During the day, Richard Askey travels across Middle Tennessee performing science demonstrations for students. At night, the Inter Nashville FC general manager and head coach tinkers with chemistry on the soccer pitch.
“There are a lot of parallels between teaching and coaching,” Askey said during a phone call this week. “Learning what makes the kids tick and trying to get them to understand what you’re doing…always trying to find a way to make somebody smile and work a little bit harder.”
This month, Askey’s NPSL side christens its second season after advancing to the final eight of the national playoffs in its inaugural campaign. The first experiment: a stiff U.S. Open Cup test at defending PDL champion Charlotte on Wednesday. It’s the first time a Nashville-based team has played an Open Cup match in around two decades.
“First time in the Open Cup, first time playing a team in the PDL…it’s gonna be exciting,” said Askey. “I expect that we’ll give them a good battle and that one goal decides it either way.”
The test won’t be easy. But a win would set up a historic showdown.
“We’ve got a very difficult draw – it’s pretty much the hardest draw we could have gotten,” Askey said. “But if we win we get to play Nashville SC, so that’s a huge carrot for us.”
If you follow soccer in Middle Tennessee, you might have known that last fact. And you may have wondered the same question we asked Askey: What would a Music City Derby mean to his squad, which filled the NPSL slot Nashville SC left behind when it ascended to the USL?
“If we were to meet in the Open Cup I’d like to think it could be a huge rivalry,” Askey said. “We’re in it to win it. I believe in my players and that a lot of them could make it to that level.”
A rivalry for one night, sure. But Askey also sees great partnership potential with the second-division organization on a path to the MLS.
“We’re confident we can work out a mutually beneficial relationship with them,” Askey said. “The more soccer in this town, the better.”
Askey wants a partnership so he can promote his players, many of whom he thinks have bright futures in the game. He should know something about that: He played on the inaugural Nashville FC team before serving the organization as an assistant coach. Now, he sits atop an organization that helps train more than 7,000 local players through year-round leagues, tournaments and clinics — a club he calls the “soccer hub of Nashville.”
“I would like to build a relationship with Nashville SC so they could get first dibs on our players,” Askey said, adding that he would also enjoy holding closed-door scrimmages against his Nashville counterparts. “Most of our players are Nashville-based players who have aged out of college and are just good players. If we could have a deal that is mutually beneficial, we are really open to it.”
Askey claims the two clubs have had “no relationship” since his team’s inception, but he says Nashville SC reached out recently to schedule a meeting. Right now, though, Askey is more focused on nourishing a team that can build on last year’s success using much of the talent that achieved it — most of his key contributors are back on the team this year.
“Having the returning players is huge for us,” Askey said. “We’ve built a style of play, and all the guys were on the same page toward the end of the season and know what is expected of them. We’ve really upgraded our college kids as well.”
“We’re strong all the way through. In each phase of the game we’ve got a standout player who is returning, plus some outstanding college players coming in.”
Askey will need every ounce of that talent to get past Charlotte Eagles, which rolled to a 9-3-2 record en route to the PDL title. Unfortunately, he won’t have all of it at his disposal: Four key players are either unavailable or cup-tied, including the “jewel of our crown,” 2017 All-NPSL first-teamer Liam Collins.
“We’re on the road after a seven-hour trip, so that’s not ideal, and I’m missing four of my would-be starters. It’s going to be an interesting start to the season,” Askey said. “We’ve had a little bit of time together, but again, after last year a lot of the guys know what I expect from him and how I like to play.”
Regardless of the result — or whether Inter Nashville gets to play its larger brother in the next round — the match is the first chance at a step forward for the club, with comes with tangible and intangible benefits.
“We want another run — it was such an incredible summer,” Askey said. “With so many of the memories we had last year, we’d like to go on and make some new ones.”