Nashville’s wingers and attacking midfielders navigated a changing landscape in 2021. The mid-season formation change dropped one winger from Nashville’s standard 4-4-1-1 formation, resulting in less playing time to go around for all. Given the lack of minutes, there are several members of the group who will no longer don blue and gold in 2022.
2021 position reviews
Randall Leal took a step forward in his maturation as a professional this season. Maybe becoming a father bestowed him with dad-like wisdom that carried onto the field. Regardless of the source, Leal looked more intentional this year. He relied more on his passing and ability to find the open space to create dangerous opportunities. Every well-rounded attacker seemingly makes this leap at some point in their careers. They progress from wanting to skate past each defender with one-v-one dribbling to understanding that there are more efficient ways to progress the attack forward. Leal made that leap in 2021.
With another year of professional and MLS experience, Leal improved across the board proving especially goal dangerous from outside the box. He finished tied for second among all attacking midfielders in Shots on Target and third in xPlace which measures the difference between pre-shot and post-shot Expected Goals. Finishing high in the category indicates that Leal took more low probability shots based on location, but had a much higher probability of scoring off those shots than expected given the pace and placement of the shot.
The manner in which Leal attacked opposing defenses shifted in 2021. Leal relied less on one-v-one dribbling attempts and instead manipulated defenses with progressive passing. His attempted dribbles dropped from 3.88 per 90 minutes in 2020 to just 1.76 attempted dribbles per 90 minutes in 2021. Instead of line-breaking dribbles, Leal looked to make progressive passes to feed C.J. Sapong and Hany Mukhtar ahead of him.
Leal’s passing also took a significant step forward in 2021. His Pass Score (passes completed over expected) improved while delivering far more dangerous passes. Leal made more Progressive Passes (passes that advance the ball 10 yards closer to goal) and Key Passes (a pass that leads directly to a shot attempt) with greater verticality on his average pass.
The improved play earned Leal a well-deserved contract extension along with several other members of Nashville’s core.
Alex Muyl felt like the same Alex Muyl from a year ago – offensively deficient but will more than put in a shift defensively. In the 2021 season, Muyl was also deployed as a midfield substitute, evidence of his positional versatility.
Muyl is absolutely elite in his defensive contribution. On a per action basis, there are more efficient defenders. Muyl’s defensive strength is in his relentless pressing, within the confines of Nashville’s system, that eventually yields results. Among Wingers and Attacking Midfielders, Muyl is in the 90th percentile in a wide range of defensive actions. Most importantly is that he wins the ball back for Nashville and feeds the counterattack. He is in the 92nd percentile for loose ball recoveries and in the 96th percentile for combined tackles and interceptions.
In no surprise to any Nashville supporter, Muyl falls short, as compared to his peers, in the offensive aspects of his game. Overall, he is the 8th lowest qualifying winger in Goals Added (g+). He operates deeper than most traditional wingers, with a comparatively low number of touches in the attacking third. But even from the midfield, he does not often complete the sort of line-breaking passes and ball-advancing dribbles that push the offense forward.
With the departure of Alistair Johnston, there is a hole at right wingback that could be filled, in part, by Alex Muyl. He certainly possesses the ability to fit the role. But is wingback the role that Gary Smith wants Muyl to play? A transition to wingback would require Muyl to more often defend as part of the lowest defensive block rather than operating as the willing runner that triggers Nashville’s press.
Luke Haakenson played 430 minutes across 19 appearances in 2021. Taken in the fourth round of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft, Haakenson spent his first season in Nashville following a 2020 loan spell with Charlotte Independence. Even in limited minutes, Haakenson etched himself into Nashville lore with a late-game brace to defeat Toronto.
Haakenson clearly has Gary Smith’s trust as an off-the-bench attacker. Nashville picked up his contract option for the 2022 season.
Handwalla Bwana played sparingly in 2021 logging only 117 minutes across four appearances. Bwana failed to make a match squad after June 26th, falling behind Luke Haakenson in the pecking order and being a casualty of Nashville’s shift away from the 4-2-3-1 formation.
Bwana has accumulated over 1,600 minutes in MLS action since making his professional debut with Seattle in 2018. Over his career, Bwana is in the bottom quartile of qualifying wingers in Goals Added (g+). Among all wingers with at least 1,500 minutes played since 2018, Bwana has the 8th lowest Pass Score (completed passes over expected) and 12th fewest Key Passes per 96 minutes.
Bwana is back for the 2022 season. But he will need to make a larger impact with Nashville to secure a long-term future with the club.
It is hard to classify 2021 as anything less than a complete disaster for both player and club. Rodrigo Piñeiro made just two appearances for a total of 16 minutes. Nashville purchased Piñeiro from Uruguayan club Danubio last winter for a reported $1.8 million, a significant transfer fee. While an adjustment period is always expected for a young player coming to MLS, Piñeiro’s time in Nashville appeared exceptionally turbulent as frustrations mounted over lack of playing time and coaching style. I will keep this focused on the actual soccer, but it is clear that Piñeiro is looking for a move back to Uruguay in 2022, and the club is certainly open to exploring a loan.
Abu Danladi featured for 130 minutes across eight appearances for Nashville. The 2017 MLS SuperDraft top pick is on the move having failed to make a lasting impact in the blue and gold. At a guaranteed salary of $237,000, Nashville should realize a small budget savings with Danladi’s departure in free agency.
While technically on Nashville’s books in 2021, Accam spent the year on loan with Swedish club Hammarby. Nashville declined David Accam’s contract option. The departure will provide significant cap savings as Accam took $1.1 million out of the yearly salary budget.
While there winger and attacking midfield group will see a few departures next season, the 2021 season was a rousing success for a few of Nashville’s top attacking midfielders.