A position-by-position preview of Nashville SC’s defense

As Nashville SC kicks off its 2023 campaign on Saturday against NYCFC, Broadway Sports will provide a position-by-position preview of the season ahead. In the first of our two-part preview, let’s take a closer look at Nashville’s defensive unit, which shows a fair bit of continuity with one notable departure.

Goalkeepers

Joe Willis is expected to continue as the starting goalkeeper for Nashville. Willis, Nashville’s all-time leader in minutes played, is a mainstay in the defense. Although he has had a steady career in Music City, he had his ups and downs last year. He suffered a disastrous midsummer stretch that threatened his grip on the starting job. As a result, Gary Smith turned to Elliot Panicco to give Willis a mental break. Panicco showed well, but could not displace Willis as the #1 keeper. Panicco will continue to serve as the primary backup to Willis in 2023.

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There’s likely to be continued competition between Willis and Panicco. As Willis enters his mid-thirties and the final year of his contract, Nashville may give Panicco additional opportunities this year to test his readiness for the starting role. Panicco should continue to receive U.S. Open Cup starts and may earn some league starts too.

Meanwhile, Ben Martino waits in the wings. Nashville acquired the 20-year-old keeper from the Philadelphia Union. Martino spent the last two years in college at Virginia Tech following graduation from the Union’s academy. As a freshman, TopDrawerSoccer named Martino to its list of Top 20 freshmen in the country. The towering Martino (6’6″) should see minutes with Huntsville as he continues to develop.

Left back

The left-sided fullback position shows remarkable continuity as both Daniel Lovitz and Taylor Washington return for the start of the 2023 season. It marks Washington’s sixth season in Music City as the only remaining alum of the USL days.

The positional nomenclature has changed, from “wingback” to “fullback,” reflecting Nashville’s switch from a five-defender formation to a four-defender formation last season. While the role doesn’t look very different, the move to a more traditional 4-4-2 does provide an additional wide attacker playing ahead of the fullbacks. Wingers will be expected to pinch in, still requiring the fullbacks to provide width and deliver crosses into the box.

Lovitz remains Gary Smith’s first-choice starter, but Washington is well-loved by the manager and fanbase alike. This position is also worth keeping an eye on for the future. Lovitz, 31, hits the books at just under $500,000 per season, much higher than Washington. If Nashville desires to get younger and cheaper, they may make a change. 

The development of a new acquisition, Joey Skinner, will determine if a changing of the guard occurs after the season. Nashville selected Skinner out of Clemson with the 11th overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Skinner, 19, is a Generation Adidas signing, which allows him to not impact Nashville’s salary budget for the next three seasons. If Skinner impresses, it may encourage Mike Jacobs to cash out on Lovitz, as he did with Dave Romney.

Center backs

There is a big change in the center of Nashville SC’s defense heading into the 2023 season. Gone is Nashville’s dependable Dave Romney following a January trade to the New England Revolution.

Romney led all outfielders in minutes played at Nashville SC. It is hard to understate how constant of a presence Romney has been for this relatively young club. Romney played every available minute in 2020, missed only the final three matches of 2021, and started 34 of the 38 matches last season.

Romney’s departure paves the way for Jack Maher to finally step into a full-time starting role. As Nashville’s third center back, Maher regularly found his way into Nashville’s lineup the last two seasons. Previous use of a three-center-back formation created room for the 23-year-old to develop alongside Nashville’s veterans. The switch to a back four made one of the three starting-caliber center backs expendable. Romney made way for the younger and cheaper Maher. 

It is a big season for the Maher. The sky is the limit for the talented youngster. It would not surprise me if he made a leap forward this year and started garnering sniffs from overseas clubs. 

Standing next to Maher will be two-time MLS Defender-of-the-Year winner Walker Zimmerman. This offseason, Zimmerman became the first Nashville SC player to start and appear in a World Cup match. As supporters celebrate the 10th anniversary of the club’s origins as a fan-created amateur side, it is incredible to think about the meteoritic rise of soccer in Nashville in such a short time span. On the field, Zimmerman should bring another season of Best XI-caliber defending with the constant threat of adding goals via set pieces. 

Behind Zimmerman and Maher are two new faces in Nashville, Nick DePuy and Laurence Wyke. DePuy arrived via a trade with the Los Angeles Galaxy for $50,000 GAM and a 2nd-round SuperDraft pick. DePuy’s acquisition and profile are reminiscent of the trade that brought Romney to Nashville in 2020.

Wyke joins the Coyotes after two seasons as one of the best defenders in the USL Championship. In 2020, Wyke made seven appearances with Atlanta United. The Englishman is a native of Bolton and spent several years in the Manchester United academy. 

Returning depth pieces include Ahmed Longmire and Josh Bauer. Longmire, Nashville’s first-round selection in MLS SuperDraft a year ago, appears destined for a developmental season in Huntsville. Bauer will likely join him for stretches at a time. However, Bauer seems to continue to impress the coaching staff. It would not surprise for Bauer to regularly appear among the listed substitutes. 

One final player to watch is Sean Suber. The center back was selected with the sixth pick of the 2023 SuperDraft’s second round out of Charlotte. The defender appeared in four preseason matches and was singled out by Gary Smith more than once. While he’ll spend significant time with Huntsville this season, don’t be surprised if he earns a larger role.

Right back 

Shaq Moore headlines the right-sided options at fullback. Last summer, Nashville acquired Moore from Tenerife for a reported $2 million-dollar transfer fee. Moore had a lukewarm start to his career in blue and gold. He will expect to make a bigger impact to justify his transfer fee. Like Zimmerman, Moore featured this winter at the World Cup. He possesses the talent necessary to stamp his name as the best right back in MLS. Moore is an excellent 1-v-1 defender and can deliver crosses on a platter. With additional time to gel with his teammates, the hope is that Moore provides an attacking punch in 2023. 

Behind Moore is a gigantic question mark. For the time being, Alex Muyl appears set to serve as a backup to Moore. Muyl is a questionable long-term fit should Moore miss any significant amount of time due to injury. Muyl started 2022 as Nashville’s starter at wingback. However, the five-man backline put less defensive pressure on Muyl. His biggest struggles in the wingback role came when he was pinned deep. He filled the role admirably, but he is best utilized further up the pitch. 

To free up Muyl, Nashville may look to sign a dedicated right back to fill in behind Moore. One obvious option is Eric Miller. The former Boy in Gold remains a free agent. A social media post from preseason suggests Miller may have been in camp with Nashville. Resigning Miller would fill a significant hole in the depth chart.

Instagram via @martino_ben

Come back tomorrow as we preview Nashville’s midfield and attack. 

Author: Chris IveyChris is a senior writer covering Nashville SC. His writings focus on the team at large and often navigate the complexity of roster building around the myriad of MLS rules. Outside of Broadway Sports Media, Chris resides in Knoxville and is a licensed attorney. Beyond NSC, he is always willing to discuss Tennessee football and basketball, Coventry City, and USMNT. Follow Chris on Twitter

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