By Ben Wright.
"Yeah, but who's gonna score the goals?"
That's been the biggest question about Nashville SC's roster build to date. Defense? One of the best in the league through the first two weeks. Midfield? Godoy and McCarty were one of, if not the, best midfield pairing of the first two weeks. Attack? Not so much. This clip is emblematic of Nashville's struggles in their first two games. Win the ball in midfield, good ball to feet out wide, final run and pass is just off.
How does this get fixed? A lot of the issue comes down to time. Nashville is a brand new team, and with only two competitive games together, it's hard to expect perfection. Players need time to gel. A big part of the equation is efficiency, though. Nashville took 28 shots in their first two matches, the eight-best tally across the league. Chance creation isn't their main issue. Finishing is. Enter Daniel Ríos. A Mexican youth international, the striker was the first player signed to Nashville SC's MLS roster, purchased from Mexican powerhouse Chivas for an undisclosed fee. Ríos set the USL Championship ablaze, becoming the first player in league history with back-to-back 20 goal seasons.
It's easy to think of Ríos as just another player from USL punching above his weight for a shot in MLS, but the striker is a legitimate goal threat wherever he's been. Coming through the ranks at Chivas and playing for Mexico at a U20 level is a significant résumé booster, and there's a reason Nashville made him their first acquisition for MLS. Regardless of who they add in attack (and they're certainly looking at options in attack), Ríos is a part of their long-term plans. At 6'1", Ríos is a strong target forward, who's capable of playing with his back to goal, but also has the speed to play on the counter. He has an assured first touch and is reliable with the ball at his feet. He also has the awareness to pick up his head and find a passing option. Most importantly, he's intuitively aware of where defenders are, where the space is, and how to make himself open.
In the above clip, Ríos picks up the ball without a great passing option or a clear lane towards goal. He brings the ball inside, pulls three defenders out of position and plays a teammate wide open. After laying the ball off, he immediately makes a hard run into the box to the space where the defenders should have been and splits the centerbacks, setting up an easy finish for the goal. It's a really smart play, and one that translates to the next level.
In this next clip, Ríos again picks the ball up wide without a great passing option, so he lowers his shoulder to round the defender and get into the box. He rides a couple strong challenges and recovers to pick out a teammate in space for the goal. Defenders at the MLS level probably won't leave two men wide open at the back post like that, but it still shows his awareness to draw defenders in and play the ball into the vacated space.
Here's a really smart run Ríos made in Nashville's final match before the season was suspended. He's constantly checking over his shoulders to gauge where the defenders are. When he sees McCarty win the ball, he feints a run towards the ball and then peels off. But instead of making a direct run to get in front of goal, he keeps looking towards the ball and drifts in between the centerbacks. It's not a passive movement, but it does lull the defenders into thinking he's covered. In reality, Ríos is making a yard of space on either side and is in perfect position to receive the ball. The pass is behind him and the finish isn't there, but it's a really intelligent move, this time at the MLS level.
Perhaps the most attractive part of Ríos's game is his hold up play. He's more than capable of dropping a little deeper to receive a pass, lay the ball off, and peel around a defender into space. The above clip shows every touch he had against Portland. While he didn't get on the scoresheet, he did show an ability to link play that's unique among Nashville's forward group.
I've mentioned the comparison between Ríos, Brian White and Christian Ramirez before. Obviously, it's a poor argument to say that just because White and Ramirez successfully made the jump to MLS, Ríos is guaranteed to succeed. I do, however, think it's worth pointing out. Ríos scored at a better rate in the lower levels than either White or Ramirez. Ramirez has scored 32 goals in 86 MLS matches. That's not MVP-level production, but it's a very solid return on investment. With Ríos's pedigree and track record, it's not unreasonable to expect similar production from him in MLS.
It goes without saying, but nothing is guaranteed. At the end of the day, Ríos has played 22 minutes in MLS. That's not nearly enough to reach any strong conclusions. But in those 22 minutes, he's shown flashes of the potential Nashville saw when they bought him, and he's also shown a skillset that sets him apart from other players on the roster. At the very least, it's worth giving him 10 games to find his footing and see if he can succeed at the MLS level. At best, he could turn out to be the player Nashville have been looking for.
Cover photo by Casey Gower/Speedway Soccer