Updated: Feb 18
By Ben Wright (@benwright), editor.
In 2019, Nashville SC was an elite defense coupled with an above average attack in the USL Championship. The side that will take the field as a Major League Soccer expansion team in 2020 will look almost completely different from the team that spent two seasons in the USL Championship. However, with head coach Gary Smith leading the side into MLS, many things will remain the same.
2019 IN REVIEW
Nashville’s foundation in 2019 was a league-best defense, conceding just 26 goals in their 34 match regular season. Under Smith, Nashville largely set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation that kept the defense and midfield lines compact and relied heavily on the wingers and overlapping fullbacks to open up space on the flanks. With 59 goals, the attack didn’t light the league on fire by any means, but consistent chance creation and finishing paired with an excellent defense made Nashville one of the best sides in the league.
Daniel Ríos was the focal point of Nashville’s attack. After signing with the club on an MLS contract before the season, the Mexican youth international lead Smith’s team with 21 goals, becoming the first player in USL Championship history with consecutive 20 goal seasons.
Nashville SC has adopted more of a slow build approach than previous expansion sides like Atlanta United or LAFC, heavily targeting players with domestic experience and sprinkling in a few international signings.
Defense has been a focal point of this roster build, as Mike Jacobs told Speedway Soccer in August:
“Most expansion teams in every sport are like sieves as far as giving goals away. For us, to start an expansion team in MLS, contrary to these successful teams like LAFC or Atlanta, the reality is that most expansion teams fail miserably their first year. We have a manager who's very stingy defensively - his teams just don't concede goals. We want players who are ok with being uncomfortable, who can deal with being under pressure. The likes of playing somewhere like Atlanta in front of 70,000 fans... We want them to be comfortable being uncomfortable, but also able to make other teams uncomfortable, in a high-pressing team on both sides of the ball."
The club’s first big signing came in August, announcing the transfer of German attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar from Danish side Brondby IF on a reported $2.9M transfer fee.
Winger Randall Leal was another big investment from the club, arriving from Saprissa on a TAM contract. Within MLS, Nashville parted with big chunks of allocation money to bring in David Accam from Columbus and Aníbal Godoy from San Jose.
While the Godoy move was met with surprise by many around the league, Nashville’s acquisition of Dax McCarty from Chicago Fire for $100k in allocation and a draft pick was praised as shrewd business. Dave Romney was brought in from LA Galaxy and promised a more prominent role on the expansion side, after playing inconsistently for a poor Galaxy defense. Nashville used the expansion draft to bolster their squad, adding forward Abu Danladi, goalkeepers Joe Willis and Adrian Zendejas, and defenders Jalil Anibaba and Jimmy Medranda. They brought in US International Dan Lovitz from Montreal of $100k in allocation money and an international spot and added Eric Miller in the re-entry draft.
Mike Jacobs and co. bet on four players from Nashville’s USL side, bringing up defenders Ken Tribbett and Taylor Washington, midfielder Matt LaGrassa, and forward Alan Winn. They also signed Brian Anunga from USL side Charleston Battery for a reported $50k transfer fee.
Miguel Nazarit was signed on a free transfer from Once Caldas in Colombia, but visa issues delayed his arrival with the team and Smith has been open that the young center back will need time to adjust. Liga MX veteran and Honduran international Brayan Beckeles was signed to bolster the defense, but at 34 years old there are questions about how many minutes he will log.
Nashville acquired defender Walker Zimmerman from LAFC in a league-record deal worth up to $1.25M as well as an international roster spot. The 2019 Best XI center back will certainly be a core of this roster in 2020.
Joe Willis was selected in the expansion draft after spending several seasons in Houston, where he typically fell right in the middle of the pack in save percentage.
Willis likely won’t be a candidate for the golden glove, but with a stout defense in front of him he’ll provide veteran leadership, and won’t make too many crucial mistakes, which may be enough for a debut side.
Behind him is Adrian Zendejas, a 24-year-old with just 90 minutes of MLS experience. The young keeper was brought in from Sporting KC as part of a package deal with Jimmy Medranda, and has been highlighted as a more possession-based option if Nashville decides to focus on building out of the back.
SuperDraft pick Elliot Panicco rounds out group, and will serve as the third choice keeper. He likely won’t see the field in 2020.
From preseason, it looks like Smith has a fairly set four man back line. He’s been fairly open about the squad being split into a first and second choice group. Dan Lovitz, Dave Romney, Jalil Anibaba and Eric Miller have been the consistent starters on the back line.
