As Nashville SC ramps up for the 2021 season – its second in Major League Soccer – the roster build is under way. That is to say, not a ton of roster-building is necessary in Music City. NSC is currently slated to bring back 23 of last season’s 32 players (some of whom spent the season out on loan), with another (defender Eric Miller) still in negotiations with the club on a contract extension. That still leaves plenty of room to fill out the roster heading into NSC’s sophomore year.
Thursday, the club passed one of the offseason signposts in roster building with the MLS SuperDraft. General Manager Mike Jacobs and his staff selected five players from the college ranks, headlined by University of Virginia midfielder Irakoze Donasiyano.
“You look at someone like Koze, who has the ability to play centrally and wide as a winger, wide midfielder, or as a right back,” Jacobs explained. “The reality is that, where he played a key role for Virginia last year in the middle of the park behind [now Orlando-city striker] Daryl Dike and with Joe Bell [a holding midfielder now playing professionally in Norway] to advance to a national final, he also spent most of the Fall playing as a wingback in a 3-4-3.
“When you look at what Alistair [Johnston]’s done over the last year to now being with Canada, to think about what might happen with Alistair as far as his commitments this year with Olympic qualifying and potentially Concacaf [World Cup] qualifying for Canada. Being able to add someone like Koze who could help us out in midfield, but also on the flanks and specifically at right back, I think he’s got a tremendous opportunity for himself.”
The No. 20 overall pick was joined by James Madison defender Tom Judge in the second round (36 overall), before a late run of NSC picks to close the third round netted Syracuse defender Sondre Norheim (73), Coastal Carolina goalkeeper Tor Saunders (74), and Drake forward Leroy Enzugusi (No. 86 – the final pick of the Draft). Although situations are naturally fluid, all five players are expected to participate in the spring season of NCAA soccer, with the traditional fall schedule pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As with Donasiyano, versatility will be the name of the gane when it comes to their ability to stick long-term as Boys in Gold.
“When you look at guys like Tom Judge who can play anywhere up and down the left side – I think some of these guys have demonstrated to us already, just from the time we spent tracking them through their careers, they can probably chip in in a number of different roles,” Jacobs explained. “For us, we always kind of feel that, if you can only play one spot on the field, you better be really good, because only one guy can play there. For [Nashville SC’s MLS Defender of the Year] Walker Zimmerman to only play centerback: I mean, he’s the best centerback in the league this past season. For some of these guys like Koze, like Tom Judge, like Sondre – who’s played as a right centerback and right back at Syracuse – there’s some of these guys in this group that have the potential to contribute this season for us.
“This ’21 season will be as unique as any other. I know that sounds like a broken record from how unique last season was, but for the first time, you’re going to have the Gold Cup, Euros, Copa América, all going at the same time along with [World Cup] qualifiers, and Olympic qualifiers, and the depth on our roster is being tested that much more. I think when you look at what we’ve put together for ’21, this roster has the potential to be that much deeper than we were last year.”
Once a hallmark event of the MLS offseason, the SuperDraft has been marginalized by many teams across the league. With academy systems that provide a clear path from the youth ranks directly into the pros, a number of franchises simply don’t see the need to make selections from a group of players that is largely older – with four years of college – than the current global trend of beginning a professional career in the teenage years.
While Nashville isn’t in the same situation, the Draft will remain important. Those differences in philosophy paid off with a couple picks traded on the cheap from Philadelphia Union, and a move up the draft board in the second round as part of a package with Vancouver Whitecaps.
With two decades of college coaching experience – including four years as an ACC assistant at Duke – Jacobs believes he has an inside track to finding the players from the NCAA ranks that may otherwise be passed up in an era of teams focusing on their own academies. With his expertise – and that of former college soccer standouts Chance Myers (UCLA) and Ally MacKay (who played for Jacobs at University of Evansville) who are his Chief Scout and Assistant GM, respectively – Nashville SC’s scouting of the college rankings fills in the gaps while the NSC Academy ramps up.
“I would say in regards to scouting college soccer in general: we can’t place enough significance on how important that experience is for young players,” Jacobs explained. “The reality is, with the advance of the MLS academy initiative, clearly you have more and more players who are jumping right to MLS clubs straight through their academies. But the reality is some players need more time.
“Whether it’s my own experiences from having coached in college so long, or Chance Myers who in 2008 was the No. 1 pick in the MLS SuperDraft for Sporting Kansas City – at that time, the Kansas City Wizards – we just placed a lot of value in college soccer. At a time where people question the value sometimes, or the importance and significance of the SuperDraft, I think we demonstrated last year with our selections – and we hope we’ll do the same thing this year – that not only can you find value in the SuperDraft, but that we’re going to be able to maximize the picks we have. We walk away today very excited with the haul we have, the picks we selected.”
There’s plenty for fans to be excited about, as well. With the departed players largely having earned minimal time a season ago, the core of the Nashville SC team that exceeded all expectations with a run to the Eastern Conference semifinal returns. Adding high-potential players who can fill in depth – and perhaps develop into even more than that – should lead to a bright future on the pitch for the Boys in Gold.