By Ben Wright (@benwright), editor.
Expansion teams concede lots of goals in Major League Soccer. That’s a pretty widely known fact. The record for most goals conceded in a single season was set last year by expansion side FC Cincinnati at 75 goals allowed, breaking the previous record of 70 set by Minnesota United in their debut season. The past six expansion sides have conceded an average of 59 goals in their first year, and only one (Atlanta United - 40) has allowed less than 50.
Nashville SC is very aware of this going into their first year. “Most expansion teams in every sport are like sieves as far as giving goals away,” said General Manager Mike Jacobs in an August interview with Speedway Soccer. “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.”
Enter Gary Smith. The English manager has earned a reputation as a defensive coach (a rather lazy narrative, in my opinion). A lot of this comes from his MLS Cup-winning Colorado Rapids side, which didn’t play the most attractive style of soccer, but was actually fairly average defensively (5th best in the league). His Nashville SC sides were elite defensively (fewest goals conceded in 2019, second-fewest in 2018), but were also strong on the other end of the field (most goals scored in the Eastern Conference in 2019).
Jacobs pushed back on the idea of Nashville setting up as a purely defensive team, but the reality is that Nashville are setting up to be a stingy, hard working, counter attacking team. We’ll look at how the attack is shaping up in a later installment, but for now, let’s take a look at how the backline currently looks.
Nashville SC currently have nine defenders on their roster. Five of these players were acquired from within MLS, two were brought up from Nashville’s 2019 USL Championship side, and two were acquired internationally. Smith has options to play in a back four or a back three, both systems he used at times in USL.
Nashville have lots of depth at left back. That’s not something that many MLS sides can say, and definitely not many expansion sides. Still, Nashville have proven options on the left.
Daniel Lovitz was acquired from Montreal, and has been a regular on the US National Team under Gregg Berhalter.
Lovitz is a winger-turned-fullback who has typically been better going forward than defending. In Gary Smith’s USL team, it wasn’t uncommon to see one fullback more involved in the attack, and Lovitz makes sense to be the more attack-minded option. His expected assist and pass quality numbers don’t jump off the graph, but his progressive passes (passes gaining >25% of the distance remaining to the goal) are impressive and he’s really strong on the ball.
Another option on the left is Jimmy Medranda, who is a game changing talent when able to get on the field. Injuries have been an issue his entire career, but he looked back to full health towards the end of 2019.
For a player who's primarily drawn attention for his attacking contributions, those are really solid defensive numbers for Medranda. He has high-level acceleration and puts in a ton of work to recover the ball, and he's ambitious with his passing, able to quickly turn and play a line-breaking pass. Medranda is a capable of playing further forward on the left or as a central midfielder, but if he's able to stay healthy, don't be surprised if he challenges for the starting job on the left, especially if Nashville use a back three more consistently.
Dave Romney played a limited role in a poor LA Galaxy defense, but the team had better results with Romney on the field (1.69 points in matches Romney played at least 5 minutes, 1.45 points without him).
It’s a small sample size (just 986 minutes played in 2019), but Romney’s stats per 96 show a defender who’s above average in possession. His involvement isn’t high, but a lot of that is due to the fact that he spent a significant amount of time at left back. From everything Nashville has said, they view Romney as a core part of their defense, primarily as a center back. If Romney plays centrally, he’ll likely be tasked with building attacks from the back.
Miguel Nazarit was just signed from Once Calderas in Colombia. At 22 years old, Nazarit is a young, high-upside center back with plenty of experience at the youth national team level. Nazarit may not start the season as a starter (Jacobs: he “has the potential to be a key contributor in our team”), but he’s on a TAM-level contract, meaning the club values him highly enough to pay him over the max budget charge of $530,000. Detailed stats from the Colombian first division aren’t easy to come by, but from his highlight package he looks like a defender who will cover ground and will be hard to beat 1v1.
Eddie Segura joined LAFC from the Colombian first division at the same age as Nazarit, and hasn’t been as consistently involved with the youth national team as Nazarit. It’s a major assumption to think that Nazarit will be as effective as Segura, but that seems like the hope the club has for him.
Brayan Beckeles is another international signing, brought in from Olimpia in Honduras after stints in Portugal and Mexico and has over 60 appearances for the Honduran national team, including three in the 2010 World Cup. At 34 years old he’s able to play both right back and center back. Based solely on his profile, he seems likely to be a key member of Nashville’s backline, although his age raises some questions as to how many minutes he’ll be able to play on the right. Gary Smith often shifted fullbacks into a more central role in a back three (Justin Davis and Darnell King being prime examples), and Beckeles seems to be a likely option to shift centrally if Smith uses this system.
As with Nazarit, detailed stats are hard to find for Beckeles’ most recent campaign, but making 37 appearances in Liga MX just over a year ago isn’t a bad sign as far as durability and quality.
Nashville have two utility players in Eric Miller and Jalil Anibaba.
Miller is primarily a right back, but is able to play anywhere across the back line.
He struggled for consistent minutes after joining NYCFC from Minnesota, and his numbers in 2019 weren't spectacular. He's a strong depth piece, and could be a serviceable starter in the right system.
Anibaba is an MLS veteran with 224 appearances in his nine seasons in the league, and he's coming off arguably his best season, becoming a key part of New England's push into the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
The graph is a bit skewed, as Anibaba spent most of 2019 as a left back, but he's strong defensively and still capable of playing on either flank. He's not the most spectacular name in MLS, but he's a really strong option at three positions. He'll likely see plenty of minutes in 2020.
Taylor Washington and Ken Tribbett were both signed from Nashville's 2019 USL squad. "Because of that vast difference in standards, we’ll probably try to under promise the roles that these guys have and hope that they’re able to find their way with the other group," said Jacobs. Reading between the lines, it would seem that the four players signed from the USL side will primarily start as depth pieces, with chances to earn a bigger role.
Smith's system won't be overly complex, but his defenders will move the ball quickly, stay compact, and each player will understand their specific role and how it fits in the bigger picture. In a league that often sees expansion sides struggle to field a cohesive defense, Nashville's strategy of going after experienced defenders makes a lot of sense. Conceding 55-60 goals in year one seems like a reasonable goal, and if Nashville are able to do that, they'll likely stay competitive throughout the season.