Nashville SC

Nashville SC 2021 preview: Centerback

We go from position of strength to position of strength in the NSC positional previews. Today, the one that brought Nashville SC its first individual hardware in Major League Soccer.

Previously: Schedule part 1Schedule Part 2Schedule Part 3
GoalkeeperCenterbackFullbackCentral midfieldCentral attacking midfieldWingerStriker

Depth chart

PlayerAgeExperienceHow acquired
Walker Zimmerman (R)279th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)Trade with LAFC for $1.25m combined allocation money
Dave Romney (L)277th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)Trade with LA Galaxy for $275K combined allocation money
Jalil Anibaba3211th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)2020 Expansion Draft pick
Jack Maher212nd pro/MLS/Nashville2020 SuperDraft pick
Eric Miller2810th pro (8th MLS, 2nd Nashville)2020 Re-entry Draft pick
Robert Castellanos225th pro (1st MLS/Nashville)USL Discovery
Sondre Norheim24NCAA2021 SuperDraft (completing college career)

The starters

Walker Zimmerman was named the MLS Defender of the Year. I managed to give Dave Romney a higher grade (Zim’s report card here) when I evaluated their seasons. That’s a hell of a good start when you’re building a strong backline for a Major League Soccer team, I would say.

The results largely speak for themselves: I noted the low xG-against faced by Joe Willis in yesterday’s piece, and while these guys weren’t solely responsible for it, they played a big role. Nashville was slightly lucky in terms of opponents’ conversions (remember, some of that comes down to the keeper, and we’ve established that Willis had an elite year), but the xG allowed was still among the league’s best.

Tim Sullivan/Club & Country

Aside from one very rough game early in the year – the 3-1 loss to Orlando City that had a hell of a lot going on around it – the team was never more than a standard deviation worse than average. Among the eight “bad” games, one of them was without Zimmerman (the dark dot at No. 17) and four of them were in the team’s first nine MLS games. The starters are good here.

Zimmerman’s Goals Added number is slightly inflated from a pure defensive perspective because he provides a lot of offense as a set-piece threat (+0.78 receiving and +0.11 shooting, with the former first among CBs by a mile) – but, uh, in a holistic view of the position, that counts, too. Romney added a single goal himself – the opener in that cursed Orlando game – and I would imagine he has more set-piece opportunities this year as MLS opponents think “Walker Zimmerman on a set piece” is the only offense Nashville can produce, and thus overreact to prevent it.

I don’t think it’s likely that either of these guys moves along, but Zimmerman has a more-notable reputation as a USMNT contributor and has mentioned a desire to test himself in Europe, so if he’s off to the same pace he finished 2020 with, Nashville may not have him forever. I would imagine they keep him through the end of the season (and loan him to a European side in the winter transfer window, rather than sell him outright) unless the season doesn’t look poised to live up to expectations and there’s less opportunity cost there. There are a lot of hypotheticals in this paragraph: the expected outcome is that he remains with NSC for the long term.

For a more micro 2020 view, Zimmerman may be out of commission for Gold Cup from July 10-Aug. 1 (or perhaps with the team only for group-stage or knockout games, rather than both). For that reason more than any worry about the quality of these guys, Nashville will need a bit of depth.

Up next

Jalil Anibaba was the first guy off the bench at either CB spot – last year, that meant adding one for a back-three, rather than needing substitutions for Romney or Zimmerman – and that should continue this year as he also reprises his role as a top backup at either fullback position. Goals added had him at essentially average. I would contend his versatility and leadership were at least as valuable as his (still-important!) contributions in gameplay.

Eric Miller started the year as Nashville’s right back, and it didn’t go hyper-well (though not as poorly as some think). When he got back on the field later in the year, it was largely as an inserted right CB to create a back five – though he also spelled Alistair Johnston at right back, as well. With new FB depth added, I would anticipate it’s more the former than latter.

The CB of the future, on the other hand, is Jack Maher. He started the year on loan to Charlotte Independence, was brought back in the midst of the coronavirus pause, and had just started to approach regular contributions when he went out for the year with a knee injury. He’s expected back fully healthy and has been so in preseason, and has plenty to build upon.

Robert Castellanos is new to the club, but like Maher (who he’s less than two years older than, despite four more years as a pro), the future is bright. Despite playing for a terrible team in RGV Toros, ASA‘s Goals Added per 96 minutes played had him as the third best CB in the league to play over 800 minutes (and one of the two guys better, Neveal Hackshaw, is an established elite player and was on a team that’s going to make it easier to succeed in Indy Eleven). An elite interruptor and an offensive threat… a 22-year old version of Walker Zimmerman is the upside, though it’ll take him some time to get there. I would nonetheless project that he and Maher climb to top backups on the depth chart by season’s end.

Norheim is a less-mobile CB, and a guy who’ll likely take a couple years to be an MLS contributor (assuming he signs and sticks with Nashville SC). In the long run, he can be the complement to a rangier Zimmerman-type, though.

The outlook

When Zimmerman and Romney are on the field, this should be an elite CB pairing (or trio). Whether due to gameload, international duty, or injury, there should be a greater percentage of the time when they’re not both out there this season, and certainly more time available for backups. How Nashville plans to minimize performance dropoff in those instances will consist of a few key aspects: planning for the best games to make it happen, putting less-experienced (or less-productive) players in specific roles and positions to succeed, and developing the depth players as quickly as possible.

A season that won’t be as fast-and-furious should help, but Nashville simply doesn’t have the options to avoid playing less-proven guys if Zimmerman gets called up to the Gold Cup, for example. In Gary Smith’s system, the goal will be to provide a little more protection for a guy who is being brought along.

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