Nashville SC

Nashville SC 2022 season preview: The Unchanged

Aníbal Godoy photo courtesy Nashvillle SC

Nashville SC’s roster has a lot of year-over-year consistency. That means much of what happens this year can be strongly informed by last year (and in many cases, the past two years). But first a brief addendum to Tuesday’s piece.

Ríos gone

In the same format as earlier this week…

Striker Daniel Ríos – Ríos was a justified fan favorite, a USL holdover (in a way – he was signed specifically for an MLS future) with legit top-flight talent. Alas, the injury bug was one he could never quite shake in his first two years in Major League Soccer. He notched just 777 and 416 minutes in his two years after Nashville’s move up. The talent is clearly there – 0.52 xG+xA/96 in both of those seasons – the problem is that those outings were rare, and as Nashville has upgraded the striker room, a guy who isn’t always available becomes the most expendable of the bunch.

Bunbury/Zubak/full-season Loba >> Cádiz/Danladi/Badji/Rios/half-season Loba

There are a couple assumptions here, first being that the David Gass Theorem comes through for Loba, and not only is he twice as available this year (or more so, given how long it took him to get back to match fitness in 2021), but also his game is on a whole new level. In many ways, Nashville SC has traded reliability (Bunbury and a fit Loba) for upside (Danladi and Ríos unhealthy, Cádiz boom-or-bust).

Remembering some guys

A stock report, in order of last year’s minutes played…

Goalkeeper Joe Willis – Willis was at his best in 2020, going from “meh” during most of his time with DC and Houston to comfortably above-average in the shot-stopping department. He faded just a bit in 2021, and was basically a bang-average shot-stopper last year. Behind a defense that largely keeps him at a low level of involvement, that’s good enough. Dipping into feelingsball here, it did seem like fewer of the goals were his fault (particularly on set-pieces, which accounted for a disproportionate number of goals conceded – though he wasn’t blameless on those, either). He should have similar form and perhaps a bit better luck this year for a slight stock-up.

Defender Dave Romney – Romney was an ironman – along with Willis – through two years minus one regular-season game (then he also missed both playoff performances with that strained calf). His style of play – steady positional work and solid distribution next to a partner who marauds and is a difference-maker on both O and D – doesn’t lend itself to high scores in ASA‘s Goals Added metric, but he does what is asked of him at a high level. It’d be hard to hope for anything more. Stock steady.

Forward Hany Mukhtar – The runner up in last year’s MVP race, it’d be hard to expect much more out of him this year. That’s for multiple reasons: playing at that high a level in back-to-back years is simply difficult, he’s going to have more help (and therefore rest) this year, and Nashville should be able to win in ways other than “let Hany cook,” that haven’t always been available to them. Oh also he overachieved his xG+xA by about half, so normal luck probably drops him down. He should still be an elite performer and Nashville’s best player, but it’d be unfair to him to expect anything than a slight stock-down.

Fullback Dan Lovitz – The chance-creating wizard of the first half of last season faded to more reasonable output by the time the campaign concluded, and even though he performed at a career-best level (and only his third positive season-long mark) according to Goals Added, that felt like a matter of NSC putting the pieces in place to make the most of what he does well. Stock steady.

Striker CJ Sapong – There was a time last season when Sapong was in the thick of the Golden Boot race, but he faded hard in the home stretch. Thankfully, Mukhtar leveled up around the same time (and Mukhtar’s share of the offensive burden may have played a role in Sapong’s diminished role and outcomes). The advanced numbers weren’t particularly sold on him, so a course-correction from the counting stats wouldn’t be a surprise. With more forward depth, a step back from the 33-year old feels not just unsurprising, but likely. Stock down.

Winger Randall Leal – It felt at times like Leal was hardly ever available – what with a busy qualifying schedule for Costa Rica, along with some slight injury knocks – so it may surprise to see the fifth-most minutes among returning field players. He also felt in a lot of ways the opposite of Sapong: a guy who the advanced stats tended to like, but who wasn’t being rewarded with the production. Unfortunately for him on a personal level, but an improvement for his Nashville production, it feels like he’s on the outs with the CRC setup (and either way, the Ticos need a near-miracle to make the World Cup) so he may have less division in his attentions this year. Stock up.

Centerback Walker Zimmerman – He’s the two-time defending MLS Defender of the Year, so it’d be ridiculous to say his stock will be up. However, MLS isn’t playing through the lone remaining qualifying window, so his availability may take a slight upward tick (improving Nashville’s set-piece defense, hopefully, though it remained mediocre even when he was back). Stock steady.

Midfielder Dax McCarty – The frustration presented by Father Time catching us from behind arrives for us all, and McCarty played the fewest regular-season minutes since at least 2012 (if you prorate the shortened 2020 season). It was also his worst Goals Added year since 2013, with his tidiness on the ball and interrupting (defensive counting stats, essentially) taking steps back year-over-year. With a once-and-future protege now in the lineup, he can play fewer minutes, but hopefully more effectively. Stock down.

Midfielder Aníbal Godoy – It’s the working assumption of this space that the majority of Sean Davis’s minutes are going to come out of the Dax McCarty pool, rather than the Aníbal Godoy pool. However, Panama stands a solid chance (at least slightly better than Costa Rica) to make the World Cup and possibly have a summer playoff match to accomplish that, so he’ll be out of the lineup a bit on international duty, in all likelihood. Like McCarty, his numbers took a big step back last year. The worrying trend is that he was slowly declining in performance in his final few years with the Quakes, and very good 2020 performance may be the exception, not the trend in a new kit. Stock steady.

