Goal scorers are always the most talked about position. Eyes and attention focus on those individuals who score. They receive a lion’s share of the discussion, admiration, and media attention. It is just the nature of sports. In 2021, Nashville SC’s forwards earned the praise.
2021 position reviews
Led by Hany Mukhtar and C.J. Sapong, Nashville dramatically increased its goal tally. The Boys in Gold finished fifth highest in MLS with an average of 1.59 goals per game – a marked improvement from the 2020 season in which Nashville finished fourth worst with only 1.04 goals per game. It is hard to understate the importance of Mukhtar and Sapong in driving that increase. The dynamic duo up top contributed over fifty percent of Nashville’s goals in 2021.
What can be said about Hany Mukhtar’s 2021 season that has not already been said? Mukhtar exploded this past year with a MVP-level campaign. Unfortunately for Mukhtar and his admirers, the national media declared the race over in June.
If you are looking for the underlying numbers that fueled Mukhtar’s season, take a look back at Ben Wright’s piece from earlier this year comparing Mukhtar with Carles Gil, Dániel Sallói, Gustavo Bou, and Valentín Castellanos. It does a superb job of laying out the excellence produced by Mukhtar, even before his two-goal masterpiece against Orlando City in the MLS Cup playoffs.
Do not be surprised if a few European and Middle Eastern clubs come sniffing around the Nashville star when the winter transfer window opens in a few days. While any player in the world can be moved for the right price, it would take, at minimum, an eight-digit transfer fee and a desire from the player himself before a move would be made.
Nashville acquired Mukhtar for just a $2,850,000 transfer fee. That’s an absolutely insane piece of business, and it would cost significantly more to replace his production. Barring an absolutely massive offer, Mukhtar will return in 2022 as the central focus of Nashville’s attack.
C.J. Sapong enjoyed a career resurgence after a season to forget in 2020 with the Chicago Fire. Sapong signed with Nashville SC as an intraleague free agent last winter. His signing was the quintessential Mike Jacobs move – acquiring an MLS veteran who may have been undervalued and overlooked.
Sapong entered the season expected to back up Jhonder Cadíz providing depth at striker. Instead, he quickly wrestled control of the position after scoring in his first start of the season. Even the club record acquisition of Aké Loba could not dislodge Sapong from the starting XI as Sapong bagged six goals in six games following Loba’s debut.
It was not just the goals that kept Sapong in the starting lineup. He did all of the little things that Gary Smith asks of his strikers; he contributed defensively, provided hold-up play, and made intelligent runs to drag defenders creating space for Nashville’s other attackers.
The 33-year-old returns to Nashville for the 2022 season. The training camp battle for the starting striker job should be riveting. Sapong will again attempt to hold off Loba and Nashville’s other forwards for a starting spot. My biggest concern for Sapong’s outlook is history repeating itself. Since 2017, Sapong’s double-digit goal seasons have been followed by disappointing years.
Aké Loba arrived in Nashville with much fanfare, as the largest transfer in club history. The Ivorian forward, long admired by Nashville’s technical staff, failed to make a large impact in his half season with the club. Loba scored one goal and played just 478 minutes in the blue and gold. At times, supporters were left frustrated at Gary Smith’s unwillingness to give more meaningful minutes to Loba when the game situation called for an attacker to try and change the game.
Ultimately, Loba’s slow start can be forgiven. Plenty of foreign-signed attackers have failed to make an immediate impact before lighting the league on fire. Look no further than Hany Mukhtar. It took Mukhtar over 760 minutes to bag his first goal for Nashville SC and did not start giving indication that he had MVP-candidate bona fides until mid-October 2020.
But Loba cannot right the ship without regular playing time. He will need to beat out C.J. Sapong in preseason camp if he is to justify his price tag, salary, and Designated Player tag.
After extending Jhonder Cádiz’s loan through the whole 2021 season, Nashville SC gave Cádiz a full season tryout to prove he was worth a multi-million dollar transfer and long-term contract. But, he failed to deliver enough to convince Mike Jacobs that he was worth the investment.
Ultimately, strikers are judged by goals. Managers want to see their forwards do all of the little things that make a team click, but million-dollar strikers need to put the ball in the back of the net. Jhonder Cádiz did far too little scoring to justify the reported price tag.
Among qualifying strikers the last two seasons on a per 96-minute basis, Cádiz placed in the 93rd percentile for number of shots taken, but finished only in the 47th percentile for goals scored. Cádiz found himself in wonderful spots, but simply failed to convert. His goals over expected goals was 18th lowest in the league, and his xPlace (difference between pre-shot and post-shot xG) was the 11th lowest.
There were too many big misses during his time in Nashville to be ignored. To his credit, Cádiz started to make an impact in other ways in the second half of the 2021 season. He finished, on a per 96 minute basis, at least in the 80th percentile among strikers for assists, expected assists, tackles, and aerial duel win rate. But strikers derive value from goals and Cádiz did not produce enough of them.
It is not as if Cádiz does not belong in MLS. He is certainly good enough to carve out a lasting role in this league. But the salary cap and budget rules amplify the necessity to extract the maximum value of every dollar spent. Each club can carry only three Designated Players (“DPs”) that do not count against the salary cap beyond the maximum budget charge. If those DPs are not first-choice starters providing a significant contribution to the team, they are a waste of a valuable resource within MLS economics.
But flip the script. If C.J. Sapong was the striker on a DP tag making over $1 million per year and Cádiz was making Sapong’s salary ($427,778 per year), the entire narrative would change. Cádiz would be viewed as a valuable target forward, tailor made for late-game substitution appearances.
Unfortunately, that’s not the script. MLS budget rules require a ruthless examination of value for each player on your roster, especially true for Designated Players. Cádiz’s salary and transfer fee price tag ultimately could not be justified. He now moves on to the next stop of his journeyman career.
Daniel Ríos likely entered the 2021 season with lofty goals. He was awarded a new contract at the start of the year cementing his place in Nashville for the foreseeable future. But a preseason foot injury kept him out of the lineup and never allowed him to gain rhythm and consistent playing time. Ríos finished the year with just one goal and one assist, managing just 416 minutes in 12 appearances.
Nashville’s staff have always been big believers in Daniel Ríos. A couple of injuries will not change that belief. But there is suddenly a lot of competition for minutes in Nashville at forward with a pair of offseason additions. Ríos enters the season on the last guaranteed year of his contract. If he fails to carve out a meaningful role in 2022, it may be his last in blue and gold.
Two new attackers incoming
Nashville SC wasted no time in acquiring additional pieces to bolster its front line. In the December half-day trading window, the club acquired veteran forwards Teal Bunbury (New England) and Ethan Zubak (LA Galaxy). Both Zubak and Bunbury may not score a ton of goals, but seemingly fit Gary Smith’s identity.
Heading into the 2022 season, the striker pool is as deep as ever in Nashville SC history. It should lead to a fascinating battle for minutes as every player can make a compelling case as to why they could be a vital member of next year’s rotation.