The latest edition in a series of indefinite length that I’m labeling “Project 2019.” In this stop, looking for more players who could join the Boys in Gold for the final USL season before MLS arrives in Nashville. This time? Players who have past connections to the Nashville SC technical staff.
Players for the inaugural USL roster for Nashville SC came from a number of places. MLS squads, other USL teams, recent college grads, even overseas clubs.
Everyone knew a few key members had previous connections, especially to head coach Gary Smith: goalkeeper Matt Pickens and defender Kosuke Kimura were key members of Smith’s MLS Cup-winning 2010 Colorado Rapids. However, the connections to some of the other players were a little less obvious, but certainly extant – and connections to Technical Director (and now GM for Soccer Operations when MLS rolls around) Mike Jacobs were key, too:
- Keeper CJ Cochran, midfielder (and captain) Michael Reed, midfielder Josh Hughes, and Kimura played on Smith’s 2015 Atlanta Silverbacks team.
- Midfielder Robin Shroot played for Smith at Stevenage in England.
- Midfielders Lebo Moloto and Kris Tyrpak (a mid-season signing who also played with Reed last year at San Antonio FC), and defenders Liam Doyle and Oumar Ballo (who ultimately didn’t play for the team after being unable to sort out a visa issue) came – directly or indirectly – from the Sporting Kansas City system where Jacobs had spent the previous three years.
- Midfielder Ian McGrath played college soccer at the University of Evansville, where Jacobs had coached before joining SKC (including during McGrath’s freshman year).
There are even more subtle connections to other places – and that list isn’t intended to be exhaustive.
So, who are some players in the world of soccer nowadays who both have connections to Smith and/or Jacobs, and could also help the team? The whole set is too long, but here are some intriguing candidates:
New York City FC/Phoenix Rising defender Saad Abdul-Salaam – Abdul Salaam’s time with Sporting Kansas City directly overlaps with Jacobs’s 2015-17 tenure. He made $120k this year from New York City FC (which signed him preseason), but spent the end of the year on loan with Phoenix Rising. I don’t know how the finances work for MLS-to-USL loans, but I’d imagine Rising was not on the hook for that whole salary.
He’s a 27-year old guy from the Midwest (who may want to be a little closer to home territory), and as a 6-4 centerback update: Thanks to Ben from Speedway for pointing out that Abdul-Salaam is actually a comically large fullback, not a CB, could be a useful addition to an NSC backline that had poor depth in the middle when Bradley Bourgeois went down. Phoenix also rode its “one of the few truly good defenses in the West” status to the USL Cup runner-up spot.
Montreal Impact forward Quincy Amarikwa – Amarikwa was a 24-year old member of Smith’s MLS Cup champion Rapids, and is now a wizened vet at 31. He’s one of the more expensive names on this list (making $289k in MLS this season), but with only 10 appearances and one goal, it’s likely that both club and player are interested in moving on – the question becomes whether he’s cheap enough to truly become an option for a Nashville SC side that shouldn’t be among the cheapest in salary this year, but also still doesn’t have MLS bucks.
He’s never been the type of guy to pour in goals or bang out a ton of assists (21 and 14 total in the past six years), but some offensive punch – with MLS quality – could be something that interests Nashville SC.
Northern Virginia United defender Oumar Ballo – This one, to me, is a no-brainer if it can work out. Nashville SC initially signed him for the 2018 roster, but he had visa complications and couldn’t join the team. Instead, he spent the Summer with an NPSL side playing some amateur ball. His connections to Nashville run pretty strong (he even was with Swope in previous years, giving him some familiarity with Liam Doyle) for a guy who never suited up for the team.
A 6-2 centerback, the Malian who grew up in Baltimore could provide the depth that the spot could have used this past season. Given that he was stuck playing outside of the professional ranks this year, he’s probably available on the cheap, as well.
