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.
|Player (L/R distinctions are footedness, not position)||Age||Experience||How acquired|
|Randall Leal (R)||24||9th pro (2nd MLS/Nashville)||Signed as an international Discovery player|
|Alex Muyl (R)||25||6th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)||Trade with New York Red Bulls for international slot and up to $50k allocation money|
|Handwalla Bwana (R)||21||7th pro, 4th MLS, 2nd Nashville||Trade with Seattle Sounders for Jimmy Medranda and up to $250k allocation money|
|Dominique Badji (R)||28||7th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)||Trade with FC Dallas for $325k combined allocation money|
|Rodrigo Piñeiro (R)||21||5th pro (1st MLS/Nashville)||Signed as an international Discover player|
|Taylor Washington (L)||23||6th pro (2nd MLS, 4th Nashville)||USL Discovery|
|Abu Danladi (R)||25||4th pro/MLS (2nd Nashville)||2020 Expansion Draft pick|
|CJ Sapong (R)||32||11th pro/MLS (1st Nashville)||Free agent signing|
|Nick Hinds (L)||23||6th pro, 1st MLS/Nashville||Trade with Seattle Sounders for $50k GAM|
This is one of very few positions (or position groups, in this case) where the starting lineup does not seem to be obviously set in stone. Randall Leal is on one wing, but will Alex Muyl reprise his starting role opposite the Costa Rican? Will Handwalla Bwana be a bigtime contributor after getting his feet wet in Nashville last year? Will Dom Badji or CJ Sapong provide a striker-like option there? Will Rodrigo Piñeiro develop fast enough to get into the mix from the jump? Will a left-footed option other than a converted fullback appear? Will Abu Danladi fine consistent-enough health to be a factor?
Smart money is on Leal playing on the left, so he can cut inside on his favored right foot to shoot. Because it took him so long to get dialed in last year (and he’s such a fan of bombing from deep), Goals Added does not love his shooting ability, but I think of any individual attribute on a single player on this team, that may be most likely to have huge year-over-year improvement in the advanced stats.
Complementing Leal on the left with Muyl on the right is the safer (and I think most likely) option, with a defense-minded complement to Leal, and a guy with the athleticism and motor to give NSC pressing ability from the front lines. Outside of the athleticism, he may not be your prototypical winger, but he’s a system fit for Nashville, especially since they need that complement to Leal.
In the event that one of these guys is slid inside for a Mukhtar injury (or if either of them goes down), I think Bwana is the preferred option until Piñeiro is ready to be unleashed (and I’ve been pretty clear in the past that I think that’ll take some time). While NSC lacks a left-footed option that’s a true starting-caliber winger, it’s not likely to be necessary in this system.
I talked about a few of these player in the above paragraph, but it’s worth noting that the club is really high on Bwana in the intermediate term, and Piñeiro in the long term. They like Danladi even right now but he’s been unable to remain healthy for a long-enough stretch to maintain any consistency.
The rest are, in all honesty, guys who play other positions who can be used as wingers. In the case of Hinds, he’s only included because 1) left-dominant option, and 2) he played there in one of the preseason friendlies. Washington played more there than as a fullback last season. He’s a solid option, though at 27 I don’t know that a career re-invention (to be fair he also played as a wide midfielder for the USL team at times) is going to see him become a star there, either.
Unlike the No. 10 spot, there are tons of options here. Like that role, the backups include some who are pulled from other positions if they set foot on the pitch as wingers.
I think there’s a chance Leal begins to emerge as one of the top wingers in the league this season (inshallah he does not get forced to cover for Mukhtar, though he’s also quite good there). It’s which role he plays – right or left – and who the other player is (and since there are a bunch of different skillsets available, what he brings to the position) that are the bigger questions.
Playing Leal on his preferred left side where he can combine with Dan Lovitz and cut inside to shoot makes the most sense. In that case, you want a guy on the right who can either do the same thing, but with Alistair Johnston (there is not a guy with this skillset), or one who can become a target in the box or defensive cover as Johnston gets deep up that right sideline. The dude who does that all while providing plenty of defensive bite is Muyl (though a thought experiment appears: Taylor Washington as an in-cutting lefty winger with plenty of experience defending?).
Bwana is more a pure win-in-space style of offensive winger (Danladi the same, with a little more goal-getting tendency developed from his time at striker), and there’s a place for that on this team, even if it’s not in the starting lineup. Piñeiro projects to end up somewhere in between. Playing Dominique Badji or CJ Sapong there is fine – they have the athletic and technical ability to get it done, I guess – but at that point you’re better off just going with two pure strikers, anyway.
The full story here will be told by Leal’s development. Anything other than that as a storyline? That’d likely be a positive (Bwana develops into a killer-instinct guy, Piñeiro’s development ahead of pace, Muyl adds more offense to his game), and would probably mean things are going very, very well in NSC land.