As expected for a club building a roster from scratch, Nashville SC have been busy in the offseason. The debut side added three players in the 2019 Expansion Draft, traded for three more immediately following, and just signed four players from their USL roster, bringing the total number of rostered players to 21.
Under head coach Gary Smith in USL, Nashville primarily played a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1 hybrid that had the 10 operate in a free role in attack and push up with the striker in defense. Smith also used a 3-4-1-2 on multiple occasions, and while that may continue, the roster construction lends itself to the former option.
Nashville SC Roster as of 12/10/19:
GOALKEEPERS (2): Joe Willis, Adrián Zendejas
DEFENDERS (8): Dave Romney, Jalil Anibaba, Ken Tribbett, Daniel Lovitz, Jimmy Medranda, Taylor Washington, Eric Miller, Brayan Beckeles
MIFIELDERS (6): Aníbal Godoy, Dax McCarty, Randall Leal, Hany Mukhtar, David Accam, Alan Winn
FORWARDS (4): Dominique Badji, Daniel Ríos, Abu Danladi, Cameron Lancaster
Areas of depth: Center Midfield, Left Back
The center midfield Mike Jacobs and company have assembled looks very solid. Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty fit the club’s vision of working hard on both sides of the ball, and the two veterans are built in leaders for the expansion side. Neither is flashy, but they’re consistent passers, strong ball winners, and they’ll provide a good shield in front of the backline.
Behind them on the depth chart is Derrick Jones, who never quite lived up to potential in Philadelphia, but could benefit from a change of scenery. Jones has a unique skill set and loads of potential, and while his minutes for Nashville in USL were limited by injury, he showed a surprising amount of positional flexibility and produced this highlight reel goal in the playoffs. He likely won’t be a starter on day one, but will provide good cover for McCarty and Godoy and has the potential to grow into a more prominent role.
Matt LaGrassa was recently signed from the USL side, and he looks to be another depth piece in this squad. He’s by no means a flashy player, but covers a tremendous amount of ground on both sides of the ball (that’s kind of a theme with all these players). Stylistically, he’s similar to McCarty; hard working, hard tackling, and quick to recycle possession. He’s capable of hitting a diagonal ball out to the wings and was a good deep-lying playmaker at the USL level. It remains to be seen how he’ll translate to MLS, but he’ll provide some squad depth at a manageable cost.
At left back, Nashville traded for US international Daniel Lovitz immediately following the expansion draft. Regardless of fan opinion of him at the international level, he’s probably a top six or seven left back in MLS. $100k in allocation money and an international roster spot looks like a good piece of business for a US international, and at 28, he should be an answer at the position for 2-3 years going forward.
Behind him, Nashville added Jimmy Medranda, who can anywhere on the left, as well as in central midfield. Gary Smith has already hinted that Medranda may be better in midfield, so it remains to be seen how much he’ll feature in defense, but he’s a positionally flexible player who has shown game-changing ability when healthy.
Taylor Washington was another addition from the USL squad. He has plenty of pace and showed an improved delivery from set pieces and wide areas in 2018 (four assists, 4.05 xA in 2,144 minutes). It’s hard to see him taking time from Lovitz or Medranda off the bat, but he could grow into a substitute role late in matches.
Areas of need: Center Back, Wide Midfield, Forward
It’s not a shock that a club at this stage of roster building has more needs than areas of depth, but Nashville have quite a few spots to fill before the 2020 campaign gets underway.
Dave Romney was brought in from LA Galaxy, and he appears to be in line for a more prominent role in Nashville. He’s a decent option in possession (78.2% pass completion, 94.6 pass score), but there are questions around his defensive ability - playing a bit part role on a porous Galaxy defense isn’t the greatest resume booster, but the club has backed him to be a key player for them in 2020.
Next to him, Jalil Anibaba performed well for New England in 2019, and is able to play anywhere across the back four. He played a prominent role for a New England side that ended up being pretty good down the stretch, and although he's not a high profile name, there are worse starters in the league.
Ken Tribbett was another player signed from the USL squad, and played 23 times for Philadelphia Union in 2016-17. He’s turned into a strong passer of the ball, playing in a holding midfield role at times in 2019, and seems the readiest of the four USL signees to contribute at the MLS level. However, going into the season with Anibaba or Tribbett as a guaranteed starter is a risky move at best, and it seems likely a starting caliber center back will be brought in before they take the field.
As far as right back depth goes, Nashville selected Eric Miller in Stage 1 of the Re-Entry Draft. Miller was a regular starter for Colorado Rapids and Minnesota United until 2019, when he struggled to get consistent minutes and was traded to NYCFC in the summer window. Nashville touted Miller as an attack-minded fullback, but there are still plenty of questions surrounding his recent form. With only Miller and Anibaba as depth on the right, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another move in this position.
