Nashville SC’s preseason is completely in the books. With six preseason games played (four of them viewable without traveling to Florida), how do the club’s individuals stack up to our initial expectations?
Goalkeeper Connor Sparrow
I predicted that Sparrow would be in a competition to get more backup minutes than did CJ Cochran last year, and that appears to be a conservative take at this point. Time between the pipes may be a little hard to come by early in the year (NSC starts the season with only four games in five weeks, and needs to establish some rhythm), but it appears that he’ll be a more-than capable No. 2 – and get some No. 1 minutes – when fixture density picks up in April and May. He provides a different playing style than Pickens, and can be used situationally against particular opponents, too.
Defender Ken Tribbett
I’m extremely high on Tribbett (dating back to when I was practically begging NSC to sign him after the 2018 season), and he still impressed me enough to have him on the stock-up list. He seems to have locked down a starting centerback position already, and should be a mainstay in the lineup. Given that we haven’t even had the opportunity to see him take advantage of one of his best assets – an offensive punch on set pieces – and when that aspect of his game comes into play, Nashville fans will be very happy with him.
Defender Taylor Washington
Washington played a couple different positions last year – wingback in a 3-5-2, fullback and midfield in 4-4-2 formations, and fullback in 4-2-3-1 shapes – and performed them all well. However, it also seemed like sometimes the tactics were designed to try to find a way to get him onto the field, rather than plugging him into a dedicated role. Nashville has been all four-man backline (from what we’ve seen, at least) in the 2019 preseason, and Washington appears to have emerged as the first-choice fullback, whereas it was more of a platoon with Justin Davis last season.
Defender Kosuke Kimura
When Nashville SC signed an all-USL right back in the offseason, it looked like the ageless Kimura might start getting phased out of the lineup. Doubt the 34-year-old at your own peril, because he appears to have established himself firmly as first-choice at the position over the course of the preseason. That’s not to say there won’t be a role for King, but Kimura showed that, even if he doesn’t have the same offensive punch of earlier in his career, motor and speed down the sideline are keys.
Midfielder Ramone Howell
Howell earned just a handful of minutes last season, and while there’s less depth at the midfield in 2019, you still might have expected more of the same. However, he showed versatility by playing holding a midfielder role while adding offensive midfield responsibilities on either wing (or even at the all-important No. 10 position). The athleticism and ball skills he’s shown have been a bit of a revelation, and he should be more than just a guy who makes several 18-man gameday groups and earns a couple appearances.
Midfielder Vinnie Vermeer
Vermeer entered his trial with Nashville SC hopeful of earning a role with the team, but it looked unlikely that the club was going to sign any additional players to the first-team roster. However, he was so solid at a holding midfield role that he ultimately did earn a contract with the team. Thanks to smooth passing and poise defensively, he’s capable of playing as a true holding midfielder or the more-advanced box-to-box type, and he should be able to see the field a bit this season.
Midfielder Matt LaGrassa
LaGrassa was an oft-forgotten player for fans last year, though that was mostly through no fault of his own: he looked out-of-place on the wing (while Alan Winn and then Ropapa Mensah settled in there later in the year), and was second-in-line at the attacking midfielder spot, and part of a rotation as a member of the double-pivot – whose status as the odd man out in that trio probably had more to do with the fact that he could play other positions, and needed to be saved as a super-sub of sorts. He’s stepped it up in preseason, though, and depending on the tactics used on a game-to-game basis, could be close to an every-game starter.
Midfielder Genki Miyachi (trialist)
Here’s a guy for whom there were no preseason expectations: he was spotted in training by yours truly, and still didn’t seem to be more than a body to fill out the lineup (as there have been plenty of over the past year-plus). However, he earned playing time as a centerback and holding midfielder during the preseason, and was at the very least a solid performer. It’s still unlikely that he signs, but he has endeared himself to the more travel-ready members of the fanbase, and will always have a few supporters wherever he ends up.
Goalkeeper Danny Vitiello
Unfortunately for his prospects to play this year, Vitiello’s stock holding steady means that the first-year pro isn’t likely to see a ton of minutes this season. A capable No. 3 is important, though, and learning from a couple more experienced keepers should help him in approaching the next phases of his professional career.
Goalkeeper Matt Pickens
Pickens is Pickens: extremely steady, capable of the spectacular. Like his former Colorado Rapids teammate Kimura, Pickens’s ability belies age that’s getting up there. He may not be essentially an every-game starter in 2019 like he was in 2018 (he missed two games to injury and one for the birth of his son), but that says more about Sparrow and his exceeding of expectations than anything that’s changed opinions of Pickens for the negative.
Defender Liam Doyle
Doyle had some rough moments last season – and those unfortunately stuck with him in the eyes of some supporters even though he rebounded to have a strong year that earned him team defensive MVP honors. He’s looking just as solid early in the preseason, and should be one of the starting centerbacks whenever healthy and available.
Defender Bradley Bourgeois
Bourgeois emerged as a starter last year, and his absence was felt when he missed a few games late in the regular season due to injury. He should play plenty this year (especially with teams that can test Nashville SC with their speed up top, because he’s one of the most athletic defenders on the roster), but the emergence of Tribbett as a plus-level defender for this team might mean that he’s less a fixture in the starting lineup than he was during the middle of last season.
