Nashville SC

Nashville SC 2021 preview: The questions, the predictions

I’ve spent the past week previewing the teams that Nashville will see across the touchline, as well as going into depth on the Boys in Gold themselves. See those preview here:

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

It is time to tie it all together.

The questions (and hopefully, the answers)

Can the defense outperform its expected goal numbers again?

Nashville’s defense was third-best in the regular season (22 GA) and including the postseason, finished behind only league champion Columbus Crew with 0.92 goals allowed per contest. However, from an xG perspective, the team was only seventh-best, allowing 1.23 xG per outing. That’s a pretty sizable gap of 0.31 fewer goals allowed versus expectations – 7.93 total over the course of the season. Typically, you’d expect some regression to the mean. NSC will certainly hope to improve its xG allowed mark more than it will hope to be good-not-great in that metric and outperform it with the vagaries of luck.

Of course, some aspects of xG overperformance are inherent to a team’s structure, and can be considered replicable. Goalkeeping is one, and you’ll recall I talked at length about Joe Willis’s numbers in the GK position preview. Given the level of outlier that his 2020 season was compared to his historical baseline, a slight regression from him is likely, but it should still be enough to keep him in the ranks of the best in the league.

As you can see, there’s not a ton of correlation between shot-quality allowed and conversion rate allowed. You can be successful (or unsuccessful!) by giving up one golden chance per game, or 10 lesser opportunities. For Nashville specifically, that’s both good and bad: the team projects to give up approximately the same distribution of chance quality this season, and should somewhat regress to the mean in opponents’ conversion. However, there’s also a likelihood that the team gives up fewer chances overall this season after being middle-of-the-pack in that metric last year.

Whether opponents convert the chances they do get is more luck-oriented than controlling the total number of chances.

Who will be the starting striker? Will Nashville get more from that position in 2021?

I’ll actually answer the second question first: yes! Simply by having a healthy striker to trot out for each game (having added Jhonder Cádiz and CJ Sapong since last year’s struggles, two more bullets in the chamber), Nashville can get more from the position in 2021 than in 2020.

As to whether the effectiveness of the position can be improved…

Simple availability of top strikers would help! Dom Badji had a poor finishing year (as did Daniel Ríos, but he generated so much xG per 96 that it really didn’t matter – which is the reason conversion rates must be taken into context), but that Gary Smith didn’t have his best guys available was the greater issue.

Derrick Jones didn’t play exclusively (or even primarily) striker, but if some of those minutes – where he was a knock-down long-ball guy when NSC was in a pinch personnel-wise, or a defensive destroyer from the No. 10 spot as a second striker – were given to more offensively-gifted guys (and they’ll have to be in 2021, because Jones is off to Houston Dynamo), Nashville’s ability to turn possession in relatively dangerous areas into scoring chances would improve rapidly.

How will the team’s health hold up?

Last year’s situation wasn’t quite nightmarish – there is a team in this league that only got 576 minutes out of Carlos Vela, after all – but it was far from ideal. I just went into some of the scenarios at the position that was worst-hit, but Nashville also missed Aníbal Godoy, Randall Leal, and Dax McCarty for stretches of time due to injury or contact-tracing protocols last year.

Presumably, Nashville has its team COVID protocols hammered out (and inshallah we won’t have to worry about a global pandemic affecting player availability by the time we’re deep into the Summer, anyway). There’s also significantly less fixture congestion when you’re fitting 34 matches into 26 weeks than when it’s 21 matches in 12 weeks. The minor nicks and strains will not only be less-frequent since the players get some rest, they’ll also cost the team fewer man-hours: a two-week strain means a couple games missed, not four or five.

This is also a team with some key pieces (namely Godoy and McCarty) who don’t have sterling injury histories and are getting up there in age. Better depth will help overcome any missed games, but they’re still going to come, even with a less-strenuous season.

Can talented-yet-unproven youngsters provide the push over the top?

I’m a big fan of Handwalla Bwana, and I think there’s talent in the SuperDraft class. Rodrigo Piñeiro is going to take a little bit of time to come into his own (or maybe not! which would be awesome!), but the ceiling on him is extremely high.

