Updated: Mar 8, 2019
Soccer is back! T-minus two days until Nashville SC kick off their 2019 USL campaign, taking on Loudoun United on Saturday, March 9.
Nashville made significant roster changes this offseason, upgrading some key areas of the squad and bringing in depth. After a solid debut season in 2018, coach Gary Smith has more weapons with which to work.
Starting goalkeeper/goalkeeper coach Matt Pickens returns after a strong 2018 season (he was one of the best 'keepers in USL). He's joined by new signing Connor Sparrow, signed from Real Salt Lake of MLS. Sparrow will start the season as Nashville's number 2, but could challenge Pickens for the starting spot (more on that later). Either way, he should see more minutes than CJ Cochran did last year. Danny Vitiello replaces Micah Bledsoe as the third keeper, and will be unlikely to see any time (maybe in an Open Cup match or two).
Defense was definitely Nashville's strength in 2018 - only Pittsburgh allowed fewer goals. Club defender of the year Liam Doyle looks to have cemented a crucial role as the left center back. Bradley Bourgeois returns as well, and will compete with new signing Ken Tribbett for the right center back spot. No new signings at left back, where Taylor Washington looks like the first choice left back ahead of Justin Davis from what we've seen in preseason. Nashville also brought in USL All-League Second Team right back Darnell King to compete with Kosuke Kimura. We'll see a lot of continuity in defense, but also the ability to rotate players without a drop in quality. Don't be surprised if Nashville's defense is as good or better than in 2018.
Nashville lost a few midfielders in the offseason, and only signed one new player, Vinnie Vermeer, who impressed after a trial period with the club. However, three of the midfielders who weren't brought back didn't have a league appearance, and other than Ryan James, none were significant contributors. Despite the lack of numbers, the overall quality is improved, with Bolu Akinyode, Michael Reed, Matt LaGrassa, and Vinnie Vermeer all capable starters. Lebo Moloto is the only pure no. 10 on the roster, and was the team's most consistent creator last year. Despite ending the 2018 season with a knee injury, Moloto logged the third most minutes of any Nashville player in preseason. Ramone Howell can also play centrally, despite spending most of his time out wide in preseason.
Kharlton Belmar joins the squad from Swope Park Rangers/Sporting Kansas City. The 26-year-old scored 40 goals over the last four seasons, and provides dangerous service from wide areas. Alan Winn returns, and Ropapa Mensah looks to have transitioned to a wide role under Gary Smith. Ramone Howell has seen significant time out wide in preseason, and Lebo Moloto has also played on the left in a 4-4-2.
Goal scoring (more specifically, chance conversion) was one of Nashville's biggest and most talked about issues last year. The club addressed it significantly, bringing in Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster, the two USL leading scorers in 2018 (46 combined goals between them). Tucker Hume also returns after scoring 7 in 2018, and he has carried that form into the preseason, scoring 4 and assisting 1.
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE IN 2019?
With MLS looming next year, Nashville SC is in an interesting position this year, having to balance competing for a USL Cup in 2019 and building an infrastructure and a squad for MLS in 2020. While success on the field is important, developing a culture and an identity is just as important. Gary Smith and Mike Jacobs will begin building their MLS squad, with Ally Mackay taking over the day-to-day duties of USL general manager. CEO Ian Ayre recently stated that the club plans on making MLS signings in the summer window, and it's likely that at least some of them will spend time with Nashville in USL.
We touched on this in our most recent podcast, but here are our individual thoughts:
Ben: NSC needs to build on their solid defense from 2018 and develop a more consistently dangerous attack. I want to see current players make strong cases to make the jump to MLS, as well as some MLS signings in the summer window. It’s crucial that they continue to build fan excitement for MLS in 2020.
Slape: My stance has changed slightly with the Gary Smith news but I think that most importantly its continue to build fan excitement as we look forward to 2020. Best way to do that is to win games and think that the minimum expectation is top 3 in the Eastern conference. Outside of results, I want to see players put themselves in contention to move up to MLS.
Sloop: My sole concern for success this year is building fan excitement. While a logical route to that is a good number of wins and higher scoring games, my metric does not necessarily demand success at the playoff level. So, ultimately, I hope to see Smith work more aggressively with a team built better for just that.
Andy: Continued success for Nashville SC is still the same formula as last year: garner interest and grow the fan base before the MLS move. Because of the offseason acquisitions the club has made, as well as retaining a large core of its first-season roster, it’s clear that this team wants to win. Success for Nashville in my eyes is indeed growing the game, but it’s also about making history by becoming the first club to capture the USL championship before making the leap to MLS. Now, I’m not saying that the season as a whole will be a failure if this doesn’t happen, but it should be a goal the club is striving for if it does what it is supposed to in the regular season and secures home playoff match.
Where will Nashville SC finish in the table?
Ben: Top 2 in the Eastern Conference.
Slape: Changing my predictions slightly from the pod based on the Gary Smith announcement and saying we finish top of the East.
Sloop: Second in the east.
Andy: Nashville should finish in the top two or three of the Eastern Conference.
Nashville SC Top Scorer
Ben: Daniel Ríos
Slape: Daniel Ríos
Sloop: Cameron Lancaster
Andy: Cameron Lancaster
Nashville SC Assist Leader
Ben: Taylor Washington
Slape: Kharlton Belmar
Sloop: Alan Winn
Andy: Alan Winn
Nashville SC Defender Of The Year
Ben: Liam Doyle
Slape: Darnell King
Sloop: Darnell King
Andy: Ken Tribbett
Nashville SC Most Valuable Player
Ben: Daniel Ríos
Slape: Kharlton Belmar
Sloop: Cameron Lancaster
Andy: Bolu Akinyode
Bold Prediction for 2019
Ben: Nashville will finish with the best goal difference in USL
Slape: Connor Sparrow is Nashville's starting goalkeeper by the end of the the preseason
Sloop: Nashville scores the fourth-most goals in USL this season
Andy: Cameron Lancaster will be the USL Golden Boot winner again this year.