Willis photo by Mike Meredith/Club and Country
Nashville SC has historically been an approximately even team against expected goals against. That is to say: accounting for a bit of luck (which is inherently unpredictable), the goalkeeping performances have been basically average. Joe Willis was outstanding in in 2020, and has been close to average (but slightly worse-than) each of the past two seasons. Elliot Panicco was not a statistical darling last year, but on an extremely small sample size, let’s not hold it against him.
Shall we display goalkeeper performances over time? There’ve only been three seasons and four keeper-seasons (Willis played every league minute in 2020 and 2021), so it’s fairly simple:
Those two guys are the ones that anybody expects to play this season – rookie Ben Martino will man the sticks for Huntsville, in all likelihood – so what can we look forward to in 2023?
Willis has had a bit of a spotty career through no fault of his own: he was stuck behind Bill Hamid in DC in 2011-14, then was good-but-unappreciated for Houston from 2015-19 (with his only bad years the ones where he wasn’t the starter – which could mean that the coaching staff there made the right decision, but more likely indicates he didn’t get a chance and is the victim of small sample sizes). In Nashville, he’s been excellent once, and about average in the two years since. He faced – by far – the least danger of his career in 2021, and hey look at that it was the best year in Nashville SC history, even though he was a replacement-caliber keeper.
The question is not what he has done, of course, but what he will do. Primarily, said question is: he is turning 35 this year, should we expect a dropoff? My Extraordinarily Scientific® method of eyeballing goalkeepers who have managed more than a decade in the league says… basically no correlation between age and performance. You’re good enough to play in the league until it’s obvious from training sessions that you shouldn’t be playing anymore.
That has obviously not happened yet with Mr. Says No. A season in line with his career average just so happens to be in line with a league-average goalkeeping performance, but a deviation based on randomness is near-guaranteed. How can NSC get the most out of him? His best performances against xG have been when he’s given less work by his backline (counter-intuitively, since a lot of keepers including Willis say they like to face rubber to feel involved in the game), but more importantly when the xG per shot is low (this is way more intuitive!).
He’s the sort of keeper who statistically is not pulling incredible 0.6 xG saves out of his pocket, but will chip away if you give him six 0.10 shots to handle. Nashville’s backline last year was the least capable of protecting the keeper we’ve seen in four years, but a reevaluation of the why and the downstream effects (even if it means a less progressive game this year) could be good for Willis.
As previously noted, Panicco was not a statistical darling last year, but there’s a real sample-size issue at play: he got two appearances (against Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers), and the small sample size effect can be pretty big when the… sample size is small.
Panicco clearly is and has been the future of this franchise, but when Willis is still performing pretty well – perhaps with a bit more longevity than expected, even – and on a cheap budget number, the reality is that Panicco is still waiting his turn. He was massive in defeat in the US Open Cup game against Orlando City, only to lose in penalties, and the talent has always been apparent.
It’s the position of this website (and I expressed as much on the podcast) that it’s time for Panicco to get a bigger regular-season role. That’s more about building for the future than any sort of lack of confidence in Willis, of course, but if we sit here at the end of the year and Panicco has played under 200 minutes, it’ll be a disappointment. The fact that NSC expects to compete at a high level in multiple cup competitions only underscores that – spread the goalkeeping across regular season and cups, and both guys should get some contribution in each.
Nashville is confident enough in rookie Ben Martino that No. 2/3 keeper Bryan Meredith (who was on a senior minimum) was able to retire and move into a coaching role. That tells you two things: Meredith didn’t want to babysit a bunch of academy kids or developmental prospects with Huntsville City, and Martino is capable of sitting on the bench for a few games if either Willis or Panicco suffers an injury.
He shouldn’t play, and that’s not a knock on him so much as an understanding that he’s able to play for the reserve team while training with the senior squad, and that he should develop in time to contribute within a couple years because he’s on a Homegrown contract and neither Willis nor Panicco is going anywhere any time soon.