Nashville SC

Does Nashville SC need a DP striker?

Who should be the third DP with us.” “IDK” Mike Meredith/Club and Country

The million-dollar ($1.612m-plus?) question for Nashville SC this season is whether the Boys in Gold have done enough to give league MVP Hany Mukhtar support in attack. The German did it all for NSC last year… but in the end, a first-round playoff exit was the ceiling.

After the season, Nashville SC unloaded disappointing striker Aké Loba, loaning him to Liga MX’s Mazatlán – though due to a quirk of DP rules, that won’t open up his DP slot until Summer at the earliest. The previous attempt at signing a goal-scoring DP, Jhonder Cádiz, showed promise, but saw significant dropoff after an ill-fated international window with Venezuela. Like Loba, he last just a year and a half in Nashville.

Nashville’s attacking output from DPs looks like so:

Hany MukhtarAM/F2022236
Hany MukhtarAM/F20211610
Walker ZimmermanCB202240
Hany Mukhtar AM202043
Randall LealW202034
Jhonder CádizF202122
Jhonder CádizF202020
Aké LobaF202111
Aké LobaF202210

If it hasn’t been Hany Mukhtar (or Walker Zimmerman and Randall Leal in their stints with the DP tag), there hasn’t been scoring production from Designated Players. But does Nashville need scoring to come from all the Designated Players?

Last year, the Boys in Gold finished No. 9 in MLS in scoring. This may come as a surprise given some of the rhetoric around the striker position or the “Garyball” pejorative. Certainly plenty of that came from leaning upon Mukhtar, who scored 44% of those goals and assisted on another 12%. Even if he is capable of repeating last year’s performance, it’s asking him to do a lot… and we’ve seen it’s good for a fifth-place conference finish*, and Nashville has higher aims than that.

The goal is not to repeat last year’s performance, but to build on it. The question is simple: does Nashville have the help in place to accomplish that objective? If not, the follow-up is: is a DP striker required (even if it’s just for half the season) to meet that objective? If the answer is yes: how much ceiling-raising can a DP striker provide, and is it the best way to use a DP slot?

All of this, and we still have to operate under the assumption that a Loba sale this Summer is a foregone conclusion.

* The previous year when Nashville finished sixth in MLS in scoring – and was a tiebreaker away from finishing second in the East – Mukhtar scored 29% of the team’s goals and assisted on 18% more.

Incoming, outgoing

First, let’s look at who Nashville has lost from the perspective of their goal-scoring production. Returning players in bold, departed players in italics:

Hany MukhtarAM/ST30822321.0167.44
C.J. SapongST265358.143.22
Randall LealAM/W227723.0454.73
Walker ZimmermanCB278443.3101.73
Teal BunburyST74754.300.55
Alex MuylFB220822.8611.78
Dax McCartyDM194601.6312.34
Dave RomneyCB290732.6810.87
Daniel LovitzFB287810.8942.49
Luke HaakensonCM71801.2431.02
Jacob ShaffelburgW53721.4600.62
Jack MaherCB206320.7300.62
Eric MillerFB148900.1201.03
Shaquell MooreFB97200.3810.74
Aníbal GodoyCM102510.6610.41
Sean DavisCM308510.7100.26
Aké Arnaud LobaST42110.4500.42
Ethan ZubakST25900.7400.11
Taylor WashingtonFB68800.0710.67
Tah Brian AnungaCM95900.100.04
Joe WillisGK31780010.07
Handwalla BwanaW180000.03
Elliot PaniccoGK1940000
Data via American Soccer Analysis

…and on the flip side a quick look at who’s new, with stats from previous domestic clubs:

Fafa PicaultHOUW260477.4422.74
Nicholas DePuyLAGCB144600.4600
Tyler FreemanLDN (USL)ST132485.4612.91
Laurence WykeTBR (USL)CB276221.6512.92

Since Jacob Shaffelburg arrived in time to make just eight regular-season appearances, you can extrapolate his numbers how you see fit, as well (in 537 minutes for TFC, he scored 2 goals on 1.46 xG and notched zero assists on 0.62 xA).

The big picture is that Nashville SC lost very little scoring production: two defenders who combined for three goals and an assist on 4.70 xG+xA, the aforementioned Loba, and a gentleman who had a single key pass in his 18 league minutes in Handwalla Bwana. In replacement, they add seven goals and two assists on 10.64 xG+xA among new MLS additions, and 12 USL goals on 12.94 xG+xA. It’s tougher to gauge the level for guys coming from college (or a limited role in the Swedish Allsvenskan), but anything they add is gravy.

The catch? While most of the departed production came from a centerback (i.e. not a striker), the replacement production isn’t coming from a striker, either: it’s largely in the former of winger Fafa Picault. Can Nashville survive without striker production* as long as there’s more help on the wing?

