While Nashville SC’s central defenders draw many of the headlines – and deservedly so – the defensive play on the flanks is also pretty impressive, to me. Let us take a look.
|Dan Lovitz (L)||29||8th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)||Trade with Montreal Impact for $100k combined allocation money and 2020 international slot|
|Alistair Johnston (R)||22||2nd pro/MLS/ Nashville||2020 SuperDraft|
|Jalil Anibaba (L/R)||32||11th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)||2020 Expansion Draft pick|
|Dylan Nealis (R)||22||2nd Pro/MLS (1st Nashville)||Trade with Inter Miami CF for up to $225k allocation money|
|Eric Miller (R)||28||10th pro (8th MLS, 2nd Nashville)||2020 Re-entry Draft pick|
|Taylor Washington (L)||27||6th pro (2nd MLS, 4th Nashville)||USL Discovery|
|Nick Hinds (L)||22||7th pro (2nd MLS, 1st Nashville)||Trade with Seattle Sounders for $50k allocation money|
|Irakoze Donasiyano (R/L)||23||NCAA||2021 SuperDraft (will finish college season with Virginia)|
|Tom Judge (L)||21||NCAA||2021 SuperDraft (will finish college season with James Madison)|
Given that Dan Lovitz was essentially a lock starter in 2020 and Alistair Johnston was pretty close to the same once he ascended into the top line on the depth chart, the running performances are relevant once more:
UPDATE: still good. Lovitz’s absences included a game against offensively-inept DC United… and that dark dot (the one we previously discussed as lacking Walker Zimmerman). This was also a 3-1 blowout win against Houston Dynamo where the Dynamo were going bombs-away after trailing 3-0 within 23 minutes of the game’s beginning, so game-state effects certainly play a role there.
It’s always hard to quantify the impact of individual defenders on the final numbers, and that’s probably even more true for the FBs than the big boys in the center. Opponents crossed the ball 11.3 times per game from open play. Is that good for the fullbacks, because they’re forcing low-quality passes into the box? Bad for the fullbacks because they’re giving those passes up at all? How much of it comes down to individual quality versus team gameplan stuff? All told, I think the defensive contributions are encapsulated by the overall xG numbers, and that provides a very positive view.
Lovitz slightly overperformed his expected goal-scoring (with, uh, one) and slightly underachieved his expected assists, whereas Johnston has yet to officially find the scoresheet despite 2.23 xG+xA last year. Obviously, the fullbacks are not generating a ton of offense here (most of Lovitz’s came as the designated lefty set-piece taker), but it’s just enough to contribute and keep opponents honest.
Jalil Anibaba’s do-everything status saw him serve as the primary backup on the left side once Taylor Washington moved forward to a more pure-winger role, and he was also one of the top backups on the right, though Eric Miller bore a lot of the responsibility there, as well. It’s tough to evaluate any of those three guys in ways specific to the FB position because of their moonlighting at other spots (CB for Anibaba and Miller, the aforementioned wing for Washington).
There’s no question that Anibaba can get the job done at any of the roles handed to him – you’ll recall he’s also the best goalkeeper in MLS history – and there won’t even be too much dropoff in the old standard roles. He probably won’t be the most offensively exciting or defensively rangy player. But he’ll be positionally sound and effective. As noted in the CB post, Miller got a lot of grief after the first two games, but most of it might have been overblown. For Washington’s part, I don’t see him playing as a true fullback going forward. He should still contribute as a wingback when Nashville rolls out an odd backline.
There are two newcomers with some pro experience under their belts. Dylan Nealis was above-average as a rookie starter for Inter Miami CF (a team on which it perhaps was not easy to be in the positive), and in ways that project well to Nashville’s system: he was fairly bad at dribbling and getting into scoring positions – things he will not be asked to do much for NSC – and solid-or-better at everything else. He’s certainly arriving with designs on being more than a backup, and should have the chance to at least step in for Johnston when he’s on international duty this Summer.
Nick Hinds comes from the Sounders system, where he’s played almost exclusively with Tacoma Defiance (f/k/a Seattle Sounders 2). That’s almost certainly the weakest professional team in the country – I’d imagine even a move to USL League One would see S2 at the bottom of the standings – so I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that his G+ numbers are poor, and I’d note year-over-year improvement (-0.70 in 2018, -0.35 in 2019, -0.02 in 2020) as a bright sign.
Irakoze Donasiyano and Tom Judge are both still int he midst of the college seasons, and I would imagine Plan A is for both to play in USL this year with the chance to join NSC toward the end of the Summer if the development curve travels along as planned.
Nashville sheds Brayan Beckeles – who showed poorly enough that Johnston had a red-carpet welcome to a starting tryout – but returns every other contributor. Those contributors performed quite well last year, give or take how you evaluate Miller.
The question becomes how NSC handles a busy international Summer. Fortunately (from the Nashville SC perspective, at least), both Canada and the United States missed on the Olympics, so the only international tournaments that will see personnel ushered away from Music City are the Gold Cup (for both) and World Cup Qualifying (primarily for Canada, though the US will also play in the September and October international windows – and November, if NSC makes it that deep). With Nealis a like-for-like replacement for Johnston, and Lovitz’s international career fringe-ish at this point, it shouldn’t hurt NSC.
With the same contributors available, NSC also added depth – and could continue doing so, depending on what happens with the NCAA guys – and you’d be hard-pressed to call this anything less than an improvement on last year. On the top end? More of the same. But when those first-line guys are out, the dropoff will be less severe.