Centerback Jack Maher – Nashville SC looks poised to base primarily out of a three-at-the-back formation to get the most out of all three levels of the team, and that opens a spot for a guy like Maher. He’s been at “fine for a youngster” status for the past two years, with a massive year-over-year step forward in interrupting (good!), but a big step back in receiving (playing more with Walker Zimmerman on set pieces!). The trajectory is there. Stock to the moon.

Winger (slash wingback?) Alex Muyl – It’s clear the Nashville SC technical staff has always loved Muyl ever since he joined mid-season in 2020. Wha they haven’t been able to unearth is the best way to use the NYRB Academy product. A high-motor winger? He doesn’t consistently show the attacking technique to be a goal threat there. A high-effort midfielder? He doesn’t have the ability to move the ball precisely under duress to succeed in the middle of the pitch. A fullback? Not enough of a natural defender, and crossing isn’t his top attribute. That could add up to wingback being the perfect role for him, taking advantage of his ability to run his tail off. It’s another new position for a guy who’s bounced around a bit, though. Stock steady.

Midfielder Brian Anunga – Let’s get it out of the way: the advanced numbers hate Anunga. He’s an extremely good interruptor from central midfield, but every other breakout stat of G+ says “room for improvement” (or worse). He’s uninvolved in the attacking third, and his passing is hyper-conservative (only players in attacking positions – i.e. those doing a bunch of layoffs or pullback crosses – covered less vertical distance than him on the pass). Some of that is simply his role: Godoy and McCarty, next two whom he’s played, take on the offensive burden and let him be a destroyer. The trajectory for a 25-year old guy seems to still be firmly upward. Stock up.

Fullback Eric Miller – I would not classify this gentleman as a fan favorite. A lot of that is undeserved: he was exclusively blamed (incorrectly) for a goal early in Nashville SC’s existence, and then they didn’t play again for five months. He’s been approximately equal in G+ performance to (and in 2020, was much better than) the departed Alistair Johnston, though he’s a slight downgrade offensively. Either way, the opportunity for more time – and perhaps some redemption – should be there in Johnston’s absence. Stock up.

Fullback Taylor Washington – Washington has improved year-over-year with Nashville SC. That dates back to the beginning of the franchise, when he was signed as a guy who has a ton of speed, but maybe didn’t bring the technical soccer side of things to the table, before working his tail off to add that part of his game, and ultimately to continue taking steps once signed to the MLS team. The results last year didn’t impress the advanced stats, so the question is whether he’s stopped the upward trajectory at age 28, or if there’s more to turn potential into production. With Lovitz locking down the LB/LWB role, there may not be a ton of playing time unless there’s another level-up. Stock steady.

Striker/winger Aké Loba – This is the piece that probably tells the take of Nashville SC’s ceiling this season (pending a high-upside right back that may sign down the road). If Loba lives up to his potential and $7 million transfer fee, Nashville SC is not just a nice little playoff team, but a Supporters Shield and MLS Cup contender. He got his two longest runouts (and first goal/assist) in NSC’s final four games, so the trajectory seems solid, and Gary Smith can’t say enough good things about him. Is it time to believe? Stock to the moon.

Winger Luke Haakenson – Haakenson is a 24-year old who has improved from USL loanee in 2020 to regularly-used bench option in 2021. The question for him is where the opportunity comes in. He’s young and high-potential enough to have a continued role, but the forward corps is the strongest yet in Major League Soccer for this club. Individual improvement can force his way onto the field nonetheless, but there just aren’t a ton of minutes to go around. Stock steady.

Winger Handwalla Bwana – Speaking of young, high-potential guys that it’s simply difficult to find minutes for, Bwana is a talented offensive player who has a couple years of pro experience on Haakenson despite being two years younger… and he basically couldn’t see the field last year. He still makes sense on Nashville’s roster – a Homegrown for roster slot 29 or 30, and a guy with potential – but if the less-experienced Haakenson has vaulted over him, can the less-aged Bwana re-close that gap? There’s hardly anywhere to go but up. Stock steady.

Centerback Robert Castellanos – Dude’s goals/96 number is incredible because he played exactly once, and scored up in Toronto. It’s the “played exactly once” part that’s the issue, since Nashville drafted CB Ahmed Longmire – albeit to spend a year in USL, most likely – while Jack Maher comes into his own, as well. Even an improved Castellanos will have to scrap for playing time. Exercising his option was a strong vote of confidence, though, and even being a guy who makes it so Rommey/Zimmerman don’t have to play nearly even minute (and there should be more time with a three-CB formation) is a step forward. Stock slightly up.

Midfielder Irakoze Donasiyano – Where’s he gonna play? General Manager Mike Jacobs has made noises about right back, Donasiyano’s lone appearance in Harrison, N.J. came as a central midfielder – and he barely saw the field due to injury during a loan stint with OKC Energy. Keeping him around indicates a faith that there’s a future here, so naturally it’s stock up.

Goalkeepers Bryan Meredith/Elliot Panicco – Didn’t play last year, but Meredith has been a solid backup and practice piece, while Panicco got some seasoning out on loan to Austin Bold. Seeing a single minute would be a bigger role (on-field), so it’s gotta be stock up unless Willis is once again an ironman.

The verdict

Nashville has some pieces that are aging into stock-down territory, but for the most part this is a group with enough youth and inexperience (or in the case of a guy like Meredith, a track record that he hasn’t had a chance to show here) that the overall trajectory is still upward.

The big picture – for the whole team, not just returning players – rests upon Jack Maher and Aké Loba living up to the potential we have seen glimpses of. If each of them comes good, this has the potential to be an incredible season. If that happens and a two-way right-sided defender arrives with high expectations… look out.

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