Nashville SC’s 2020 MLS roster is coming together: the Boys in Gold have 23 players in the fold, and much of the depth seems to come on the wings. With just a couple months to go before the season, let’s take stock of the situation at the position.
The wealth of data available (thanks, American Soccer Analysis!) makes the two players coming from within MLS the easiest to break down. David Accam and Dominique Badji each completed Year Five in MLS this past season, with very different circumstances.
Accam was one of the league’s top wingers in his first three years, and while his Chicago Fire squads were mediocre at best, the Ghanaian was a bright spot in some otherwise-trying seasons. He earned a big payday with a move to the Philadelphia Union… but that team was in the midst of switching to a philosophy (a 4-4-2 with a narrow diamond midfield) that didn’t have a lot of use for his services as a wide attacker. He was moved to Columbus Crew to close out the 2019 season, and the flailing Crew SC didn’t get a whole lot more out of him.
Badji began his career with the Colorado Rapids, where he was a striker for three and a half seasons. A mid-season swap during the course of 2018 saw him move to FC Dallas, where he began to see some time on the wing in addition to time up front. Under new manager Luchi Gonzalez in 2019, he was a pure winger for FCD (with only cameo appearances up top).
One player moved to a team that didn’t have use for a winger, while the other moved to a team that moved him into that position, though he hadn’t previously been experienced at the spot. It should come as no surprise then that 2019 was not a banner season for either:
You want to be in the upper-right portion of that plot – I excised LAFC’s Carlos Vela from it because he’s so far in that direction from everyone else – and neither Accam nor Badji was. There are some factors to take into account (particularly a series of minor injuries for Accam, hence the low minutes played), but the numbers say you aren’t looking at the best winger duo in the league.
In particular, the expected assist numbers were low. The goal creation wasn’t the name of the game for either guy – perhaps not a surprise for a pair of guys who have been more known for scoring than assisting in the past. Indeed, the expected goal numbers were actually quite fine.
Badji was a productive shooter, very close to the top 25% of MLS wingers (xG/96) who played more than 1000 minutes. Accam was almost exactly average in expected goals among that cohort. The problem? Both were pretty comfortably among the bottom 25% in expected assists.
Accam’s career trajectory is the major question mark with him. Let’s take a look at a semi-horrifying graph:
His expected goals and assists per 96 minutes played were trending in the right direction in Chicago. You could safely say that a change in venue was very bad for him! Certainly, Mike Jacobs’s mantra of “valuing the undervalued” can come into play here: Philadelphia didn’t have a use for him, and thus undervalued him, and while a return to his Chicago-level form is perhaps optimistic, it’s at least not ridiculous.
A major question with Badji from those who have followed his five years in MLS (and particularly his year-plus in Dallas) has been about his finishing. I… I don’t see it:
In five years, he has three in which he comfortably outperformed his xG, and two in which he was just below the expectation. I’m a firm believer in Finishing Is a Myth, but at the very least, you could see an argument for a player who consistently outperforms or underperforms xG being a good or poor finisher. Badji doesn’t seem to be either. Similar to Accam, Badji seems to be a guy undervalued (possibly by playing out of position, but at the very least not matching Gonzalez’s preferred style for the position) by his current club.
Whether Nashville SC can extract the unrealized value from either player may ultimately be a different question – but certainly there’s room to do so.
It will surely shock you to learn that detailed statistics for Costa Rica’s Liga FPD are difficult to unearth. However, Randall Leal is a finalist for Player of the Apertura (you can click through to vote for him), and given that he only scored four goals during the season, you can imagine that, unlike the two above-listed players, he’s a creator from the wing. The visual/anecdotal evidence certainly backs that up:
Translating it to Major League Soccer is an unknown (there have been success stories and cautionary tales going from Costa Rica to MLS in that regard), but the indicators – league honors, international call-ups, compensation, eyeball test – are positive.
Alan Winn has lots of upside, but is still not a finished product. He battled a concussion early this season and minor injuries later, but at the USL level, he flashed potential rather than game-changing plays.
Winn notched just 17 key passes in 1372 minutes for Nashville SC, 1.19 key passes per 96 minutes played. It’s tough to contextualize numbers in USL without league-wide xG statistics. Assuming his key passes produced league-average chances*, each key pass is worth about 0.12 goals (the conversion rate in USL, which should approximate xG if the xG model is accurate). That means he produced about 0.14 xA/96 in 2019.
With three goals on 21 shots, he was slightly above league-average (0.14) in conversion – again, no way to know whether that’s getting better-than-average looks or converting looks at a better-than-average rate, and either way the sample size is low enough as to be statistically insignificant.
The xG and xA numbers would both be close 50th percentile in MLS (among wingers with at least 1000 minutes)… but he did it against lesser competition in USL. At 23 and just two years of professional experience, he’s still improving. It’s unlikely he’s more than a depth player in Year One.
*This may or may not be the case. Assisted shots had a slightly lower average xG (0.100) than all shots (0.108) in Major League Soccer last year. The data is obviously unavailable for USL, and the quality of Winn’s individual key passes as compared to the population is even less available.
Nashville SC has played a couple other USL signings at wing positions, even if their natural positions are elsewhere: Matt LaGrassa is more a holding midfielder (at the MLS level, his athletic ability probably isn’t to the level to play as a pure offensive winger), while Taylor Washington is primarily a left back (his technical ability is the limiting factor as an out-and-out winger – though he made major strides on-the-ball this year).
In addition, Designated Player Hany Mukhtar – primarily a central attacking midfielder – has the ability and the engine to play wide. However, he’s best-used in the middle (particularly because Nashville doesn’t have anyone who can replace him there without moving someone from a more-natural position), as well.
What it all means
While they have different styles, the available wingers share two characteristics: they’re right-footed, and have grown most comfortable on the left wing. Accam has played on the right in his MLS career, while Winn has been on both sides as well, but a true right-sided player – whether a shoot-first lefty or a crossing-happy righty – doesn’t seem to be here. Adding one before the season might be prudent.
We can also glean some style-of-play insights from the types of players brought in (both here and at the striker position): Nashville wants speedy guys on the edges and up top, rather than patient possession-builders. Wings who can score for themselves help make up for a lack of proven talent at the striker position.
The talent on the wings is solid; without shuffling the lineup, the depth isn’t super-great. There are still roster openings to fill, and while at least a couple of them will be SuperDraft picks (including a third keeper, in all likelihood), there’s still room to grow with established talent here.