We (finally) know the first personnel who will man the inaugural USL roster for Nashville SC. From the source: Goalie Matt Pickens, midfielder Matt LaGrassa, forward Robin Shroot, and defender Oumar Ballo.
Pickens is familiar to coach Gary Smith, having been his starter for the MLS Champion Colorado Rapids. Pickens went 11-8-10 with seven shutouts in that campaign. He has spent the past four seasons with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who were the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference table in 2017 (at the same level of competition Nashville SC will face in 2018).
The Rowdies finished 14-11-7, with Pickens conceding 37 goals in 31 matches (including a 2-1 extra-time playoff loss to New York Red Bulls II) and making 75 saves, a save percentage of 67.0%.
The 6-3, 201-pounder is on the older side – he’ll turn 36 early in Nashville SC’s inaugural season – and has been called up to five USMNT camps (most recently in 2011), but has never made a roster. He’s a very solid keeper for the second division, and given his age, may be a short-term stopgap with a look toward a younger keeper should Nashville be plying its trade in MLS in 2019. The St. Louis native may not be far from hanging up his boots.
LaGrassa hails from the Sacramento area, and the 24-year old is just in his second year of professional soccer after a five(!)-year college/PDL career. He played for Reno 1868 after debuting with Sacramento republic and going on loan to the Tulsa Roughnecks the previous season. The Roughnecks were brutal (comfortably the worst team in USL) when LaGrassa was there, but Reno 1868 was quite good this year, finishing third in the West.
LaGrassa played in – and started – nearly every game for the team, with 32 appearances including 31 starts (and he was only subbed off three times). He picked up three yellow cards and committed 36 fouls all season.
He scored just one goal on 29 shots – 11 of them on-frame – and that lone goal came from a header. He had three assists, and completed six of 20 crosses. Meanwhile, he won 54 tackles, intercepted 96 passes, cleared the ball 44 times, and blocked four shots: this is your defensively-oriented midfielder, locking down the 6 spot.
He’s not a physical marvel at 6-0, 174 pounds (the size probably helps explain why a defensive midfielder committed so few fouls), but should be capable in the position. He’s very solid in distribution, with an 85.2% completion rate on passes, with an average of 58.6 attempts per game.
He’s a relatively young player – and a college soccer product – coming into the prime of his game to an extent, and depending on growth, could be a bit more of a long-term player.
Shroot is a London native who has represented Northern Ireland at the under-21 level (though at 29 with no senior team call-ups, it’s likely his international career has come to its close). He’s been signed with Norwegian 2 Division (the third-highest level in that nation – the Elite Series is tops) club IL Hodd for the past three seasons, but was on loan to Viking FK in the Elite Series – an increase in level – for part of 2017. Hodd finished sixth in one of the 2 Division’s conferences, well out of a promotion slot, while Viking was dead last in its own table and relegated to the 1 Division.
Shockingly, stats for the third level in Norway are quite hard to find. He scored 13 goals in 38 appearances for Hodd over the past three years, and in his first stint, was not only the team’s leading scorer but also second in the league during the 2014 campaign. He didn’t find the back of the net in six appearances for Viking.
Still, he’s a goal-scoring, attacking midfielder, and probably a good fit for USL (though with age and level of competition in mind, probably not a potential MLS guy). Here are some highlights from the 2015-16 season:
A recurring theme in his Wikipedia entry is that hiss agent is a pain in the assssss, for what it’s worth.
Ballo is a 6-2 defender and a 26-year old Mali native (though he grew up in Baltimore) coming from USL runners-up Swope Park Rangers. He made 20 appearances for the team with 16 starts, so definitely more of a rotation player than a key member of the unit.
He made 81 clearances and blocked 16 shots on the year, along with 33 intercepted passes. He won only 20 tackles (though on just 24 attempts for a pretty good conversion rate there), won 35 aerial duals (64.8% of opportunities), and 70 overall duels. He completed 86.0% of his passes, with an average of 59.7 per 90 minutes played. He’s not much of an offensive threat either, with one assist on the year, and one goal on eight shots (two of them on target).
It is worth noting that Swope allowed 37 goals in 32 regular-season games (en route to a 17-8-7 finish, fourth in the Western Conference) eighth-best in all of USL – among 30 squads – so it was a pretty good defense that he had difficulty cracking into on a regular basis.
Surely, more signing news to come. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Martim Galvão, last year’s top NSC U-23 prospect, join the roster in an early wave.