The 2022 Major League Soccer season is nearly upon us. Let’s dive into previewing the home team (or for the first eight games of the season, the away team) with a look at what’s changed.
In this first phase of the preview, I’ll be focusing specifically on personnel. So yes, the opening of the new stadium is certainly something different from two years spent in Nissan Stadium. It’ll be addressed in a future piece of the preview.
Nashville SC saw the majority of its roster return. That’s obviously the case for most teams year-over-year (Inter Miami’s “Oops, All DPs” build requires a bigger teardown to get back into position), but for Nashville, the consistency is only amplified by the fact that only a couple of the departing players played appreciable minutes.
Right back/right CB Alistair Johnston – A fan favorite and a solid performer at a couple different positions, the overall level of his quality is probably overrated within the fanbase because of the former. An extremely nice guy who met many other stereotypes for being typically Canadian (“including being better than the USMNT,” he said through gritted teeth), he recorded an assist in his first MLS appearance back in 2020… and then just one over the next 4000 minutes. According to American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added, he was a bang-average fullback last year. That’s certainly not a problem at all! But when a guy with that profile feels like he’s due for a big raise and you have a team in his home country willing to overpay for his services, that’s a deal Mike Jacobs had to take.
Striker Jhonder Cádiz – This is a results-based business, so the long and short of the matter is that Jhonder Cádiz is going to go down as a failed signing in a lot of ways. There are obviously reasons for that: in 2020, Nashville had trouble getting him into the country during the thick of the Covid pandemic*, and when he arrived he hadn’t trained for months. In 2021, he got off to a solid start, then was away with Venezuela for a month… and reportedly contracted a significant respiratory illness there. This kept him out of training, and by the time he was back, CJ Sapong was banging in goals and Aké Loba was on the verge of joining the team. Ultimately, the two goals in two games to start the year were the only he’d notch on the season in under 1,000 minutes.
Centerback Jalil Anibaba – A veteran, multiposition defender, Anibaba – for all his prodigious soccer talent – was known more in his time with Nashville as a leader than as an on-field contributor. He started seven games in Walker Zimmerman’s absence mid-season, but when Zimmerman returned from his Gold Cup injury and became an ironman, Nashville had enough CB depth to shift to a back-three and eventually lose Dave Romney without Anibaba getting back on the field.
Striker Dominique Badji – While he started the 2020 season as the No. 1 striker, we hardly knew Dominique Badji in 2021 before he was traded to Colorado Rapids (where he’d go on to have a great year!). He played just 207 minutes for Nashville, taking 10 shots with five on target and failing to score. His 12 shots (seven on target) for Colorado resulted in five goals, if you’d like to have tons of fun with small sample sizes.
Midfielder Matt LaGrassa – LaGrassa played a fairly significant role in 2020, sharing backup midfield minutes with Tah Brian Anunga – in a year with a condensed schedule and a couple older guys ahead of them, that meant enough time to carve out a role. Another step forward for Anunga in year two and a slightly healthier season for Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy (despite a heavy international slate) meant less time for the fourth guy at the position group, and he managed 415 minutes. Add in an upgrade in replacement, and it makes sense, even if losing one of the original USL guys is painful.
Defender Dylan Nealis – Picked up for $175k in GAM before the season and unloaded for $125k after it, the Nealis signing probably looks like a bust, given he notched just 165 total minutes. A right back who couldn’t find significant minutes even when Alistair Johnston was away, though, Nealis likely had to see the writing on the wall, and getting traded to his hometown club (where brother Sean plays) is the best-case outcome. (For what it’s worth, he certainly didn’t hit any performance incentives in Nashville, so if he hits some for NYRB, Nashville can still profit in the exchange).
Forward Abu Danladi – Oft-injured, Danladi couldn’t be on the field consistently enough to carve out a role before Nashville systematically upgraded its attack. Although he’s capable of playing both striker and wing, Danladi managed just 130 minutes in his sophomore season in Nashville, and he’s now back with the Minnesota United team from which the Boys in Gold acquired him in the first place.
Winger Rodrigo Piñeiro (presumed) – Nashville’s first “Young Money” (Under-22 Initiative, to lames) signing… did not work out in year one. He’s reportedly – though NSC hasn’t confirmed, he’s training with the club – out on loan to Chilean club Union Española. He was a potential-over-guarantee signing (and that potential may pay off for Nashville), and the lack of playing time, being out of Uruguay for the first time in his life, being away from his girlfriend… it was difficult for him.
Defender Miguel Nazarit – Nazarit didn’t play a minute for the club in two years (and hardly played while on loan to Independiente Santa Fe in his loan out during 2021, as well). As a Targeted Allocation Money signing, he was bought out of his contract after this season, and will go down a a bust signing.
Defenders Nick Hinds, Tom Judge, goalkeeper Tor Saunders – Hinds and Judge went on USL loans without ever playing for the senior team, while Saunders was a training piece for NSC who neither saw game action for the first team nor went on loan in search of minutes.
* A phrase here meaning “when people were actually caring about the still-ongoing pandemic.”
