Nashville SC

Nashville SC 2023 preview: Defense

Mike Meredith/Club and Country

You may have noticed in yesterday’s goalkeeper preview that NSC netminders faced the highest expected goals tally per outing in the franchise’s brief history last year. There are certainly many reasons that the defensive performance may have been off the mark: it was a profoundly difficult season in terms of travel, and the Boys in Gold also never truly settled in and made GEODIS Park home, for example.

The expectations for a Gary Smith-helmed team led by Walker Zimmerman are high, though. Nashville faced more shots and more expected goals in 2022 than in either of the previous years. Here’s every MLS team over the past three seasons, with Nashville SC’s three years highlighted.

The xG allowed per shot remains pretty low (though not as Orlando’s FC Dallas’s 2020s, and Philly last year), but Nashville allowed a shot and a half more per game than in previous seasons.

To improve upon that while losing Dave Romney may be difficult… or…

Centerback

Let’s assume Walker Zimmerman’s performances are going to be steady (we’ll get into whether that’s the case in a moment). Does Nashville have the ability to replace Dave Romney with minimal dropoff? The primary reason he left – due for a raise and Nashville not only didn’t have to pony up for that, they got some GAM for him instead – is not any sort of indictment of his game.

ASA‘s Goals Added has not been a huge fan of Romney historically, with a positive G+ number in 2020, but negative values in the two years since. That’s largely because his interrupting value – the one that’s most notable for a centerback – went from strongly positive in the inaugural NSC season to a negative the past two. That’s not necessarily anything Romney did wrong, since Walker Zimmerman is tasked with most of the interrupting, but if you’re looking to upgrade in that department, it makes sense to move on from Romney (anecdotally he was more mistake-prone last year than either of the two previous seasons, as well).

Jack Maher and new signing Nick DePuy were both above-average in interrupting last year, so from that perspective, they may be better fits for what Nashville wants to do. Indeed, from a G+ perspective, the only defenders who finished with negative interrupting marks last year for Nashville were Alex Muyl and Jacob Shaffelburg, who you will note are not defenders.

In terms of potential stylistic fits, Maher and DePuy are much more similar to each other in the passing department than either is to Romney. Despite his passes not covering a ton of vertical distance, Romney’s passing was considered more risky to ASA‘s xPass metric (81.3% expected, compared to 82.3% expected for Zimmerman and Maher’s very safe 86.1%). If you want to take the reins off Zimmerman and let him be the riskier passer with a very solid and safe guy next to him, elevating Maher makes sense. DePuy was obviously in a different team context, but his 86.3% xPass is of that safe variety, as well – LAG’s CBs were insanely risk-averse in passing – but unlike NSC’s crew, he undershot his expected number.

Laurence Wyke is the X Factor here, because it’s extremely tough to know what to expect when translating USL numbers to MLS, but he was mostly banging it out of the back for the Rowdies last year. I would expect that he joins Josh Bauer as pure depth that isn’t seeing much of the field. So too with Ahmed Longmire, who may even be primarily a Huntsville player to start the year.

All told, losing Romney is going to hurt in some ways. But Nashville SC may have streamlined this position group stylistically, and that could help improve overall performances. And if NSC is getting out from Romney just as a multi-year decline begins (which is possible, though I don’t think motivated their move), it could end up looking genius in the long term.

Fullback

The starters here are obvious, and the overall impact will rely upon two things:

  1. Dan Lovitz not experiencing a dropoff in his 30s (he’ll turn 32 in August)
  2. Shaq Moore getting comfortable and building upon what was an impressive MLS debut last year.

Lovitz’s set-piece service and ability to defend in a block shouldn’t be affected by age, so I’m not worried there. As Nashville appears poised to be a more consistent 4-2-3-1 team this year, the need for him to bomb up and down the touchline may well be reduced, saving mileage on his legs, as well. He’s not the sort of guy who’s a defensive game-changer, but what he provides as a fullback in attack is impressive.

