By Ben Wright (@benwright), editor.
We were thrilled to talk with Matt Doyle, MLSSoccer.com's Armchair Analyst and a regular on Extratime. Our conversation covered several topics, from roster building to season expectations. Below is an abridged transcript of our interview - you can listen to the full conversation on the latest Speedway Soccer podcast.
Ben Wright: Nashville has been compared a lot to FC Cincinnati or Minnesota United, rather than LAFC or Atlanta United. Do you think those comparisons of expansion teams are fair?
Matt Doyle: I think actually they’re going to fall somewhere between Minnesota United and Orlando City. Everybody kind of forgets this now because Orlando City has been a disaster for the last four years, but their expansion season was really promising. They ended up just outside the playoffs with 44-45 points*, and as terrible as Minnesota was for that first six games, they actually ended up on 36 points. So shoot that gap somewhere in there. And if you look at Minnesota and if you look at Cincinnati last year, the thing that made both those teams so terrible (and they were terrible) was that they couldn’t defend. At all. Minnesota set a new record for goals conceded in their expansion season and then actually gave up more in their second season, and then last year Cincinnati came in and gave up even more goals than that.
I can’t imagine a team with Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy in the engine room, and solid MLS defenders like Jalil Anibaba and Dave Romney… these guys weren’t stars, but they were starters for playoff teams. I can’t imagine this team giving up 70 goals. They might give up 55 and only score 30, so if the bottom falls out, that’s the way it would happen. But I still think this is a team that’s likelier to hit somewhere around 40 points than they are in the 20 to 30 range.
*Editor’s note: Orlando City finished the 2015 season in 7th place with 44 points, five points out of 6th place and a playoff spot.
BW: So a couple interesting points there. I think everyone associates [Nashville SC] Head Coach Gary Smith with a defend first, which may be fair… He’s pushed back on that like any coach would. I do think that Nashville really like the defensive stability that he brings. You mentioned Jalil Anibaba and Dave Romney, and then they’ve brought in Brayan Beckeles who’s played in Liga MX, played in the World Cup. He’s 34, so we’ll have to see how many minutes he can play, and then a defender like Miguel Nazarit with a lot of upside. And they’ve got Godoy and McCarty in front of them. Do you think the roster lends itself to try to absorb pressure and hit on the counter, or do you think they’ll actually try to dictate play?
MD: The thing with Godoy and Dax is that they’re really excellent passers of the ball. Dax is still arguably the best in the league at hitting those third line passes into feet and into the half spaces. Even last year’s [Chicago] Fire team, they were a possession team, they just couldn’t defend because they didn’t have actual defenders behind them and were constantly in front of net. But if you have those two guys, you should be able to use the ball. I don’t think they’re going to go out there and try to play like NYCFC did, but I don’t expect they’re going to look like the 2010 [Colorado] Rapids to reference “THE” Gary Smith team. That team played a straight-up 4-4-2, they were direct, the played a ton of long balls. They had a “big man/little man” striker combo. There wasn’t a lot of ingenuity to their midfield play.
This is a different construction. Even if you go beyond McCarty and Godoy (I keep referencing them because those are the guys who are going to give this team their shape and personality), but Derrick Jones, if he’s your third string central midfielder, he’s a guy who can get on the ball and use it a little bit and pass as well. I don’t think this is going to be a pure “sit deep and counter team”.
That said, if they struggle defensively, and if they struggle to create chances from possession, they might end up having to go towards a pure counter attacking stance just out of necessity. That’s a big question for me. They bet big on Hany Mukhtar. They brought in Randall Leal. They’ve brought in David Accam and a bunch of cast off forwards and backup wingers, and none of those guys is a sure thing. That’s just the truth of it right now. You cannot look at that roster and see and see an attacker who you’re like, “yeah, I’m going to bet a lot of my money that that guy’s going to succeed”. Now, Mukhtar has a lot of credentials and a bunch of smart people think he’s going to be really good, but it’s not a guarantee. Leal comes from the Costa Rican side that has repeatedly produced good players who have delivered in MLS and other good leagues. He passes the eye test and all of it, but it’s not a guarantee. So I think that’s where the bigger questions are for this team right now, and if they don’t solve it right away, than that will have long-term effects on how they can actually go out there and play.
"Pragmatic doesn’t mean boring, longball, hopefully win a knock-down and go. Pragmatic has to do with being sensible with how you use the skill sets of the players that you have at your disposal."
BW: Yeah, I think looking at the roster as it’s constructed now, goalscoring and a strong 9 who can score double-digit goals… who knows, they might have that in Daniel Ríos and they’re hoping Badji can turn it around from what we’ve seen in Colorado and Dallas, but they don’t appear to have a double digit goalscorer, especially now that the Ake Loba deal has fallen through. They’ve talked about evaluating the team in preseason and potentially bringing in a 9 before the season, or if they like what they see, waiting until the summer window. If they go with the latter option and hold off bringing a bigger-name striker, do you think they have what it takes to stay relevant until the summer window when they can bring in reinforcements up top?