It’s unknowable for now, but there’s every reason to believe it’s at least possible. The two players behind Mukhtar in the goal-scoring charts were fellow attacking midfielders Daniel Gazdag and Sebastian Driussi. Gazdag’s Philadelphia Union got a lot of striker production (en route to the fifth-highest-scoring MLS season of all time) with Julian Carranza knocking in 14 and Mikael Uhre adding 13 goals, while Cory Burke had seven, too. But Driussi’s strikers at Austin accounted for nine (Maxi Urruti), four (Moussa Djitté) and three (Danny Hoesen) goals. That’s more, but 17 is hardly more than NSC’s 13.

* Considering Mukhtar something else, though his position is flexible

Bad luck Chuck

The final piece to keep in mind is that Nashville was a pretty unlucky finishing team last year: 52 goals on 54.48 xG isn’t awful or even outside the bounds of random chance in a 34-game season. Drill it down to the non-Mukhtar strikers, though, and you see that they combined for basically all of that underachievement: 11 goals on 13.59 xG. An averaging year in the finishing department*, and Nashville’s attack looks a little better. An Austin-like year in the finishing department (they recorded 5.25 fewer xG than Nashville but scored nine more goals), and there’s certainly no narrative about help for Hany, or “Garyball.”

CJ Sapong was the worst-hit, with his “no goals since May” tag following him… well, since May. It’s still around. At nightfall on May 28, he had five goals on 3.92 xG for the season. From that point forward… zero goals on 4.18 xG. Even if you’re a finishing truther, that’s a level of bad luck that transcends “improbable.” So, if Nashville already has a good-not-great striker… would they be better-served using a hypothetical DP slot that opens in the Summer elsewhere? At the very least, the tricky situation around Loba’s slot means that the club can evaluate the best use of that DP by the time it’s available, and not use it on a striker (and there are situations in which “leave Loba on loan and don’t bother opening it up” is a possibility).

* Finishing is largely not consistent year-over-year, but even if you think it is, it’s worth keeping in mind that CJ Sapong finishes at 91.7% of his xG historically, and was at a dismal 61.7% last year. Teal Bunbury is a career 92.6% finisher, last year he was at 116.3%. Ethan Zubak is a career 59.1% finisher, last year he was at 0.0%. In the big picture, individual variation in finishing skill pales in comparison to xG accumulation when it comes to scoring output and especially projecting forward.

The big picture

The fan sentiment around Nashville’s attacking output last year skews toward the pessimistic. NSC was better than it’s being remembered, and that can be true while it still could have or should have been better.

So let’s go back to our bolded questions.

Does Nashville have the help in place to outperform last year’s attack?

Obviously we’re veering into the land of predictions, but the position of this site is that: 1) a full year from Jacob Shaffelburg, 2) the addition of Fafa Picault, and 3) a return to normal finishing ranges for CJ Sapong will allow Nashville SC to give more help to Hany Mukhtar, and improve NSC’s already-solid scoring output. For Nashville to even meet last year’s output, better non-Mukhtar numbers are almost certain to be necessary. Back-to-back years as good as the one he had last year would be basically unprecedented. Taken with his MVP runner-up in 2021, and you’re starting to look at one of the best three-year stretches in modern league history.

Other potential positive factors are a bounceback from Randall Leal after a down year, contributions from players arriving from outside MLS, and the team adapting better to its home stadium (and not having to deal with a roadtrip.

With very little changing (and despite the lack of Dave Romney’s goal-scoring, NSC may very well get an upgrade in playing out of the back in the Jack Maher/Nick DePuy combo), it looks like Nashville SC can meet or exceed last year’s production. However, to get to a higher level…

How much can a DP striker raise the ceiling if the production already looks better?

Herein we have the key to blowing the ceiling off NSC’s season. If the Boys in Gold are getting the same hold-up and complementary play out of CJ Sapong that they saw last year plus he returns to his historical finishing levels, plus there’s a little more help from the wing position, a DP striker probably isn’t the right idea.

We would all love to see Olivier Giroud in Gold, of course: not only is the France International extremely attractive a top performer over his career, he’s also a good system fit as a hard worker who doesn’t pout when he isn’t the team’s intended goalscorer (while still having the talent to be that). But realistically, I’ll believe Nashville makes such an investment when I see it, and if all goes remotely according to plan this season, that type of investment doesn’t feel like a maximization of budget dollars.

If things are going extremely well, it’s totally possible that building without that third DP spot (while Loba runs out his Nashville contract on-loan in Mexico) is worth the effort to the club – even if it reeks of a lack of ambition to fans. Upgrades at a different position – a line-breaking passer from the central midfield to carry the torch as Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy begin to age, or a true game-breaking winger – could also be smarter investments in both the 2023 team and the future of the franchise.

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