Photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
We’re just a couple days away from the 2021 edition of the Major League Soccer SuperDraft.
The soccer version of a traditional college draft doesn’t have the same sort of fanfare it does in other major American sports – the other mechanisms through which players join the league (often bypassing college altogether) and the global nature of the game dominate roster-building – but it’s still one of the offseason milestones that fans should keep an eye on. Some franchises do manage to turn it into a bit more of an “event” like you’d see in the NBA or NFL, but last year’s Nashville excitement was more the exception than the rule.
However, it’s worth taking stock of some big-picture items to set the parameters for our expectations going into this Thursday’s event (which can be streamed on MLS channels).
- Nashville SC brings back the vast majority of its 2020 roster. With only 4–6 roster slots currently available, and at least one credible player rumor still floating out in the ether, there’s not a ton of roster space to draft – and ultimately sign – players from the college ranks anyway.
- NSC had an outstanding debut year. This means two things: first, that while help is needed, it’s not a lot of help from a personnel standpoint – and it’s probably not the type of roster hole that can be filled with a player fresh out of the college ranks. Secondly, a good season means Nashville’s first SuperDraft pick doesn’t come until No. 20 overall. Only four players from last year draft (Toronto FC’s Achara, San Jose’s Jack Skahan, Orlando’s Joey DeZart, Portland’s Zack McGraw) made an MLS gameday roster after being drafted later than No. 19 overall.
- Split college season. Thanks to the unfortunate nature of the world we’re living in, the majority of college conferences didn’t compete during the usual fall season. The ACC and Sun Belt were the lone exceptions, and picking a player from any other conference introduces risk that he’ll stay in college until May/June anyway.
For all those reasons, it’s plain to see that this is not the year for Nashville SC to get major contributors in the SuperDraft. Depth players who stick with the senior team? Perhaps. Most likely, NSC will use its five picks (Nos. 20, 46, 73, 74, and 86 overall after picking up Philadelphia’s second- and third-rounders today) to snag guys to fill out the preseason roster with practice bodies, in the hopes that more than one sticks longer-term.
With all that said, what sorts of needs would make sense for Nashville SC to fill for a year or two down the line? Let’s quickly take it position-by-position:
- Striker. Several returning players from last season, including late addition (and Designated Player) Jhonder Cádiz are age 28 or younger. Low need, and a position that NSC prefers to fill with international or experienced MLS players. A depth guy is possible.
- Winger/Attacking midfield. Same situation as striker: more likely to be filled with internationals or experienced MLS guys. A pick would be more lottery ticket than a guy who’s expected to be on the depth chart in a year’s time.
- Central midfield/wide defensive midfield. I’m lumping these two together because there’s a lot of overlap (obviously wide defensive midfielders have some overlap with winger, as well). With Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy on the high side of 30, adding guys who can develop into starters in a couple years would be wise.
- Fullback. Nashville’s starters on either side are settled, with Dan Lovitz seeming to lock down the left and Alistair Johnston the right. However, the top backup for both might be 32-year old Jalil Anibaba… who also provides depth at centerback. Taylor Washington on the left seems to be bumping into the wide-D-mid category, while Eric Miller on the right may be somebody that a young player can come compete with. This looks like an area where NSC can use a reinforcement.
- Centerback. Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney have signed extensions to man this group through the 2023 season, while last year’s top SuperDraft pick, Jack Maher, emerged late in the year (prior to injury) as a viable backup and a starter of the future. With Miller and Anibaba both able to provide a bit of depth, and Miguel Nazarit’s status still up in the air long-term, another developmental player is a possibility here.
- Goalkeeper. Nashville SC has a lock starter in Joe Willis, and a No. 2 in Elliot Panicco who was good enough to see multiple other backup keepers deemed surplus to requirements. However, with just two keepers and a long runway to playing time for a No. 3, getting a top developmental goalie in the Draft would make sense.
So, NSC will likely be drafting players to either work out as preseason trialists, or to stash in USL for a year or two. Despite that, it seems the position groups that were already most successful in 2020 are the ones most likely to be addressed in the SuperDraft. That may seem counterintuitive at first, but it follows logically. If the goal is to pick players in the hopes they can stick around for a while and develop, you’re looking at 2023, not 2021.
Again, operating on the assumption that Nashville is drafting players it intends to keep, a No. 3 goalkeeper, a backup fullback, backup CB, and a developmental central midfielder seem like the positions (in approximate order of need) that can be filled through the SuperDraft mechanism. That doesn’t mean NSC would pick them in that order – the availability of players, the potential for further trades, etc. play into the strategy there – but those are the ones to keep a serious eye on. Given that there are only four of those needs (and not all of them are particularly urgent), and the Boys in Gold now have five picks, there’s also a little flexibility to throw one or two around.