By Ben Wright (@benwright), editor.
With 32 days to go before Nashville SC play their first ever match in Major League Soccer, the forward group seems to be one of the biggest question marks surrounding this team. Will Nashville SC be able to score enough goals to keep them competitive in their inaugural season?
At the time of publication, Nashville have four strikers on the roster.
Dominique Badji was acquired from FC Dallas for a total of $325,000 in allocation money (plus another $75,000 in GAM if certain performance conditions are met). Badji is a five year MLS veteran, playing with both Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas. He's been a regular starter at both clubs, but has never reached double digit goals in a single season.
Badji's 2019 xG looks pretty good, but a lot of that is due to playing on the wing for most of the season in Dallas. He's naturally more of a center forward, but was pushed wide in a Dallas system that was never a good fit for him as a player. To date, his best single-season output came in 2018, when he scored nine goals. Seven of those came in 16 matches for Colorado, before a mid-season trade sent him to Dallas, and all of his goals came while playing as a center forward.
Abu Danladi was selected by Nashville in the first round of the 2019 Expansion Draft. After being selected first overall in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Danladi had some success with Minnesota United, but was largely hampered by recurring injuries.
Danladi's best season in Minnesota was his first, scoring eight and assisting two in 1,388 minutes. He's capable of playing anywhere across the front line, and has elite-level speed, but the injuries are a major concern, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see his minutes managed at the start of the 2020 season.
He showed well in limited minutes in 2019, with impressive numbers across the board. If Nashville can get that level of production from him in a larger role this season, he'll look like a really high-value acquisition in the draft.
Ideally you'd be at the top right corner of this graph (that's Zlatan Ibrahimović on the far right), and neither Badji or Danladi are. Danladi is above average in assists/96, and Badji's 2019 numbers are skewed by the fact that he was often played out of position. Nashville's technical staff consistently preach valuing the undervalued, and both players were certainly acquired at a dip in value.
Daniel Ríos was purchased from Mexican powerhouse Chivas Guadalajara as a low risk, high reward option. Ríos spent the last two seasons in USL Championship, and is the first player in league history to score 20 goals in consecutive seasons. During that time, Ríos vastly outperformed his expected goals, racking up a 10.2 non-penalty G-xG in those two years.
There's a debate in the analytics community over whether or not finishing as a skill exists, and even if it does, if it's consistently relevant (here's an excellent article by Sean Steffen arguing that it's not). I'm not going to go into depth here, but I believe there's a case to be made that outperforming xG may indicate some measure of superior finishing instead of strictly luck.
Regardless, Ríos's G-xG numbers came down to earth a bit in 2019 without losing any actual production. In 2018 with North Carolina, he had an 8.17 non-penalty G-xG. In 2019, that number dropped to 2.03 while scoring just one less goal from open play.
Houston's Christian Ramirez and NYRB's Brian White are two of the most prominent examples of forwards finding success in MLS after spells in lower divisions, and Daniel Ríos scored at a better rate than either. That's not a guarantee of future success, but the upside is there. The club may not place a weight of expectations on his shoulders, but they're privately hoping he can surprise a lot of people in MLS. There's a big part of me that wouldn't be at all surprised Ríos is the starting striker on February 29.
Cameron Lancaster is the last forward on the roster, and recent reports indicate he may not be with the team at the start of the season. Despite only playing 730 minutes in 2019, he still finished fourth on the team with 5 goals. In his five seasons playing in the USL Championship, he's averaged 0.81 goals/96, an elite level of production. The highlight of his time in Louisville came in 2018, when he scored a USL record 26 goals (1.14 G/96) and lead Louisville City to a second-consecutive USL Cup.
The question with Lancaster has never been one of talent; rather, it's been one of durability.
I really believe he has the talent to succeed at the MLS level, but with limited roster spots available, the injury issues appear to be a red flag for the club.
Nashville pursued striker Aké Loba earlier in the window, ultimately losing out to Liga MX giant Monterrey. On a conference call after the MLS SuperDraft, General Manager Mike Jacobs told media that the club will evaluate their current forwards against MLS sides in preseasons before making a decision. Don't rule out a signing before the season starts, but it's just as likely they go with what they have until the summer window.
To me, the forward position is the biggest question mark going into the season. If one of the current group can claim the starting job and score double digit goals, or if Nashville goes out and brings in a double digit scorer, this team could be really good. If not, I think this team could struggle.