Nashville SC

Nashville SC acquires LA Galaxy Homegrown striker Ethan Zubak

The forward corps builds. After shedding some prominent players in post-season roster decisions, the Boys in Gold will add in the form of Los Angeles Galaxy homegrown Ethan Zubak. NSC has traded a SuperDraft pick in exchange for the 23-year old.

From club release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 12, 2021) – Nashville Soccer Club announced today the acquisition of Ethan Zubak from LA Galaxy in exchange for a 2022 First Round MLS SuperDraft pick.

“Ethan has the potential to be a unique attacking player with his combination of athleticism and tenacity.  He is dangerous in and around the box and is a constant threat.  He is a really good fit for our club.” – Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs.

Zubak joins Nashville SC after three seasons in Los Angeles with the Galaxy dating back to 2019. The forward made 36 regular season appearances, while setting a new career-high in games played in 2021, appearing in 18 matches. The Galaxy owned a record of 4W-2L-0D with Zubak in the starting lineup in 2021.

Zubak was groomed in the LA Galaxy Academy system and served as the captain for LA Galaxy II in 2018. That season, Zubak appeared in 31 games, starting in 24, scoring 11 goals, with two assists. In 2017, Zubak scored the fastest hat trick in USL Championship.

In total, Zubak has accumulated 83 appearances, 53 starts, 17 goals and six assists for LA Galaxy II, securing his spot on the USL Championship 20 Under 20 list in 2018 and 2017.

Before signing with LA Galaxy II, Zubak was a member of the LA Galaxy Academy. With LA Galaxy Academy’s U-17/18 team, Zubak led his team with 13 goals in 21 appearances during the 2015-2016 season.

Nashville SC release

The Corona, Calif. native has had some difficulties working his way onto the field for his childhood club, which is known for splashing big cash on center forwards – namely Chicharito over the past two years. That philosophy not only means that playing time is sparing, but that the club’s top-line roster is built to succeed with a very type of player than the 6-2 Zubak. For that reason, he’s been caught on the border between MLS and USL: too good to leave with the USL team, but not quite good enough to get much playing time for the senior team, resulting in not getting many minutes in either.

“Too important to loan but not quite good enough to beat out Chicharito” is a sweet spot that Nashville SC (which also needs to add Homegrown players in order to fill roster slots on the Supplemental roster that are available only to HG-eligible players) will gladly pick up. That same principle led to a trade for Handwalla Bwana (with Jordan Morris playing the Chicharito role) a year ago, and will be a guiding one until NSC Academy is producing pro-ready players. Zubak turns 24 in April, so should have a couple years being age-eligible for Homegrown status. Zubak made $130,000 last year from the Galaxy, well within the range that allows him to fit into the HG slots, thanks to the league’s subsidy for those guys (this post is not the place to get into the weeds on it, but NSC has plenty of subsidy available).

As noted above, though, he’s not super-experienced in top-flight soccer. He played 759 MLS minutes last year, notching just one goal and one assist. All told, he has 1660 MLS minutes and 6358 across four USL seasons (2017-20), plus however many he got in 2015-16, an era of USL stats that have been lost down the memory hole.

Highlights are thin on the ground, so let’s go with one of the more comprehensive options… a USL highlight reel from 2019, when he was a full-time starter but making the transition to MLS bench player (54 MLS minutes that season), the most recent he was a starter-like player at any level:

Too much of a sizzle reel to get an impression of what type of player he actually is, but he seems more late-run, finish-cross as a goal-scorer, with impressive leaping ability to complement what is obviously nice height for heading opportunities. (His only goal this year was a “get in-behind and round the keeper” finish).

American Soccer Analaysis‘s Goals Added can provide us some insights. Keep in mind that a couple thousand minutes across multiple seasons is a little light to draw too many conclusions from, but at the very least we can contextualize him against other strikers playing in the same Galaxy system. The numbers say he’s been the best dribbling striker on Galaxy roster. He’s shown poor interrupting G+ (but all Galaxy strikers have, so that’s in part down to team style, not an individual inability to press), mediocre-to-poor passing (better than Chicharito, who has a long track record to prove he’s not actively bad in that phase, so it could be largely team style).

More notably, his numbers are bad when it comes to receiving (getting into dangerous areas without the ball, probably the closest we have to a god-stat for strikers) and shooting, though only Chicharito was good among Galaxy strikers in those regards. It might be worth noting he was elite receiving in limited time with Galaxy II this year. In 2020, he was below-average dribbler (looks like an anomaly, since that’s been a strength of his game in all other years), with about the same receiving and shooting quality as he showed this year.

Comparing his USL numbers, he was a full-time(ish) starter for G2 in 2019, showing his dribbling is going to be elite for the position. Again, receiving and shooting were consistently below-average across his USL years, though he put up more xG in ~1700 minutes in his final USL year than he did in ~2300 in either of the prior two years, so it could be game growth.

All told, given his style of play and youth (and yes, eligibility for certain roster designations), Zubak is a nice piece to complement Nashville’s existing attacking corps: perhaps a slightly more ball-secure but not yet as goal-hungry nor as physically-mature like-for-like replacement off the bench for CJ Sapong. He’s also played a bit of attacking midfield and winger in his time, so there are other paths to the field for him, as well.

To get all that in exchange for a first-round pick (of which Nashville has two, having traded for one from Philadelphia Union last offseason) is a steal. To put it simply, would Nashville be able to use that pick on a player with Zubak’s ability and professional experience? By definition, no. That LA Galaxy and Nashville have different needs in their offseason roster builds leads to a major win for NSC.

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