Via ASA‘s Eliot McKinley

Because of a couple notable mistakes late in the year – compounded by not looking super-great in the World Cup – the quality of Moore’s first half-season with NSC probably went a little bit overlooked. He was an above-average player on the dribble, an absolutely elite player interrupting the opponent’s attacks – eighth in the league per 96 minutes played, among those who got at least 500 minutes – and solid passing, receiving, and shooting. He can clean up his fouls a bit perhaps, but if he were to just repeat what he did last year over 2500 minutes rather than 900, he could be among the top fullbacks in the entire league. When you fold in that he didn’t show much from the perspective of crossing – one of his longtime strengths – and may be able to provide even more there, it’s a really enticing prospect to end up with one of the better defenders in the league.

With Moore locking down the right side, it’s easy to see why Nashville was finally ready to let Eric Miller go. While Miller got a lot of grief from fans, he was basically a bang-average MLS fullback all three years, and there’s no sin in that.

Depth will be provided by Taylor Washington on the left and most likely Alex Muyl on the right (even though Muyl is a bit of an awkward fit there). They should be fine. Muyl isn’t the most defensively-responsible and Washington can run hot-and-cold as an attacking fullback, but both of them have athletic traits (Muyl’s motor and Washington’s pure speed) that make them quality in certain situations, and non-liabilities when relied upon for more than that.

Defensive midfield

This is where Nashville’s dropoff last year can probably be explained. That’s not to say that particular individuals performed poorly, but the availability for two guys who are the emotional heart of the team was an issue. Dax McCarty played 1946 minutes and Aníbal Godoy 1025. Each of them had some injury issues and Godoy spent some time with the Panama national team, but for those two to combine for basically one player’s worth of minutes, you’re missing out on some serious upside.

NSC brought in Sean Davis last offseason to begin preparing for the decline of McCarty (turning 36 in April) and Aníbal Godoy (just turned 33). They needed it just from a sheer minutes perspective, and stylistically Davis and Brian Anunga were good fits as defensive destroyers. But what they didn’t do very well was progress the ball from defense to offense, and that left Nashville penned in somewhat regularly – far more than we were used to seeing the prior two years.

McCarty is by far the most effective central midfielder on this team at passing out of his own third, with an average vertical passing distance of 5.3 yards, while Godoy’s at 2.74 yards (a low watermark in his career, he’s usually a bit more progressive, but a small sample size probably affects this as well), Davis at 2.46, and Anunga at just 1.76. Playing Davis and Anunga next to each other means you have perhaps the best defensive motor combo, but the safety of their passing (Anunga is also not a sharp passer despite being pretty safe: three of the worst four player-seasons in comparison to xPass belong to him at the position group) makes life difficult for NSC in other ways.

So: can we get a healthier year for Godoy and McCarty? Will a year in the system make Davis a little more comfortable as a progressive passer, since he’s already been fairly solid in outperforming his xPass anyway? Those may seem like questions that relate to the attack, but they may ultimately be crucial for the defense too.

Overall

Last year’s weaker defensive performance (still pretty good in the grand scheme of MLS over that period!) may not have been an anomaly, per se, but it does feel like one that Nashville has the pieces in place to improve upon. A full year of Shaq Moore, a year in the system for Sean Davis, and likely more health for at least one of Godoy and McCarty (and possibly both!) is a positive. Losing Dave Romney is a negative, but on the heels of the worst of his three years in Nashville, there’s a distinct possibility that Jack Maher is ready to improve upon what we saw out of the position last year, even if he’s not necessarily a better player in an absolute sense yet.

There’s been plenty of concern about the attack – and a lack of additions thereto – but if Nashville SC is going to get back to the type of season that sees a home playoff game in GEODIS Park (for the first time! previous games were obviously at Nissan and NSC was on the road last year), it’ll be much more about the defense.

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