Swope Park/Sporting Kansas City forward Kharlton Belmar – Belmar had a tough time seeing the field for the parent club, so he spent most of 2018 down with Sporting Kansas City. Making $68,200 on an MLS contract, he’s one of the more bargain-y players on this list. Could a loan agreement from SKC to a USL team that’s likely to be one of 2019’s most ambitious in pursuit of a league championship help him take the next step in his development? Could Nashville buy him outright in hopes he’s ready to be a full-time MLS guy the following season?
He was SPR’s second-leading scorer with 10 goals on the year (in just 22 appearances), and converted on 22% of his shots, which would be among the highest on Nashville’s roster – Brandon Allen hit at a slightly higher rate, but was helped by a large proportion of his scoring coming on penalty kicks. A fringe US National Team prospect, Belmar is only 25 and could be a very intriguing piece.
Swope Park/Sporting Kansas City defender Amer Didic – Didic started his career with Swope Park Rangers, and impressed enough to be signed to the parent club during the time Jacobs was assistant technical director. However, he got zero (0) minutes for Sporting Kansas City this year, while making 27 appearances for Swope Park.
A 6-4 centerback who’s just 23 years old (he turns 24 next month), he could be on the block if he’s not in SKC’s long-term plans – they do have club options for the next several years, and at a $55,600 salary he’s not costing them a bunch to just loan down to the B-team. Still, Nashville needs depth at centerback, and could be a loan or transfer destination for a guy who may get plenty of run for a team aiming to win big in 2019.
DC United defender Kevin Ellis – Pending the exposure of Kimura as “secretly a robot who will never ever grow old” (or: Peter Pan?), there may be a need for additional right back depth on this team, possibly even a starter. Ellis is just 27, and has eight MLS seasons under his belt. The majority of that came with Sporting Kansas City – including short stints with Swop Park Rangers in 2016 and 2017 when Jacobs was their technical director as part of his ATD duties with the parent club.
Ellis got 20 games with the Chicago Fire before they waived him, and signed with DC United in September, where he got only two appearances. Making $158,000 this season, he could be available for cheaper, as it would surprise if there’s any priority in re-signing him.
Seattle Sounders 2 forward David Estrada – The Sounders’ B-side was awful this year, but it wasn’t the fault of their veteran striker: Estrada scored 11 goals on a 34% conversion rate (again: doing it for a team that couldn’t provide him a lot of help), and added 22 key passes. That’s a skillset that Nashville SC could certainly use. He also has versatility, playing as a lone or side-by-side striker, as well as a No. 10 and a right winger for S2 this year.
He played on Smith’s 2014 Atlanta Silverbacks (albeit for just a few games on loan from the Sounders’ senior side), so there’s a connection there, albeit a potentially tenuous one. A guy who’s going to be 31 when the season begins may be more interested in playing for a team that’s aiming for a championship than one that’s designed around developing for the first team, anyway.
Atlanta United defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz – Larentowicz actually featured in a version of this post last year, when I thought it was unlikely that Atlanta United would bring back a 34-year old midfielder. They did, and he played in damn near every game, so what the heck do I know.
Larentowicz made $210k this year, but presumably his contract extension for Atlanta United was for one year (albeit likely with a club option for future years). Depending on what a new manager wants, he may not be in the plans going forward. He was a key member of Smith’s Rapids teams, and if he’s not in Atlanta’s plans, it’s possible that being a key member of a USL side is more appealing than having an unknown role with a new MLS club (if the money’s right).
Toronto FC defender Drew Moor – This is a guy who’s been an every-game starter in MLS for a few years, but he’s coming off a season that he basically missed the entirety of, on account of an injury suffered in Concacaf Champions League. Despite being on a salary of $350k, there may be discounts on the way, given that a 34-year old may not be expected to bounce back from that.
Moor was a member of Smith’s teams in Colorado, including the MLS Cup champions. Though just a six-footer, he’s been a center back in recent years (you may recall his absence without knowing it, through such mechanisms as “Michael Bradley played CB for Toronto this year”), and that’s a position that Nashville can use depth… and if the price is reasonable, may be able to take a risk on a guy with MLS talent.
