Tim Sullivan/Club and Country
At long last, Nashville SC revealed its end-of-year roster decisions yesterday morning. There were some newsworthy items there. But what do those items mean about where the roster stands today, and what it’ll look like going forward?
Let’s break it down.
Under contract: Elliot Panicco, Joe Willis
In negotiations: Bryan Meredith
Outgoing: Tor Saunders
Nashville’s starting goalkeeper is settled, while there’s also a three-deep if Meredith agrees to terms with Nashville SC (he was on a senior-minimum budget hit last year, so at least from NSC’s end, there’s not much downward trajectory to negotiate). At this stage, Panicco’s solid year in USL with Austin Bold was probably the seasoning he needs to ascend to the No. 2 spot, and Meredith is more likely to be a good practice player and steady veteran with some leadership attributes (and potentially in line for some US Open Cup minutes).
Having released Tor Saunders – the rookie’s second-year option was declined – there’s a possibility that Nashville would draft a keeper out of college, loan him out to a USL team, and hope he’s ready to ascend to that No. 3 spot in 2023, at which point you’re possibly looking for a transition beyond Joe Willis as the No. 1 – he’ll be 35 by the end of that season.
Under contract: Robert Castellanos (CB), Alistair Johnston (RB/CB), Dan Lovitz (LB), Jack Maher (CB), Eric Miller (RB/CB), Miguel Nazarit (CB), Dylan Nealis (RB/CB), Dave Romney (CB), Taylor Washington (LB), Walker Zimmerman (CB)
Potential return: Jalil Anibaba (free agent)
Outgoing: Nick Hinds (LB), Thomas Judge (LB)
This is a position group at which a veteran and extremely popular locker room guy (Anibaba) was left to the whims of free agency just because there’s a logjam, particularly among RB/CB combo players. I do think there’s a chance Anibaba is back if he doesn’t find a different club situation with more playing time available (and if he’s willing to come back on a more cap-friendly number than his $200k from last year).
There’s still a glut of talent, though, and you could easily see one of those RB/CB combos – just not Johnston – dealt during the half-day trade window tomorrow. Nashville also declined the contract option on one of its Homegrown-eligible players (Nick Hinds, who dealt with some injury issues but had just an OK year with Austin Bold on loan this year), meaning there will be a need to trade for a player with HG designation.
Of course, the expectation is that Miguel Nazarit once again spends the year out on loan in his native Colombia – unless Nashville SC can execute a transfer for him to get the 24-year old completely off the books.
Under contract: Tah Brian Anunga, Handwalla Bwana, Irakoze Donasiyano, Aníbal Godoy, Luke Haakenson, Randall Leal, Dax McCarty, Hany Mukhtar, Alex Muyl, Rodrigo Piñeiro
Outgoing: Matt LaGrassa
While NSC’s roster looks pretty heavy here, keep in mind that some guys you may consider forwards are listed as midfielders (Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal), and to a lesser extent vice versa. It also seems extremely likely that Rodrigo Piñeiro (guaranteed through 2023) spends the year out on loan either in Uruguay or elsewhere in South America.
This is a position group at which there’s a need to get younger and potential-ier. The starting group and top backups are obvious. But rotating out of older depth in favor of guys who can grow into long-term MLS starts looks to be the move here. That sadly means the end of Matt LaGrassa’s time with Nashville SC, but a guy who’s turning 29 before next season and only has a depth role to play isn’t a long-term option for the club.
Under contract: Aké Loba, Daniel Ríos, CJ Sapong
Potential return: Abu Danladi (free agent)
Outgoing: David Accam, Jhonder Cádiz
No surprises here: the long-term signing of Aké Loba (through 2023 with an option for 2024) meant that Jhonder Cádiz was going to have to come in at below a DP budget hit to remain on the roster… and instead, he’ll be returned to Benfica from his loan in Music City. Accam spent the year on loan in Sweden, and even though some of his budget hit ($975k salary) was offset by Hammarby’s salary for him, getting it off the books makes sense for a guy who wasn’t consistently healthy enough to see the field (and has had some of the same problems in his return to Europe).
So too with Abu Danladi: just a guy whose availability due to health meant that Nashville got him cheap originally… but ultimately that risk didn’t pay off. As with Anibaba, now that there’s a more crowded depth chart, he should look for options in the free-agency market… but if he doesn’t see what he’s looking for there, a contract on a lower budget hit could see a Nashville return.
Regardless, this is a spot where Nashville could very much use an influx of talent (and ESPN’s Jeffrey Carlisle is already reporting one move – for New England’s Teal Bunbury – that sources confirm is in the works).
As things stand, Nashville’s roster going into the offseason consists of 25 players (with a likelihood that Meredith becomes No. 26). There are also a couple guys who NSC would likely be happy to bring back if they’re on lower budget hits (Anibaba and Danladi).
There are just a few players who take up international slots: Randall Leal, Aké Loba, Miguel Nazarit, and Rodrigo Piñeiro. One of those (Leal) is hopeful to have a green card before the season starts – if not for a global pandemic, he probably already would. Two of them (Nazarit and Piñeiro) are more likely than not spending the year on loan (and therefore NSC doesn’t need international slots for them). At least two international slots appear to be spoken for – in exchange for some allocation money. Given the makeup of the roster, there’s opportunity to continue dealing those (or save them to sign players from abroad).
As noted in the discussion of Hinds above, Nashville is down to one Homegrown (his former Sounders teammate, Handwalla Bwana), and will move to acquire another – either in the half-day window or at some other point before the compliance deadline. I don’t think NSC Academy has produced any players yet ready to sign with the senior team, nor do I think Mike Jacobs is keen on leaving a roster slot (Nos. 29 and 30 must be filled by Homegrown players) empty, particularly an off-budget roster slot.
The departure of Cádiz means just two DPs – Loba and Mukhtar – and given the history of how Mike Jacobs has managed his roster in the past, keeping that third slot open (and probably one international roster slot, as well) until the Summer Transfer Window seems most likely. By leaving it open – or when the time comes, using it on a player under 23 – NSC also has two U22 initiative slots open (Piñeiro occupies a third, but NSC should get that spot back if he goes on a season-long loan).
Given what we know, expect NSC to be active in tomorrow’s half-day window, in deals involving both players and roster-building assets (allocation money and international slots). The team is protected in Charlotte’s Expansion Draft – having lost goalkeeper Brady Scott to Austin last year – so there won’t be anything to worry about in the midweek. It looks like NSC won’t have as much room for speculative draft picks like we saw last year (Judge and Saunders, along with a pair of players who never signed in Leroy Enzugusi and Sondre Norheim) or the year before (Haakenson, though obviously the speculating there worked out in a major way, along with Shak Adams, who never signed, and Tanner Dieterich), though obviously they have every ability to pick collegiate players and ultimately not sign them.
SO: before moves tomorrow (or loans down the line), you’re looking at NSC with 25 or 26 (Meredith) roster slots filled, out of a maximum of 30. One of the remaining 4/5 slots must be filled by a Homegrown player, and one (with a DP slot, plus most-likely an international slot) will probably be left open for the Summer window.
When the dust settles tomorrow, the picture may (will) look slightly different. From there, Nashville may be active in waivers/re-entry, ready to seek out U22 Initiative players, or try to fill gaps via the SuperDraft.