Nashville SC

Nashville SC 2021 preview: Central midfield

Aníbal Godoy photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer

One of the strengths of last year’s Nashville SC team was the consistent play – even with some personnel shuffling over the course of the year – in central midfield. Can that repeat for the Boys in Gold?

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

Depth chart

PlayerAgeExperienceHow acquired
Dax McCarty3316th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)Trade with Chicago for $100k combined allocation money and 2021 SuperDraft pick
Aníbal Godoy3115th pro (7th MLS, 2nd NashvilleTrade with San Jose for $650k allocation money
Tah Brian Anunga247th pro (2nd MLS/Nashville)Transfer from Charleston Battery
Matt LaGrassa286th pro (2nd MLS/Nashville)USL Discovery
Alex Muyl256th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)Trade with New York Red Bulls for international slot and up to $50k allocation money
Jalil Anibaba3211th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)2020 Expansion Draft pick
Irakoze Donasiyano23NCAA2021 SuperDraft (with University of Virginia through Spring)

The starters

Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy were locks in these positions when healthy and available. That wasn’t always the case last year – it was a crowded calendar and they’re not the youngest guys in the league – and perhaps won’t be this year, particularly with Godoy’s potential involvement in World Cup Qualifying and the Gold Cup with Panama. Either way, when they were on the field, they were borderline elite. I graded each of them very positively.

Their contributions may be tough to suss out statistically in some ways. Part of being the shield for the backline is that you’re discouraging passes, and therefore they are never attempted for you to intercept. Despite that, McCarty was one of the top interrupting DMs in the league last year, and Godoy was well-above average. That’s the biggest factor to keep in mind, because these aren’t two guys who are going to show up on the (traditional) scoresheet a ton.

They also both well outperformed their expected passing numbers, with McCarty quite a bit more adventurous – and getting rewarded for it with two assists and 26 key passes to Godoy’s zero and nine – but neither really being involved in the final phase except in stretches.

For both, staying healthy and repeating last year’s success is the goal, and a realistic one.

Up next

There are only two players on the roster who are true backups at this position (or “these positions” if you consider the roles of McCarty and Godoy distinct, rather than two takes on the same position). Tah Brian Anunga entered on a transfer from USL’s Charleston Battery, and while his defensive work was expected, he was a borderline revelation in terms of ball-security. Of course, some of that was extreme conservatism, and being a little more risk-taking going forward is something he can add to his game.

What he needs to do is find the right balance. Adding some progressive passing will inherently mean more incompletions and turnovers. The payoff in terms of offensive output has to justify some of the negative that will result. The pendulum is currently too far toward “risk-averse,” and given his personality, I don’t expect an overcorrection (rather, getting a little more progressive but still on the conservative side of the balance seems likely).

The other backup is a fellow USL alum, with Matt LaGrassa coming up with Nashville SC to Major League Soccer. I’ve always been a fan of what LaGrassa provides, and he managed to do basically the same thing at an MLS level that he had in USL. If you consider the backups like-for-like replacements for the guys ahead of them on the depth chart, he’s the more offensively-willing McCarty facsimile. He’s got the same motor to be a little more rangy than his counterpart, too, though isn’t the athlete McCarty is.

Behind them, you have a bunch of guys who primarily play another position and would have to be shoehorned into the gig a bit (at least until Irakoze Donasiyano arrives from college, and even he is getting first mention as a fullback, rather than central midfielder, at this point).

Alex Muyl is primarily a winger, but plays it in a fashion that translates well to a holding midfield spot: he’s a defensive dynamo (for the position – he’d likely be average or below it as a CDM), and not a pure one-v-one on the edge or a creator like you might expect. He played as a defense-first No. 10 at times last season due to personnel absences from his teammates, and slotting back and playing that same way would help.

Jalil Anibaba has intermittently played as a holding midfielder even though he’s primarily a fullback or centerback at this point in his career. I’m not certain there’s literally anything on the pitch Anibaba is incapable of, and I would expect – especially since he sort of plays on the backline as that heartbeat of the team anyway – that he’d slot in very well.

I already mentioned Donasiyano, but it’s worth noting what type of player he’ll be when he arrives. He’s played as an attacking No. 10, a box-to-box midifielder, a pure holder, and a wingback/fullback on either side in college. And that’s just in the past 18 months! Mike Jacobs has been fairly forthcoming that he’s expected to play fullback for Nashville SC, but that’s a position he’s still learning (albeit the one he’s focused on mostly this year). He could slide inside in a pinch, where his balance and ball security have a bit of a “poor man’s Darlington Nagbe” vibe (though the rest of his game is pretty different).

The outlook

Even if they’re starting to get up there in age, there’s no question that a healthy, fully fit McCarty and Godoy pairing is one of the best double-pivots in the league. This could very well be the last year that we can fully expect to get that over the course of an entire season. But given how available they were under much more trying circumstances last year (fingers crossed, I guess), it seems fair to bet on it once more.

When one or the other goes out, Anunga enters the lineup, and he’s a pure No. 6 without even Godoy’s (reasonably conservative) forward roaming and forward passing. That’s fine when you’re complementing the guys he is. Maybe less so if there’s a period of time where one or the other can’t be counted on… which could be the case with frustrating frequency given that Godoy’s Panama – after seeming to cycle him out of the MNT over the previous two years or so – will lean on him with a busy international Summer. Inserting Anunga for him is fine. It gets Nashville down to just two proven starting-caliber CDMs, though.

Of course, LaGrassa isn’t too far off from that mark, and playing him with either of McCarty and Godoy is fine. It’s when you play both LaGrassa and Anunga together (as Nashville had to do at times last year) that the Boys in Gold become extremely limited in what offense can be generated from the midfield. Anunga is obviously a player who’s learning and adapting at this level and could become more of the combo player needed to complement non-starter pieces, and if he takes that step, there’s little to worry about here. He’s the CDM of the future, and just how far into the future is the more significant question.

May we not see Nashville get any deeper into the bench for significant stretches of the season, though.

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