Veteran stability was once again the calling card of Nashville’s defensive midfielders in 2021. Nashville’s double pivot of ball-destroyers helps to shield the back line and provides a key point of strength for the club.
Earlier in the 2021 season, I wrote an in-depth statistical analysis of Nashville’s defensive midfielders. While primarily focused on the long-term future of Brian Anunga and Matt LaGrassa, the article dives into Nashville’s starters as well. Since then, we have another half season worth of data points that shed further light on Nashville’s ageless starters and newer-to-MLS depth.
2021 position reviews
The ageless Dax McCarty delivered another steady season in the heart of Nashville’s midfield. McCarty, 34, remained club captain and a first-choice starter along with Anibal Godoy as part of a double pivot.
Despite his ever-increasing age, McCarty’s high-level of play remains consistent. He finished in the upper quartile among midfielders in key statistical categories such as Goals Added (g+), blocks, ball recoveries, and Pass Score (passes completed over expected). McCarty’s ability to shield the backline and disrupt opposing counterattacks remains at an elite level. His contribution to this aspect of the game is the pillar upon which the entire Nashville identity is built.
McCarty was one of only 11 outfield players over the age of 34 to log over 2,000 minutes this season. This workload cannot last forever. Management knows that it needs to find someone to take the load off of both McCarty and Godoy.
McCarty will be back next season after signing a contract extension. The contract is a one-year deal with an additional one-year option, one of several extensions Nashville worked out for core players this offseason.
For my money, Aníbal Godoy is the most under-appreciated star in Nashville. Godoy’s acquisition drew criticism across the MLS mediasphere back in the summer of 2019 for the price Nashville paid. But Godoy has proved that he was worth every penny of allocation money spent. Over the last two seasons, he has cemented himself as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league.
While he may not always get the respect and praise he deserves, the MLS Extratime crew did include Godoy in their MLS team of the season.
Godoy’s strength begins with his passing ability. He leads all MLS midfielders in passes completed over expected, completing a high percentage of his passes across the board.
Nashville and Godoy agreed to new terms this month. The Panamanian national will remain a key component in Gary Smith’s side for the foreseeable future, signing a contract extension soon after the end of the 2021 season.
“Anunga is a poor man’s Osvaldo Alonso.”Me recently to Ben Wright
This comparison is by no means a slight. Like Alonso, one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS history, Brian Anunga aggressively roams the midfield like an NFL middle linebacker destroying opposing attackers. Anunga ranks in at least the 85th percentile of midfielders in several defensive categories: ball recorveries, successful tackle percentage, pressures in the defensive third, and aerial dual win percentage. He is also in the upper quartile of qualifying MLS midfielders for Goals Added (g+) stemming from Interrupting actions.
Where Anunga becomes the poor man’s version of Alonso is in his passing ability. Anunga often opts to pass sideways and backward, rarely making progressive passes that advance the ball further up the pitch. Among qualifying MLS midfielders, Anunga finished fifth lowest in all of MLS in the verticality of his passing. On average, his passes traveled only 1.14 yards up field.
The same holds true in possession. Anunga is the bottom five percent in Progressive Carries, a carry that moves the ball at least five yards toward the opponent’s goal. While Anunga still needs to further develop his offensive game, his elite defensive ability carves out an important role within Nashville’s squad.
It is hard to understate how massive the 2021 season was for Anunga’s career. In once again reaching over 1,000 minutes played, Anunga established himself as a pivotal MLS role player. His play, long appreciated by Nashville’s technical staff, was rewarded with a new contract to keep him in Nashville.
It may be putting the cart before the horse, but Anunga may not be with Nashville after the 2021 season. Nashville could have a player selected in the 2022 Expansion Draft as St. Louis City enters the league in 2023. Based on the current projected list of protected players, Anunga could be left exposed. He would be an attractive option for an expansion club.
Anunga is on a senior minimum salary, does not require an international slot, and would be under club control for two more seasons until he reaches the five service years requirement for MLS free agency. Anunga may have some offensive limitations, but his defensive ability on a club friendly salary is an absolute bargain. Clubs around MLS will start taking notice, and Nashville did well to get his contract sorted out early.
Matt LaGrassa finishes his time in Nashville with 92 appearances for the club, after joining the club in 2018. During the USL era, LaGrassa was close to the first name on the team sheet for Gary Smith. But as pivotal as LaGrassa was during Nashville’s first two professional seasons, he never could cement himself as a regular contributor after the move to MLS.
LaGrassa logged 415 minutes in 2021 with four starts in twelve appearances. It is hard to glean much useful data from just over 800 minutes across two years of MLS action. LaGrassa inclusion usually came when Nashville was missing two of its top three midfielders or to see out the final minutes when Nashville looked to preserve a lead or a draw. But if you take all MLS midfielders with at least 800 minutes played across 2020 and 2021, LaGrassa would finish in fifth lowest in American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added (g+) metric.
Nashville declined LaGrassa’s contract option. If he decides to continue his professional soccer career, he will likely end up back in the USL Championship or he may latch onto a MLS Next Pro club, the new reserve league beginning in 2022. LaGrassa departs Nashville as an early pillar of the club pairing with Taylor Washington as the only two members to play in the club’s first four professional seasons and the second-most appearances in Nashville SC history.
Nashville selected Irakoze Donasiyano in the first round of the 2021 MLS SuperDraft. He is positionally versatile, and by all accounts a willing runner. Donasiyano logged just 33 minutes in 2021, and suffered an injury early in his loan with OKC Energy that effectively ended his season.
Unless he breaks through in preseason, I expect Donasiyano to go out on loan in 2022, but Nashville’s technical staff are optimistic about his long-term future at the club.
One to watch
According to a report from The Athletic‘s Sam Stejskal, Nashville are interested in former New York Red Bull midfielder Sean Davis.
The Red Bull captain played every minute in 2021. Signing Davis would allow Nashville to evenly spread out defensive midfield minutes between McCarty, Godoy, and Davis lessening the individual burden on each.
Regardless of whether Nashville signs Davis, Mike Jacobs is keenly aware of the need to add another midfielder to the group to alleviate the burden on Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy heading into the 2022 season. Reinforcements are coming.