Will Miguel Nazarit have a chance to make his Nashville SC debut? File photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country.
We may be four months into the 2020 Major League Soccer season, but with just two games under Nashville SCs belt*, there is still plenty to determine on the field. The Boys in Gold have yet to get a result on the pitch, and the lineups are likely to continue evolving.
The depth chart may be locked in stone at a few positions on the pitch, but there are others at which a starter has yet to find separation, much less the top backup and beyond. As the team prepares to kick off in Orlando next Wednesday, where can we expect to see those competitions play out on the field?
* Stay inside, wear a mask, wash your hands.
The spots at which we’re not expecting any fluidity (except inasmuch as three games in 13 days will necessitate heavy rotation) are as clearly-defined as the starting line on the depth chart at each of them.
Joe Willis is the starting goalkeeper. Dan Lovitz, Dave Romney, and Walker Zimmerman are the top players across the backline, from LB to right CB. Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty are the starting central midfielders. Right back is the only spot that looks potentially shaky.
As defined as the back seven is (aside from the RB position), there’s as much uncertainty in the front four. Designated Players Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal will start at two positions, most likely central attacking midfielder and left wing – where they were in the opening lineup for each of the first two games – though each is versatile enough to play a couple difference spots there.
The right wing (or “non Leal/Mukhtar attacking midfielder” if their positions are shuffled a bit) and striker are up for grabs, though, much like the spot behind it on the pitch.
The incumbent: Eric Miller
Miller started and went the distance in Nashville’s first two games, but was seen as perhaps the only weak link in that back seven through two contests. The MLS journeyman (he’s on his fifth club in seven seasons) seems to be, at best, a solid player. At worst, he may be a slight liability.
While I think he’s bearing too much of the brunt of the criticism for Portland’s lone goal in Nashville’s loss in the Rose City, he’s not blameless either. If there’s a reasonable replacement option, giving that player a chance – and it’d likely have to be in the starting lineup, given that Gary Smith has shown an aversion to changing players along his backline with substitutions if he can avoid it – could be the move.
The contender: Brayan Beckeles
Enter Brayan Beckeles. The Honduras international arrived in Nashville less than 100% from a health perspective. That may be a little worrisome given his age – 34-year-olds aren’t going to have the quick bounceback ability of younger players – but his signing seemed to come with the intention that he’d be first-choice when available. If an extra couple months to get fit has paid off, he could get his shot.
The dark horse: Alistair Johnston
The Canadian rookie from Wake Forest is a physical marvel with speed perhaps unmatched on the rest of NSC’s defensive corps. However, having played fullback for only his final season of college (he was previously a central midfielder), it’s likely that he’ll need more seasoning before he hits the professional field.
The incumbent: David Accam
Accam is a high-potential player, despite a couple lean years with Philadelphia and Columbus. If he’s playing at his highest level, Nashville SC is in good shape. However, in each of the first two games, he looked like there was a little rust to shake off. Add in that his home was destroyed in Nashville’s March tornado, and his wife, Florence Dadson, gave birth during the coronavirus halt in play, and giving him a super-sub role as he continues acclimating to his new team might not be the worst idea.
As with other members of Nashville’s front four, he’s a little positionally versatile (his best moments with both Chicago and Columbus have been on the left wing, whereas NSC has played him on the right with some striker responsibilities so far), so shuffling the lineup could provide different opportunities.
The contenders: Abu Danladi, Jimmy Medranda, Alan Winn
Danladi came off the bench at both striker and right wing in Nashville’s abbreviated start to the season. However, he came off injured in the Portland contest, so he may not be available. If he can have a go at it, his speed can be a game-changer at either position.
Medranda had significant knee surgery when he was with Sporting Kansas City, and his return to the field against Portland may actually have exceeded expectations in terms of how healthy he can be this year. The only left-footed attacking option, he can either play as a left winger or an inverted right winger, and provide a different option than anyone else can. He played LW against Portland, hitting a few crosses in.
Winn was a substitute in the Atlanta United game but did not travel to Portland for game two. He’s battled minor health issues with Nashville SC (including a concussion prior to the 2019 USL season), so even though he’s young, he may not be an every-match sort of guy.
The incumbent: Dominique Badji
Badji has taken plenty of grief for the lack of production of the offense through two games. He’s not singularly responsible, but he hasn’t proven adept enough at link-up play or making timely runs to provide that spark. He’s probably a better fit in a gameplan that sees his team playing level or with a lead, so he can run in-behind, and it’s not his fault his team has given up early goals and taken away that opportunity.
Even if he’s supplanted in the starting lineup, there’s a role for Badji to play for this team.
The contenders: Daniel Ríos, Danladi
Ríos is the hope here. Whereas Danladi is a winger who can contribute up top because of his speed, Ríos’s hold-up play brings a different element to the game than the other options (and his finishing may, as well). He’s been a highly successful USL player… but also struggled to be consistently 90-minute healthy at times last season as well as this season.
The dark horses: Leal/Mukhtar
Playing a different guy out of position would likely be about speed and finishing rather than other aspects of striker play. Leal and Mukhtar are among the types who could bring the technical ability, but perhaps not the physical profile of a line-leading striker.
Experience for young guys?
Given the nature of playing three games in 13 days, a greater amount of Nashville SC’s depth may be tested (and preferably at least one more 12 days after that), some youngsters – including those playing behind the “settled starters” may have a chance to see some time.
Rookies Alistair Johnston, Jack Maher, and Tanner Dieterich could see depth minutes (despite Gary Smith’s hesitance to make in-game changes to the back seven when avoidable), while youngsters Brian Tah Anunga, Derrick Jones, and Miguel Nazarit – all of whom have professional experience in lesser leagues – could get the same sort of opportunities if there is available time.
More experienced USL guys (including some with a bit of MLS time) like Matt LaGrassa, Ken Tribbett, and Taylor Washington could be in line for a bit of action if the situation allows, as well. Goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas’s time has come in the Sporting Kansas City system, but he falls into this category, as well.
In terms of established MLS-caliber players who could step in for injury or disciplinary absences, centerback/left back Jalil Anibaba is one of the very few players meeting that profile (but not expected to play a major role in other circumstances).
What position battles are you looking forward to watching in Orlando, assuming the tournament goes off without a hitch?