Nashville SC

Nashville SC 2021 preview: Central attacking midfield

Hany Mukhtar photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer

When Hany Mukhtar was on the field last year, he put in strong performances. But he wasn’t on it frequently enough, and the depth chart behind him is thin. Let’s break it down.

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

Depth chart

PlayerAgeExperienceHow acquired
Hany Mukhtar2610th pro (2nd MLS/Nashville)Signed as a Designated Player
Randall Leal249th pro (2nd MLS/Nashville)Signed as an international Discovery player
Alex Muyl256th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)Trade with New York Red Bulls for international slot and up to $50k allocation money
Matt LaGrassa276th pro (2nd MLS/Nashville)USL Discovery
Rodrigo Piñeiro 215th pro (1st MLS/Nashville)Signed as an international Discover player
Irakoze Donasiyano23NCAA2021 SuperDraft (with University of Virginia through Spring)

The starter

Hany Mukhtar is capital-T capital-G The Guy here. He was signed as the team’s first Designated Player, and has the flashy style that can draw major headlines when things go well. For that reason, it’s a little distressing that there’s a “Hany Mukhtar was disappointing in 2020” narrative floating in national media when it comes to Nashville’s expectations going forward.

He certainly was not one of the very best players in MLS, but among CAMs who played over 500 minutes, he was top-10 in goals + assists expected per 96 minutes played:

He’s the blue dot in the middle there. The only guys more productive than him who played fewer minutes were a backup in one of MLS’s most-potent attacks (Anthony Fontana of Philadelphia) and one who’s no longer in the league after splitting time on the wing and at CAM (Magnus Eriksson). The majority of the guys who outperformed him played a ton more minutes. When you take into account that Mukhtar’s low minute totals were due to injury rather than underperformance… I don’t see a lot to be upset about here?

He just didn’t play a lot. And that, to be fair, is quite the question mark itself. You wouldn’t imagine that a global respiratory pandemic affecting rosters – and in this instance more importantly, the calendar – will be a recurring issue with the fixture congestion of 2020 likely a large part of Hany’s inability to keep the hamstrings loose game-to-game. You’d also have to hope that a season to adjust to the physicality of the league after coming from a more-technical, less-athletic league in Denmark is enough to both toughen him up and give him the impetus to shore up the parts of his game that were weak.

Being a little push-off-ball-y and having difficulty finding dangerous areas to receive passes (-0.25 goals added in that department) are both “hopefully now that the physicality bar is set, he’s good” situations. There is no guarantee for either, though.

Up next

There, uh. There isn’t anybody. When Mukhtar was unavailable last season, Gary Smith slid Randall Leal inside and sacrificed a little potency on the wing.

It actually worked out quite well anecdotally (it’d be tough to suss out statistically and we’re on a deadline that won’t allow that work to happen), and with more wing talent available – in the form of Handwalla Bwana and Rodrigo Piñeiro, specifically – it can be more of a change-up option than a last resort because it’s the only option when Mukhtar can’t play. Leal seemed to be very willing to play within himself and with a quick mind (whereas on the wing, over-thinking was possible) when inside.

After him, there basically isn’t a player with the requisite skillset to perform in the No. 10 role. We saw both Derrick Jones and Alex Muyl play regularly as a “defensive 10” in Mukhtar’s stead last year, especially when Leal was also out. I would imagine that’s the thought process once again, and Nashville will go more press-heavy both because it fits the skillset of Muyl or Matt LaGrassa (who has played as both a typical No. 10 and that defense-first No. 10 at times under Gary Smith), and because it’ll help generate goals through turnovers and pressure when the type of creative ability isn’t out there on the pitch.

Putting Piñeiro in there is the same philosophy as with Leal: someone with the technical ability and passing vision to set up teammates, even if his one-v-one chops and speed are better overall fits for the wing. I would also imagine that, since he’s a young and inexperienced player coming to a new team and country, he’ll focus on nailing the system as a winger before this option needs to be explored.

Currently at UVa, Irakoze Donasiyano has played at No. 10 for the Hoos in the past, and while he’s considered a defensive midfielder or fullback at this point, he could be slotted into the role in an emergency. Hopefully it doesn’t come to the sixth guy on the depth chart, for obvious reasons.

The outlook

You could fairly say that Mukhtar is primed for a breakout year with a system coming together around him, more talent in front of him to gobble up goals, and of course a year to adjust to the MLS style of play. I won’t begrudge you that opinion in the least, but I also think if he’s reasonably comparable to his output last year, just available to play more then half the minutes, Nashville SC is just fine.

You badly do not want to see him get hurt though. It takes a starter out of one of your other positions on the wing in Leal, or it requires the focus of the chance-generation in attack to be something completely different with a Muyl-style No. 10 in the game instead. I don’t think Red Bullin’ it with a guy like Muyl or LaGrassa would be the worst idea for Nashville on occasion, and it may very well be a change-up even if not forced sometimes.

To put the “beautiful” in “beautiful game,” though, Mukhtar has to be healthy, and has to have chemistry with the other members of the front four.

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