One of my biggest questions ahead of the season is what role Brayan Beckeles will play in this squad. Beckeles is 34, but was a regular starter in Liga MX just a year ago. He's able to play both right back and right center back, and how the club sees him will likely determine their moves in the first half of the season. If he's able to play 25 matches at center back, Nashville may be in good shape. If he's viewed primarily as a right back, Nashville may need reinforcements in the center. Don't be surprised if Nashville use the first months of the season to assess their defense ahead of a potential move in the summer window.
Randall Leal and David Accam look like the two starters out wide, but there are questions surrounding both, especially Accam. Leal has carved out a major role for himself with the Costa Rican national team, and has been a key contributor for Deportivo Saprissa, but as with any young player, there will likely be an adjustment period in MLS. It’s hard to deny his potential, though, and he’s been in great form for Saprissa (three goals, six assists in 2,050 minutes). Accam seems like the riskier option. He showed MVP level form in Chicago, but has a worrisome trait for inconsistency. However, despite struggling to earn regular minutes in Columbus in 2019, he was able to produce respectable numbers: six goals and three assists. With only Alan Winn (signed from the USL squad) behind him, I expect Nashville to sign a player who can at least compete with Accam for minutes, if not earn the starting job outright.
There are similar questions up front. Abu Danladi showed plenty of potential in his first season with Minnesota, but has dropped off since, playing just 805 minutes in 2019. He has game-changing speed, and can play anywhere across the front three, but his finishing can leave something to be desired.
Cameron Lancaster has produced in USL whenever he’s been on the field. Unfortunately, he rarely makes it on the field; he played just 730 minutes for Nashville in 2019. He averaged a goal every 115 minutes in USL, and the one season he managed to stay healthy, he broke the single-season scoring record with 26 goals in 2018. However, his injuries are a major worry, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him loaned back to USL if he can’t get into a matchday squad to start the season.
Dominique Badji was recently acquired from FC Dallas for up to $400k in xAM. Badji isn’t the most exciting acquisition, but he’s a solid performer and seems to fit the style of player Nashville is looking for: fast, direct and effective on the counter. He never found his best form in Dallas (Eight goals in 38 matches), but he’s a surprisingly decent finisher.
I doubt Badji is the long term answer up front, but he’s a capable placeholder until Nashville potentially make a bigger move in the summer window.
Daniel Ríos is an intriguing prospect. He’s been a consistent producer in his two seasons in USL, scoring 20+ goals in back-to-back seasons for the first time in league history. His skill set seems like a good fit for the MLS level - he boasts a clean touch, links well with the midfield, and makes really smart runs off the ball to move the center backs out of position and open up space for his teammates.
We’ve seen players like Christian Ramirez and Brian White have success in lower divisions before becoming key contributors in MLS. Ríos has been statistically better than both in almost every category: Goals/96 (0.81), conversion rate (28%), appearances per goal (1.56). He is a clinical finisher who thrives on half chances in the box. It’s unlikely that he’ll continue scoring at such an above-average rate at the MLS level, but 7-10 goals in his first season doesn’t seem like an unrealistic goal.
Ríos has all the credentials to succeed at the next level. There’s a chance he could win the starting role, but 1,200 minutes and seven goals seems like a realistic benchmark for him.
Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs has talked about saving roster and cap space for the summer window, so I don’t expect too many more signings before the season starts. It does feel like squad is 3-4 players away from being complete, and has a couple of obvious needs.
“Our goal is to be as competitive as possible straightaway,” said Jacobs in a end-of-season roundtable following Nashville’s elimination from the USL playoffs. “I think for us, a realistic goal is to not stand out, but to blend in.” Nashville looks like their floor will be a hard working, tough-to-beat, regularly competitive team. They’ve used a solid chunk of allocation money to acquire players so far ($2,325,000.00 as of publication), and have drawn more comparisons to FC Cincinnati or Minnesota United than LAFC or Atlanta United. They’ve probably overpaid for a handful of players (they’ve also worked out some really good deals - $100k for Dax McCarty??).
To quote Mark Asher Goodman, “Overpaying is ok if you construct a solid squad. Cincinnati overpaid and did not construct a solid squad.”
While Nashville haven’t brought in the flashiest names, they’ve gone after players with a fairly consistent floor. Dom Badji won’t light the league on fire, but he’s not going to be Fanendo Adi either (acquired for $1M xAM, took up a DP spot, and scored one goal). Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy won’t dictate a progressive, tiki-taka style of play, but they’ll cover ground, be hard to beat, and get the ball into space quickly. Joe Willis may not win the Golden Glove, but he won’t routinely cost Nashville points. They’ve also spent heavily on Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal, a pair of young players who are highly regarded in the international market and have the potential to be something special in MLS.
Nashville SC probably won’t set the league on fire in their first year like Atlanta or LAFC, but given how often expansion teams look completely overwhelmed, maybe being competitive and staying relevant in the playoff picture isn’t such a bad goal for their debut season.
Below is a breakdown of Nashville SC's roster build to date. I'll continue to post updates as they're announced on Twitter @benwright.