Midfielder Sean Davis – A product of New York Red Bulls Academy who’d played all of his professional minutes with his boyhood club (and played every minute of the club’s 2021 season, as well), Davis joined Nashville SC in free agency this offseason. ASA‘s Goals Added likes him a lot: an elite midfielder in the interrupting and passing breakout categories, he’s lacking in the shooting and receiving (getting the ball in advanced areas) ones – a true holding/defensive midfielder who operates at a high level within that role, but perhaps isn’t as effective outside it.
Forward Teal Bunbury – Bunbury played the last eight(!) years with New England Revolution after starting his pro career with Sporting Kansas City (he’s actually old enough that he started his career with the Kansas City Wizards, but we’ll let it slide). He’s played significantly at both striker and winger in his career, and was mostly an off-the-bench option in the middle during New England’s record-setting 2021 campaign. As a guy coming off the bench for a team that was already winning most games by the time he entered, meager stats (0.40 xG+xA per 96 minutes played – third among the team’s strikers, fifth overall) aren’t necessarily damning of his performance… but may partially explain why a guy with significant starting experience in his career was happy for a fresh start.
Striker Ethan Zubak – Another player Nashville is acquiring from the club that developed him from youth, Zubak heads to Nashville from the opposite coast Davis is – a Los Angeles Galaxy Homegrown looking to jumpstart his career at 23. He hasn’t played 1000 minutes for the senior team yet (he got over 2200 minutes for Galaxy II in both 2017 and 2018, but has been stuck in a gray zone in between the two for the past three years). A very different style of player than Galaxy star Chicharito Hernández, it makes sense for him to look for a team not built around the Little Pea. The numbers even in USL have never really loved him, though – playing as a center forward at a lower level, he wasn’t notching a half xG+xA mark when he was heavily used.
Defender Josh Bauer – A 2021 SuperDraft pick of Atlanta United, Bauer spent the entire year with ATL UTD 2, getting the lion’s share of the minutes. Goals Added was not a huge fan: he was good at dribbling and decent in the fouls department (includes those both committed and suffered), but a non-entity offensively – and most surprising of all for a Nashville team that takes pride in defending, he was well, well below average in interrupting. The physical attributes are there at 6-2, 175, so getting into a system that plays to his strengths a bit more could see a breakout.
Defender Ahmed Longmire – Nashville SC’s top draft pick, and one GM Mike Jacobs traded up to make. Longmire is a talented, athletic centerback whose on-ball attributes need a bit more developing (along with his physical stature). The potential is off the charts, but it may take a little while to show on the field, at least at the MLS level. HE’s prepared about as well as a player out of college can be, at least, with a couple years at UCLA against top competition.
Goalkeeper Will Meyer – Meyer hails from another college soccer powerhouse (Akron), which has clearly been one of the guiding principles for Nashville’s top draft choice each year. At 6-2, he’s not the NSC prototype of a huge goalie, but he has good shot-stopping instincts and reasonable ability to command his box and play the ball.
Let us add it all up:
No replacement fullback <<< Johnston/Nealis
This goes without saying! Alistair Johnston was a very solid piece, but a replaceable one. If you don’t replace him, though, all the GAM in the world doesn’t mean you’re automatically better at the position he vacates. It’ll be the Eric Miller show for now, though there’s time in the primary transfer window (open until May) and probably plenty of opportunity in the Summer window (July-Aug.) to find a replacement if Miller isn’t sufficient.
Bunbury/Zubak > Cádiz/Danladi
There may be less ceiling here (Cádiz never lived up to his potential, but it was there. And Danladi’s speed was a game-changer when he was available), but the floor is significantly higher. Simply put, Bunbury isn’t going to have the stinkers Cádiz did, even if the excitement on the high end isn’t quite the same. Anything out of Zubak is a bonus, since NSC got very little out of Danladi due to his injuries.
Full season of Aké Loba >>> Half-season each for Loba/Badji
The David Gass theorem comes into play a bit here – players heading to MLS from external leagues always seem to find a stride in their second year – as does the fact that Badji’s time with Nashville was a disappointment last year. Even a full season of the Loba we got in his 478 minutes last year would be an upgrade. If he finds his footing, look out.
Davis >>> LaGrassa
Replacing a guy who was fourth on the depth chart with a guy who’s probably going to get close to starter’s minutes (if not overtake one of Aníbal Godoy or Dax McCarty) is an obvious upgrade. LaGrassa did a job, no question, but Davis carries a different level of experience and expectation.
Bauer < Anibaba
From a business perspective, this is a smart choice: a CB who’s likely to play sparingly (especially now that Jack Maher has broken out and Robert Castellanos appears to be on track to do the same) is still around, and on a much smaller budget hit. However, Anibaba’s experience on the pitch and leadership in the locker room is tough to replace, even though Nashville added veterans at other positions.
Longmire/Meyer > Nazarit/Piñeiro/Hinds/Judge/Saunders
By definition, guys who have the potential to play for Nashville SC in the future can, at worst, equal the contributions of a handful of guys who didn’t play for NSC (even if it’s certainly possible that they precisely match those contributions).