Nashville SC’s offseason revamp (or upgrade) continued early this week the the signing of former San Antonio FC fullback Darnell King. What’s he all about?
For starters, he was an iron man for SAFC: the only two games he missed all season were suspensions due to yellow card accumulation (he finished the year with 12 total – you get to chillax on the bench for one game each time you reach five), and he was only subbed off twice. It should come as no surprise that King led SAFC in minutes played, with 2870.
It is probably fair then, to say that he was a key piece of their season’s overall quality… which actually ended up being only middling on either side of the ball: ninth in the West after a 2-3-1 record in the final six games (including a loss to the moribund Tulsa Roughnecks, along with losses to the two teams who beat them out for the final playoffs spot, Swope Park and St. Louis) left them out of the postseason by a margin of three points. Even just a draw over Rio Grande Valley on the final playdate of the season would have earned them a bid – brutal, that. San Antonio was 10th in the West in scoring (45 goals) and 11th on defense (48 allowed), so their final standing in the table feels pretty fair.
(For what it’s worth, the USL Power Ratings saw them 20th in USL, ninth in the West, so pretty much right in line with the table).
So, this might be an underwhelming signing if we’re operating on the assumption that King was 1) the driving force behind wherever in the table it was that SAFC ended up, and 2) therefore responsible for the deservedly middling results? Not so fast, my friend. King is a pretty good test of “Weak-link, strong-link” theory, and an indication that a strong link can’t will a team to results. He was SAFC’s lone All-USL selection, making the second team (though he had only one Team of the Week honor and four teammates had multiple selections… more an indication that especially early in the year the TOTW is “here are some players from teams that we think are good” rather than a rock-solid indication of quality).
Let’s get into the statistical, shall we?
King attempted the most passes of any player on the team, and while his passing accuracy as only OK (78.4%), that’s hardly the greatest sin for a guy who’s so high-volume, and also plays a position on defense that sees a disproportionate number of his passes have to cover long distance or otherwise be difficult. With 29 crosses from open play, that’s another area in which he’s forced into low-percentage plays (as is expected for a fullback). For his forward-ranging efforts, King ended up with five assists and 24 key passes on the year, a pretty good number for a defender. The assist mark, in fact, would tie him for the lead on Nashville’s entire team, not just defensive players.
King also scored two goals on the year, which would tie him for eighth on Nashville SC’s team, level with centerback Bradley Bourgeois and holding midfielder Michael Reed. What I’m saying here is that there’s pretty good offensive punch.
“Darnell is in the prime of his career and brings an abundance of pace and energy, whilst offering a very attack-minded approach to the game,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “He is a wonderful addition to the team after a great season in the Western Conference.”
That’s despite a playing style for King that, despite the numbers, saw him stay at home pretty regularly. He got up-and-down the pitch a bit more in some games, but this is a pretty typical heat map for him:
He’ll get upfield a bit, and even pop into the box some, but for the most part, he ends his forays into opposing territory before they get into the attacking third. He also played centerback on a few occasions this year, so to have the offensive production he did despite relatively conservative positioning makes it even more impressive. Having wingers who like to stay wide in a 4-2-3-1 (Jose Escalante most frequently used among them on the right for SAFC last year) is a little unconventional but also instructive as to why King played the way he did. Depending on how he’s used for Nashville SC, the heat maps may look very, very different.
Defense is his game then, and he had 127 clearances and 69 interceptions in a very nice year, and his 77.75% tackle success rate on by far the highest volume on the team is pretty impressive. He also led the team in duels and duels won, which you may recall from my attempt at player radars I determined to be more likely for midfielders than defenders, so that’s impressive as well. Despite his stature, he was a very solid 54.6% on the highest volume of aerial duels, as well, so he can get up.
When you look at a guy who’s in the mix a lot (as he clearly is based on the above), you’re naturally going to see some yellows, and as I mentioned at the top, he followed through with that. His 13 cards were second in all of USL, though he did manage to avoid being red-carded all season.
He was not quite the iron man for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2017, playing 2281 minutes in 26 appearances for his hometown club. He was also much more cross-happy, though that turned into only 13 key passes and one assist in the Rowdies’ first year in USL. King also took only six shots (four of them on goal) and didn’t score for Tampa in that season, so he was a more traditional overlapping fullback than a guy who sit back, picks his spots to surge forward, and can get involved in the offense.
King has a highlight reel that covers basically his entire professional career, but I think the more comprehensive “here’s what I did in 2018” is a little more useful for us:
A lot of his time spent in the opposing offensive area was running onto a through ball, or patiently waiting for a moment to surge forward from a reasonably conservative defensive position. That basically holds true to the stats. He has a very nice right-footed shot that he likes to hit with power to the upper corner with the outside of that foot. His crosses tend to come from the edges of the 18-yard box, rather than with his boots on the touchline.
His defense… is impressive. He has a bit of that “make a mistake in positioning or passing, but make up for it with a big run and a slide-tackle” that we love to see from Justin Davis on the left side. He’s also a short guy with compact running strides who can hawk guys down from behind, reminiscent of Bradley Bourgeois. Probably faster than either of them on the looks of it from the film, but it’s hard to judge that with any reasonable degree of precision.
Honestly, given the tools in his skillset, it’s a little surprising to me that SAFC didn’t use him a bit more like a traditional fulllback, getting up the touchline a bit, and let a guy like Escalante or a different lefty play as more of a true inverted shooting winger. I guess weird tactical choices are how you end up with an October at home despite plenty of league-recognized talent, at least.
From my perspective, King is quite a bit more versatile a player than you might think (assuming his size is limiting). He is probably best-deployed as a 4-4-2 fullback, but can also play in other executions of four-man backline at either that position or centerback (more as a depth option there, rather than a first-choice option, but he certainly has the ability), and he could also play as either a centerback or a wingback in a 3-5-2/5-3-2 backline. He’s not really a pure wingback either, but he has the pure speed to be very effective in that role, and good enough crossing ability, as well. It might not quite take best advantage of all his offensive arsenal, however.
“Darnell is a dynamic right-sided defender who has the potential to impact a match on both sides of the ball,” said Nashville SC VP of soccer operations and technical director Mike Jacobs. “He embodies what we look for in players in those roles on the field.”
At 28 and with seven professional seasons under his belt (three with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, two with the NASL version of the Tampa Bay Rowdies prior to the above-described seasons), he’s a more experienced guy among the new signings. His skills may translate to the MLS level – and I think you’ll see guys who have been on that borderline for a while think of Nashville SC as their best path to the big leagues, giving them a good recruitment pitch – but at 29 by the time Major League Soccer arrives in Music City, it’s tough to know how well he’ll hold up as a guy whose speed is his best asset.
For the time being, he’s a damn good USL signing, and has a year to prove himself to be more than that.