the world, including a few in MLS, who might hesitate to spend $3 million on a single player. When compared to the moves made by the most ambitious MLS clubs, Nashville’s acquisition of Mukhtar hardly registers.
In a league where incoming transfers of high profile players regularly surpass the $5 million mark, Nashville’s move for Mukhtar is par for the course. Mukhtar doesn’t count as a Young DP, so his arrival fits into a category of mid-to-low level DPs.
Mukhtar does have a strong resume as a young international playing for Germany. His career failed to take off in Germany, however, and he found himself in a second-tier league in Denmark. Over three seasons, Mukhtar scored 26 goals and collected 34 assists. In Nashville, he’ll carry the creative load for the new MLS team.
The Danish Superliga’s profile in the United States is essentially nil. Even for a fanbase new to the top level of soccer here, plucking a DP out of that league means giving the club the benefit of the doubt. Nashville SC has chosen to lean on a player who none of their fans will know as a key cog in their machine. While “smart” in the budgetary sense, it’s certainly riskier.
Nashville SC isn’t prioritizing marketing through signings, that much is clear. As it’s likely the club would need to pay a significant premium to entice a marquee European name to Tennessee, that’s probably as much about necessity as it is about choice. There are grades between the Danish Superliga and the biggest MLS-ready names in Europe. Nashville isn’t bothering trying to suss out the tipping point between those two poles.
Gary Smith is the man tasked with making Nashville competitive in MLS as the club’s first head coach. Smith has MLS success on his resume. Back in 2010, he led the Colorado Rapids to an unlikely MLS Cup title following a 5th-place finish in the Western Conference. He joined Nashville SC’s USL entry ahead of its first season in 2018 and remains in charge during its final campaign in that league.
Despite the eye-catching MLS Cup title, Smith’s hiring wasn’t an ambitious move on the part of Nashville SC. Recent examples of MLS expansion teams moving up from the USL and keeping their coach are a mixed bag. Adrian Heath didn’t last in Orlando after winning two championships in the lower division. More recently, Koch got just those 11 games in Cincinnati before the club changed its mind about their approach.
If Smith makes Nashville even respectable in its first season, he’ll be bucking the trend. Pending a further rash of signings that will illuminate us on Nashville’s fuller plan, it looks like the degree of difficulty will be relatively high.
We shouldn’t be making any presumptions about Nashville before the club even plays. The excitement of reaching the first division will more than makeup for any struggles on the field. We don’t need to look further than Cincinnati for evidence of that truth. It’s worth noting that Nashville, like Minnesota United and FC Cincinnati, will play in a temporary venue for two seasons before moving into its permanent purpose-built home in 2022.
Minnesota United is proving in 2019 that long-term thinking can pay off for a club in a mid-level market. Like the Loons, Nashville itself is a limitation. Add to that what the investor/operators have to spend just to get the club up and running. Replicating Atlanta and LAFC is a big ask. Working towards building a team that can compete when the stadium is open and Nashville SC takes its mature form makes more sense.
It’s not just Nashville SC that is taking a chance on Mukhtar, middling transfer fee or not. Mukhtar himself is buying into a brand new project in a growing league far from home. At 24 and with the success at Brondby on his record, he might have had a chance to sign with a club in a more established, higher-profile league. Leaps of faith sometimes go both ways.
Atlanta United and LAFC have altered expectations for incoming expansion teams. There’s no reason to expect a last-place finish, not if ownership wants to win right away. With enough ambition, anything is now possible.
Nashville isn’t showing that kind of ambition. What that means for 2020 is unknown. Maybe Mukhtar is a diamond, just waiting to be polished against the brush of Major League Soccer. Maybe Nashville will win with a coaching holdover from USL. Maybe this time it’s different.
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