For a Nashville team that has mostly relied upon guys with proven MLS talent and experience – and augmented that with other categories of player, whether the international DPs or SuperDraft picks – the guys who fall into the “other” category have to be the difference-maker. When some of those are around because it wasn’t working out for them (Bwana and Nick Hinds both at Seattle Sounders, for example, but also Alex Muyl ), the likelihood that they’re going to drive the fate of the club to push past the steadiness of being built on league vets feels on the lower end.

More likely, it’ll take the arrival of the Hany Mukhtars and Randall Leals of the world into the players we expect they can blossom into if this squad’s going to get that extra bit of juice.

The moves

Let’s look at where the roster is better or not better than a year ago.

Goalkeeper.

Joe Willis < Joe Willis who had statistically-unlikely success last year
Elliot Panicco, Bryan Meredith, possibly Tor Saunders >> Getting literally zero minutes from any backups

Defenders.

Dave Romney and Walker Zimmerman == Dave Romney and Walker Zimmerman
Dan Lovitz == Dan Lovitz
Alistair Johnston with a year of experience > Alistair Johnston as a rookie
Jalil Anibaba at 32 < Jalil Anibaba at 31
Dylan Nealis as the first RB off the bench > Eric Miller as the first right back off the bench
Eric Miller as a depth piece > Eric Miller or Brayan Beckeles expected to start
Jack Maher and Robert Castellanos as CB depth >> Maher on loan or hurt, Ken Tribbett hurt, and Miguel Nazarit as CB depth
Possibly missing Zimmerman and Johnston to international duty << Having them all the time

Midfield.

Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy at 34 and 31, respectively < Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy at 33 and 30, respectively
McCarty and Godoy’s health with a less crowded schedule >> McCarty and Godoy’s health with congested schedule
Tah Brian Anunga >> Anunga adjusting to MLS
Matt Lagrassa as depth == Matt LaGrassa as depth
No Derrick Jones and likely needing to play guys out of position for depth << Having Derrick Jones
Aníbal Godoy out on international duty < Godoy available

Attacking midfield and winger.

Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal with a year to adjust to MLS >> Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal struggling to adjust
Not having Derrick Jones for depth and to minimize position shuffling needed to fill the CAM role < Having Derrick Jones
Alex Muyl for the whole season > Alex Muyl for most of the season
Handwalla Bwana for the whole year >> Alan Winn with a sprinkling of Bwana
Dom Badji in a smaller and more specific role > Having to rely on Badji here in addition to at striker
Rodrigo Piñeiro >>> Not having Rodrigo Piñeiro
Abu Danladi likely to be more healthy than he was last year > Danladi available for 629 minutes
Taylor Washington as depth == Taylor Washington as depth
Leal out on international duty << Leal not out on international duty

Striker.

Jhonder Cádiz for the whole season (if NSC chooses to sign permanently) >>> Jhonder Cádiz for a handful of games
Daniel Ríos with a lottery of how healthy he’s going to be > Daniel Ríos with the knowledge of hindsight that he was ultimately not healthy last year
CJ Sapong >>> NSC being sorta screwed if the top two guys aren’t available
Dominique Badji in a more-carved role that can set him up for success > Badji relied upon and also hurt
Likely not needing Abu Danladi at this position > Abu Danladi hurt all year

Add ’em up.

Four neutral, 11 down, 30 up. That looks like an improved team! 19 arbitrary units better, in fact.

The predictions

Money where one’s mouth is, etc. etc. East:

  1. New England Revolution
  2. Columbus Crew
  3. NYCFC
  4. Philadelphia Union
  5. Orlando City
  6. Nashville SC
  7. Atlanta United
  8. Toronto FC
  9. New York Red Bulls
  10. Chicago Fire
  11. Inter Miami CF
  12. FC Cincinnati
  13. Montreal Impact
  14. DC United

West (with the caveat that I looked much less in-depth at this conference):

  1. LAFC
  2. Sporting Kansas City
  3. Colorado Rapids
  4. Portland Timbers
  5. Seattle Sounders
  6. Houston Dynamo
  7. FC Dallas
  8. Real Salt Lake
  9. Austin FC
  10. LA Galaxy
  11. Minnesota United
  12. San Jose Earthquakes
  13. Vancouver Whitecaps

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