New England Revolution/SKC forward Krisztián Neméth – This is a bit of a reach, I’ll admit. Neméth made $1.01 million for the Revs this year, an amount that’s probably comparable to (if not greater than) the entire roster’s wages from the 2018 season. There are a couple caveats here, though: he was traded mid-season largely because he wasn’t getting time at New England (21 appearances), and going to SKC wasn’t a panacea in that regard (appearances in nine of 14 games since, 386 minutes which is less than 30% of available time).
His goals have also dried up to an extent, with only one for each of his clubs this season. He had 13 in 26 games in Qatar the previous year, and 11 in 28 with SKC in his previous stint there (which coincided with Jacobs). At just 29, is he willing to or interested in dropping a level – and making lots less money – to find his form and extend a career? NSC could certainly use a finisher.
Portland Timbers centerback Lawrence Olum – Nashville’s lack of centerback depth was exposed this year (particularly after the departure of short-term signing David Edgar). While the starters were good, when Bradley Bourgeois missed several games to injury, there was a bit of scrambling and shuffling in the back. Olum is getting old – he’ll be 35 in the middle of the 2019 North American season – but as a depth piece, he could be valuable to a USL side (and not likely to take up a spot when the Major League Soccer team arrives in 2019).
He had a long stint at Sporting Kansas City when Jacobs ending was the assistant Technical Director there, and re-signed with SKC while Jacobs was still around. He was transferred to Portland before Jacobs left, so he may not be one that’s seen as a sure-thing guy. He has gotten reasonable minutes this year (ninth on the team, which is still in the MLS Cup playoffs), but is getting old and with a $200k salary this season, may be available for cheaper than that.
Indy Eleven forward Soony Saad – Sporting Kansas City drafted Saad when Jacobs was the assistant technical director, and there’s a good relationship there. While Saad didn’t stick with SKC, he’s carved out a career as a spot player for them and with time in the USL (Swope Park Rangers, and most recently Indy Eleven). As a fellow Michigan grad, I selfishly want Nashville to sign him.
While NSC fans remember the brace he had against their side in Lucas Oil Field, he had only two more goals all regular season (and added one more in the playoffs). Converting on just 8.5% of the shots he took, that’s a high-volume shooter, which may not be the fit Nashville needs.
A couple of former Gary Smith players from the Rapids days could be very useful additions to the club in non-playing capacities.
Pablo Mastroeni – The name should be familiar to US Men’s National Team fans: he has 65 caps, including starting in two World Cups (albeit with semi-disastrous results in the second one, with a red card against Italy in 2006). He also played 225 games for the Colorado Rapids, including captaining Smith’s 2010 championship team.
Mastroeni is now in coaching, with two and a half years as the leader of the Rapids that ended midway through last year’s campaign (his replacement, Anthony Hudson, has… not improved the club. Nor the reputation of the head coaching position therefor). He spent a week with Nashville during training this season, and while a guy with head coaching on his resume may not have “USL assistant” on his to-do list, it would be cool to find a role for him.
A guy who was born in Argentina could also help repair a reputation (whether that reputation is fair or not) of a club that doesn’t value Latino/Hispanic communities, too.
Jacob Peterson – I honestly don’t know what Peterson did this year: he collected a player salary in MLS ($174k), but after being waived by Atlanta United in preseason, he didn’t, like, play. Despite that, he’s on the executive board of the MLS Players’ association. While his playing days may be in the rearview mirror, a background with MLSPA could make him valuable to a club in a consultant role, and particularly a club that’s soon to make a transition from USL to Major League Soccer and needs personnel with institutional knowledge of the future league.
Peterson played on Gary Smith’s first Rapids team, and to add a bonus connection, he also signed with Sporting Kansas City and was still on the team during most of Jacobs’s time as the assistant technical director there. The specifics of a role for a guy like that may be murky (I’m just a dude spitballin’ on the internet, after all), but it seems like something could be worked out, given the breadth of his experience.