Forward Kharlton Belmar
I’m on the record as being a huge Belmar fan, and it’s weird to see my opinion on a guy change so much over the course of the preseason… while I essentially consider him at the same level overall as my initial expectations. His speed was on display at times in the friendly slate, but the final product was not up to the level of expectations. If he gets the latter dialed in a bit (and he did have a couple nice moments against Indy that teammates left wanting), that speed should allow him to be a difference-maker.
Midfielder Michael Reed
Reed is similar to Pickens in my eyes: you just know what you’re going to get, and that you’re always going to get it, without exception. That’s obviously a very strong trait (and a big part of why he’s this team’s captain for the second year in a row). The weaknesses – sometimes being a little sloppy on the first touch, and a shot that’s still finding its accuracy – are knowns, but the leadership and steadiness are, as well.
Midfielder Bolu Akinyode
Akinyode is a known quantity as well, though as preseason went along he started to cede some of his playing time – he was a fixture later in last season as one member of the double-pivot along with Reed – to players who are new to the club (Vermeer, and trialist Miyachi) or establishing a little more consistently as one member of that two-man central midfield (LaGrassa). He showed a bit more vision and ambition turning possession into offense in preseason, and will always be a strong tackler when the ball is coming at him in settled defensive situations. I’d still like to see more growth – and it’s easy to forget he’s still just 24, so there’s plenty of time for that growth – in transition phases of the game.
Forward Cameron Lancaster
Lancaster came in as the league’s single-season goalscoring champion, and he’s lived up to the expectations as a pure finisher. The team around him had its iffy moments getting him the service he needs, so the number of goals scored may not be as impressive as you’d like. At the same time, his athletic upgrade in that part of the pitch from last year’s roster has allowed NSC to be more proactive on offense and in the high press. Like Belmar, the individual aspects of his game didn’t play out quite as expected, but the overall package grades out the same, with more upside to find.
Forward Tucker Hume
Hume would probably be on the stock up list if not for the fact that a lot of what he’s shown in preseason (much more technical ability with the ball at his feet, and short-range athleticism than you’d expect for a guy his size) started to show at the conclusion of the 2018 season. He’s always going to be a hold-up target striker first and foremost, but continuing his development from the end of last season would make him more dangerous than opponents realize.
Forward Alan Winn
Winn is – perhaps more than anyone we’ve seen in preseason – the same player that we saw last year. He’s still blazing fast down the right wing (and occasionally the left), and more willing to track back defensively than you might expect. The weaknesses are the same, too, though: the end product – whether finding a teammate for an open look, or simply pulling the trigger on a shot – has to get better. The potential is there, and (assuming he’s going to be OK after leaving the Indy friendly injured) should be unlocked this season with more time to build chemistry with his teammates and the confidence from beginning his second pro season.
A quick note on “stock down” players: it’s not an indictment of their overall abilities or even contributions for this season, just an indication of where things stand today as compared to preseason. Plenty of these are also temporary distinctions, as noted.
Defender Justin Davis
Davis hasn’t really done anything wrong per se, but he was a smaller part of the preseason plans than expected. He was typically the first left fullback off the bench, and (at least in public friendlies) didn’t really get any run as a backup centerback. That reduced diversity in his uses is a minor step back – though one that can go right back forward as the situation calls for it during the season.
Defender Malcolm Stewart
Stewart didn’t play competitively last season, so expectations were fairly low – even though he has the athletic and technical ability to be a contributor. He got the least playing time in preseason of anyone signed to the senior roster, though, and showed that he needs to get back into the every-day swing of things to get more polished.
Defender Darnell King
On the flipside, expectations were very high for King, who was a second-team All-USL player last year. However, he was unable to carve out significant playing time and looks to be a clear No. 2 to Kimura at the right fullback position. There’s no shame in being behind a guy who had a great Spring, it’s just not what many thought they’d see when he signed. He didn’t have the opportunities in public friendlies to contribute offensively (which was one of his key attributes with SAFC last year), so if those arise in the regular season, he should be stock-up very quickly.
Midfielder Lebo Moloto
Moloto was unable to go through the full offseason workout plan as he recovered from injury, and that resulted in showing up to camp a little behind in terms of conditioning. He did work through it – and got the most playing time of anyone Saturday afternoon – but it took a bit of time, and as the fitness got to the right level, the rustiness in technique from not having game-speed action as early as his teammates showed. A couple more games of preseason to get back to speed would have been ideal, but even a stock-down Moloto is not a major concern here.
Forward Ropapa Mensah
Mensah showed up to Nashville at sub-100% conditioning-wise as well, and it showed in the playing time he received (as well as, at times, his effectiveness in it). Like last year, he’ll work his way into shape over the first month of the season, and he still brings a certain something that his fellow returning players do not. He approaches in-season preparation very seriously, and once he’s at full fitness will be the player that fans loved so much last year. Right now, though, he’s a little ways away from it.
Forward Daniel Ríos
Ríos is stock-down only for a couple reasons that were out of his control: 1) the expectations were sky-high after he became the club’s first MLS signing, and 2) he entered camp with an injury that meant he – like Moloto – was a little behind in getting back to condition. Perhaps more than any other player on the negative side of the ledger, he should be able to come back in short order. He’s a better hold-up striker than I’d expected based on his time with NCFC (where he was more a pure finisher), and while the goals didn’t really come, simply getting more time on the field will bring those about.
What are your thoughts on how the personnel have looked in the preseason? Share your thoughts in the comments.