Nashville SC

Nashville SC 2021 preview: Goalkeeper

Joe Willis photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer

We move from talking about other teams to talking about the one of most interest. In lieu of trying to go for something more creative like in past years, let’s rip through this squad by position. I’ll first tackle that which seems most straightforward: goalkeeper.

Depth chart

PlayerAgeExperienceHow acquired
Joe Willis3211th Pro (10th MLS, 2nd Nashville)Traded from Houston Dynamo for Zarek Valentin
(Expansion draft pick)
Elliot Panicco242nd Pro/MLS/Nashville SC2020 SuperDraft (UNC Charlotte)
Bryan Meredith3111th Pro (10th MLS, 1st Nashville)Free Agency (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Tor Saunders*22NCAA2021 SuperDraft (will finish college season
with Coastal Carolina)

The starter

Joe Willis signed a contract extension this offseason after a very strong first year in Nashville. Given that he played every competitive minute of last season, one can safely assume that the hope is he can do the same in 2021. It’s worth noting that he also had a career year:

Being below the line (i.e. allowing fewer goals than the expected goals faced) is good. While Willis had been slightly better than average in the past, his 2020 wasn’t in the stratosphere of those years. It was… uh… in the mesosphere, I guess? Been a long time since Our Valiant Hero has taken an Earth Sciences course. Anyway, I gave him the best grade on the team in his report card.

The question naturally becomes whether Willis simply needed to be put into the right situation to perform better than the average MLS goalkeeper, or whether there’s something about Nashville’s system that games the numbers and makes keeper look better than the actual performances might merit. From our perspective… it doesn’t matter that much. Willis will once again be playing behind Dave Romney, Walker Zimmerman, and their supporting cast of characters. Where it does matter is if he has some regression to the mean and the group in front of him isn’t at 100% of its previous performance this year.

2020 was by far the least xG faced per 96 minutes played, and comfortably the fewest shots faced per 96 minutes played in his career as a starter. That’s “he’s in an easier situation than in the past” territory, which helps explain his career-best performance. It’s also something that should be replicated, and even a regression toward the mean will keep him in the realm of the elite.

Up next

Nashville brought in Bryan Meredith this offseason, and he’s an MLS vet despite only a handful of games in the league after 2012. Maybe “No. 3 goalkeeper” is the MLS version of football’s “backup quarterback,” because Meredith has simply stuck and stuck. I would anticipate that he’s sort of a veteran guy leading youngsters – and if he wants to translate that into a coaching career, there’s no better guy to follow than Nashville’s GK coach Matt Pickens. It feels like there’s less likelihood he actually contributes much (though it’s worth noting he was one of the better options in Vancouver’s rotation last year).

The No. 2 keeper is almost certainly Elliot Panicco. His entire statistical output as a pro is below:

Hey wait, there’s nothing there! He was good enough in 2020 that Nashville felt OK about letting former No. 2 Adrian Zendejas go. The technical staff chose to protect him rather than Brady Scott in the Expansion Draft (and Scott was selected by Austin FC). He was one of the best keepers in college during the 2019 season. That was also the last time he played competitively. He stepped up and had a solid friendly against Tampa Bay Rowdies a couple weeks ago, but sooner or later we’ll need to, you know, see him on the field to know what his long-term future is.

Tor Saunders is finishing up his college career at Coastal Carolina. He’s one of the top-performing players in the NCAA, and will be 23 by the time his career ends, but a Summer in USL beckons nonetheless.

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