While there was not much change in personnel from 2020, the 2021 season marked a new frontier for Nashville SC’s fullbacks. The midseason switch of formation pushed Nashville’s fullbacks higher up the pitch into a wingback role with even greater responsibility for providing the width in Nashville’s attack.
To illustrate the effect of Nashville’s formation change, I have included two passing network maps. Both are September home draws against Orlando City – on the left from the 2020 season and from the 2021 season on the right.
In the 2020 match, Nashville came out in its standard 4-2-3-1 formation. Randall Leal played on the right wing (circled in green) and Alex Muyl played on the left wing (circled in blue). While Daniel Lovitz and Alistair Johnston (both circled in red) were the widest players on the pitch, both players had a winger playing slightly ahead and inside of them operating in the half spaces.
However, in the 2021 match, the second winger has been dropped. Gary Smith removed Muyl’s attacking winger position opting instead to add a third center back. With no winger in front of him, Daniel Lovitz bore a greater responsibility for providing the width down the left flank. Now, this responsibility did not always fall on Lovitz. In other matches, Leal would pop up more often on the left side of the attack, shifting a greater responsibility to Alistair Johnston to own that right side of the pitch. But regardless of where Leal ended up, these maps do illustrate the change for Nashville’s fullbacks in 2021.
With the formation change, Johnston and Lovitz were pushed further up the pitch. In 2021, their touches per 90 minutes stayed relatively the same, but the location of their touches shifted toward the middle third of the pitch. On average, both Johnston and Lovitz made four additional touches in the middle third of the pitch while dropping the number of touches taken in Nashville’s defensive third.
Daniel Lovitz put together another steady year anchoring Nashville’s left flank. As illustrated above, he bore a greater responsibility in 2021 for controlling that side of the pitch. While Lovitz is a fullback, his impact on Nashville’s buildup play is more akin to a wide, box-to-box midfielder.
Lovitz finished 12th among qualifying fullbacks in American Soccer Analysis Goals Added (g+) per 96 minutes. He was third, behind only Aaron Herrera (Real Salt Lake) and Kai Wagner (Philadelphia), for g+ from Passing actions. Lovitz made 49 Key Passes (passes that result in a shot on goal), good for fourth best among MLS fullbacks. But Lovitz is not limited to just swinging crosses in the box as he showed against Atlanta.
Lovitz probably does not get the amount of credit he rightfully deserves; what fullback does? But it was nice to Lovitz make MLS Extratime’s 2nd Team of the Season.
There is no better value in American sports than a young player outperforming their rookie deal. Alistair Johnston proved the axiom once again in 2021. The second-year pro remains a locked-in starter for Nashville SC and established himself as a first-choice selection for the Canadian National Team. Not too shabby for someone making a meager $73,000 per year.
Johnston, as much as any fullback in the league, is a reliable safety net. Calm, cool, and collected under pressure, he has the lowest combined miscontroled and dispossessed rate in the league among fullbacks. While according to ASA Johnston only produces an average output of Goals Added (g+), it is the 5th highest output among fullbacks on a per salary basis.
With all that said, Johnston’s future may not be at fullback/wingback. As he has proved with the Canadian National Team, Johnston is very adept as a ball-playing center back as part of a three-man defense. If he does stick to a fullback/wingback role, Johnston will need to improve his delivery into the box. He had only one assist in 2021 and made a Key Pass only once every other match.
Johnston is good enough and at a prime age to make the leap to Europe right now. The multi-million-dollar question is will he. As discussed with Walker Zimmerman in the center back review, there is a big risk in Johnston leaving this winter. He will not want to jeopardize his place as a starter for Canada on the eve of the nation’s first trip to the World Cup since 1986. Enjoy him while you can Nashville, I expect to see Johnston in Nashville for only one more season before he seeks Europe’s greener pastures.
Can we go ahead and crown Taylor Washington as Mr. Nashville SC? Washington became the first player in Nashville SC history, across its meteoric rise up the American soccer pyramid, to log 100 appearances for the club.
In 2021, Washington had a breakthrough campaign at the MLS level. He logged over 1,000 minutes with 12 starts on the year becoming a key role player for Nashville. Washington’s 2021 may be most remembered for a key recovery run against Cincinnati to preserve Nashville’s lead.
Overall, Washington is a replacement level player at left back. He is the bottom third of ASA’s Goals Added (g+) for qualifying fullbacks. Washington scores slightly above average in Interrupting and Dribbling actions, while falling below the mark in more offensive categories such as Passing and Shooting. This tracks the eye test. He is not as relied upon as Lovitz for buildup play. Instead Washington’s speed allows him to be a threat by getting in behind defenders and playing balls into the box.
As long as Washington remains in Nashville making an outsized impact in the community, he will continue to cement his status as a club cult hero.
Eric Miller played a hybrid role in 2021 for Nashville SC. His appearances split fairly evenly between fullback and as a right-sided center back. While not a first-choice selection, Miller started one third of Nashville’s matches.
Gary Smith clearly values Miller’s versatility with ability to fill in as the primary backup for both Alistair Johnston and Jack Maher. But the drop off when Miller is inserted into the starting XI is measurable. Nashville’s expected goals (xG) is a full 1.09 less xG per 90 minutes when Miller is on the pitch – the worst rate on the team.
From my view, Miller’s versatility is valuable but neither wingback nor center back is a role best suited for him. As a wingback, Miller performs well defensively but lacks offensive contribution (assist against Philadelphia not withstanding).
He produces only 0.46 Key Passes per 90 minutes. As a center back, Miller tackles well but loses a high number of aerial battles. He would benefit from a switch back to a four defender formation that puts less emphasis on the fullback providing an attacking threat.
Nashville exercised its club option on Miller’s contract. He will be back in 2022. While he may not be ideally suited for Nashville’s current formation, he provides veteran cover in two different spots on the roster.
Dylan Nealis appeared for only 165 minutes in 2021. His two starts came in July as Alistair Johnston was away at the Gold Cup for Canada. When he does play, Nealis scores below average in ASA’s Goals Added (g+) compared to other MLS fullbacks. Nealis, 23, is still young and was promising enough to be selected by Inter Miami as a first round pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. But as long as Johnston and Eric Miller remain in Nashville, Nealis seems surplus to requirements.
Nashville’s fullbacks had a season of change in 2021 that showed the versatility of the group. Nashville SC will hope for an even greater contribution from the group in 2022 as they become more familiar with their role in Nashville’s evolving formation.