New signing Walker Zimmerman will surely slot into one of the center back spots, likely ahead of Anibaba to give Smith a right footed/left footed center back partnership of Zimmerman and Romney.
Nashville invested heavily in Zimmerman, sending up to $1.25M in allocation money to LAFC, a league-record fee for a defender. Zimmerman has been an elite defender in MLS over the past several years, anchoring LAFC’s defense and enabling them to play out of the back. He’s also been a consistent threat from set pieces, with only three defenders scoring more than him since he entered the league in 2013.
The fullback spots are a crucial part of Gary Smith’s system, who relied heavily on his outside backs (especially the left back) to push forward and create overloads on the flanks. Dan Lovitz and Eric Miller seem like the first choice options at this point, but Brayan Beckeles and Taylor Washington will provide depth and maintain similar style if play.
Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy will anchor the team from midfield. Despite being on the wrong side of 30, McCarty is still on of the most consistent central midfielders in the league.In front of what looks like an impressive backline, the two will chew up ground ahead of the defense and break up play before it gets into the final third. Nashville won’t play a tiki-taka style, but in McCarty and Godoy, they have two players capable of making progressive passes and getting the ball into space quickly.
Derrick Jones was brought in midseason in 2019, but suffered a major ankle injury and spent most of the year recovering. Since returning late in 2019, he’s been deployed as the 10 in Nashville’s 4-2-3-1, and that trend has continued throughout preseason. Smith praised his ability on the ball, and noted that he has the versatility to play in a deeper role as well. Jones looks like the first option off the bench for any midfield role, while Brian Anunga and Matt LaGrassa will provide depth with the potential to become bigger contributors.
Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar are locks for places on the “3 line” when healthy, but despite impressive pedigrees, a lot of Nashville’s 2020 success will depend on how they adjust to MLS. The right wing position is a major question mark going into the season. David Accam was brought in from Columbus, but his output has never quite reached the heights it did in Chicago.
His end product saw an uptick in 2019, and Nashville will hope he can return to form with a change of scenery. Behind him, Alan Winn has seen significant minutes after signing from the USL side. He’s a pacey player, but struggled to consistently turn opportunities into production at the lower levels. Just 23, he has plenty of upside and could turn into a contributor for Nashville if given the opportunity.
Over his 3½ seasons at IF Brøndby in the Danish top flight, Mukhtar averaged 0.48 goals+assists/96. Those numbers would rank in the Top 10 for MLS attacking midfielders over that same time span. Clearly, there are significant differences between the two leagues, so it's dangerous to assume that productivity will seamlessly translate.
That being said, this is a player with tons of potential, who fits the profile of two-way player Nashville have targeted, and seems capable of fitting in with the new breed of 10s that have been successful in MLS. Having Mukhtar at his best will be key to Nashville's success.
This is the biggest question mark for Nashville heading into the season. Dominique Badji and Abu Danladi both have experience in MLS, but neither has shown a consistent ability to be a double digit goal scorer in the league, something Nashville sorely needs.
Both players are versatile, and will likely see time on either flank as well as through the middle.
Daniel Ríos is the most intriguing option at the position. The 24 year old was a serial goal scorer at the USL level, finishing at a better rate than players like Christian Ramirez and Brian White, both of whom found success in MLS.
Mike Jacobs has talked about signing a high-end forward, and while that may happen before the season starts, it looks increasingly more likely that they wait until summer to make a move. Best case, Ríos hits the ground running and proves to be a consistent scorer at the MLS level. It’s more likely that Nashville will have to manage with a “goals by committee” plan until the summer.
On paper, Nashville have arguably the strongest defense an expansion side has had in recent memory. With Gary Smith at the helm, they’ll look to be difficult to play against and limit scoring chances to stay competitive. With a midfield ahead of them who will chew up ground and move the ball quickly, they look built to be a defensively stout team who stay compact and try to move quickly in attack.
Smith and Jacobs have talked about being a pressing team. Not to the extent of NYRB, but they won’t sit deep and counter, either. Look for a compact midblock with very specific pressing triggers, trying to force turnovers in midfield or in their opponent’s defensive third and move the ball towards goal quickly.
Signing Walker Zimmerman should raise their floor, improving what already looked like a strong defense to a team that could be one of the better units in the league and likely won’t rival Minnesota or Cincinnati’s defensive records.
Worst case, this team will struggle to consistently score goals and will grind out a lot of 0-0 or 1-1 draws. If Ríos, Mukhtar and Leal can adapt to the league, or a high-level striker is brought in, this side could challenge for one of the final playoff spots in the west. Staying in the playoff hunt until late in the season looks like a pretty reasonable goal at this point.
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