MD: The league is generally more low-scoring in the first half of the year because everybody is trying to sort themselves out. If they can keep their lines tight defensively and not ship goals the way Cincinnati and Minnesota did, then yeah, they can absolutely hang around. And then let’s say they keep a DP slot open and they’re willing to use it this summer, they can make a big addition there. And the other thing is, they still have that top overall allocation pick. When I’ve talked to Mike Jacobs he’s been cagey on whether he’s going to use that on a player or sell it for allocation money. To me, it makes a lot of sense to either get Fabian Castillo on the cheap now, or just wait until summer when his contract runs out and bring him back to the league because he is a sure thing. He’s probably not going to be a best eleven winger, but he’s a 10 goals/8 assists level winger who’s in his prime and is out of contract in six months, whose best years I think came in MLS.
This is a team that is potentially able to be solid for the first three or four months of the season, and then add two massive attacking pieces in the summer and start putting the fear of god into some people.
BW: So who would you say on this roster excites you most? Who are you most interested in watching over the course of the season?
MD: From a US Men’s National Team point of view, because that’s the lense a lot of fans view the league through, I’m really interested in Derrick Jones. THis is a guy who a couple years ago with the youth national team was every bit as crucial to the team as Tyler Adams was., and we know what Tyler Adams is doing right now. If they can get the best out of Derrick Jones, for US national team fans to have a defensive midfield guy like that on the depth chart, that would be a huge step forward.
But overall, it’s Hany Mukhtar. He has such an interesting background. He was a part of every German youth national team, right up to the U21s. He moved to Benfica, one of the great selling clubs in the world, and it didn’t work out for him there. You know what? There’s a lot of 19-20 year old players who are super talented and it doesn’t work out for them and they just have to find the right situation. It seems like he found that at Brondby, where he was one of the best players in Scandinavia. And now the next step for him is to come here and show it in a league that’s in a higher level in terms of quality and certainly in physicality and overall quality on the field. Let’s see if he can do that. I’m sure he has dreams himself of maybe making it back to the Bundesliga or a Top 5 league. And that would put Nashville in a really interesting situation in terms of being a selling club that can turn a profit by developing players and still compete.
BW: It definitely looks like that’s kind of what they’re going for. Two of the bigger investments in Leal and Mukhtar are both under 25. They also spend TAM on Miguel Nazarit, who has a lot of upside. From conversations with Mike Jacobs, I think they’re going to ease him into things a bit and maybe not drop him off the deep end to start….
MD: Another interesting one is Daniel Ríos. He is Mexican, he has the background of having been in the system at Chivas for a while. If he comes into MLS next year… He’s scored at a higher level in the second flight than Christian Ramirez did. Christian Ramirez came into MLS in his first season, scored 15 goals, and had interest from Liga MX teams. If Daniel Ríos scores 15 goals for Nashville SC this year, what kind of offers do they get from a team like Chivas or a team like Pachuca? There are a lot of very interesting things at play on this roster. The fact that they’ve gone about it differently than really any of the recent expansion teams, it’s piqued my interest in a big way.
BW: A big narrative to this team has been Gary Smith. Obviously he won MLS Cup back in 2010 with Colorado Rapids. He’s been labelled a defensive coach, and his teams are usually pretty solid. In USL at least, his teams were towards the high end as far as goals scored, especially in 2019. What do you feel like he brings to the table in terms of experience, and how do you see his team in MLS playing stylistically?
MD: It’s tough for me to say. MLS was a vastly different league eight or nine years ago when Gary Smith last coached here. We’ve seen a number of lower-division coaches come into the league the past couple years, and most of them have struggled. Adrian Heath has made the playoffs once in five years as a manager. Marc Dos Santos was arguably the best lower-level coach I thought I had seen, and that Vancouver team last season was just brutal. Alan Koch didn’t even last a third of a season for Cincinnati. Gio Savaresi had a great first year and a lousy second year. So it does seem to be kind of a risk.
BW: Another thing that could cause problems is the travel of playing in the Western Conference. You may disagree, but from top to bottom I think the West is a more competitive conference, and they have to add travel on top. How do you think Nashville stacks up with teams in the West?
MD: The top of the West is a blender. LAFC is going to be better this year than they were last year, and last year they the best team I’ve ever seen in MLS. The [Seattle] Sounders have lost some of their veteran leadership, but I’m not about to bet against Garth Lagerwey. We saw big steps forward from Colorado and FC Dallas. The Galaxy are going to be better this year. The [Portland] Timbers have spent a ton. So has Sporting Kansas City. It’s tough. It’s a wood chipper. Being pretty good might not be enough to actually be a playoff team in the West. It’s certainly not going to keep you in contention at the top of the table.
But, realistically, I don’t think the goal for the Nashville front office is to be in contention at the top of the table this year. I think they just want to hit that 40 points, try to not be Cincinnati, and if September comes and they still have a shot at the playoffs, even if it’s a long shot, I think that’s a job pretty well done.
BW: Yeah, Mike Jacobs has consistently talked about wanting to blend in, and about not wanting people to be able to tell which is the expansion team and which has been in MLS for x number of years. Do you think that’s a reasonable expectation for their first year?
MD: I do, based on what I’ve seen. But it comes back to how good are Mukhtar and Leal going to be. And if they’re not good enough, and let’s say Rios is given the number 9 job to start the season, and those guys aren’t good enough, it’s going to be incumbent upon ownership to say “we’re taking a splash on a new no. 9 and we’re going to use that allocation spot to bring in Fabian Castillo as a winger” and sort of right those wrongs. To me, that’s the big if going into this season for Nashville. Will these guys be able to form a potent enough attack to keep MLS defenses honest.