A position-by-position preview of Nashville SC’s midfield and attack

Nashville SC kicks off its 2023 campaign on Saturday against NYCFC. In the lead-up to the first match, Broadway Sports Media is providing a position-by-position preview of the season ahead. Yesterday, we previewed Nashville’s defense. Today, we take a look at the midfielders and attackers. 

Central Midfielders

Nashville SC’s midfield hopes to deliver another strong showing in the upcoming 2023 Major League Soccer season. With Anibal Godoy, Sean Davis, Dax McCarty, and Brian Anunga all returning, there’s a lot of veteran continuity from last season.

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Davis started nearly every match in 2022 and will once again eat up a bulk of the available minutes in Nashville’s midfield. Davis played over 2,500 minutes in four of the last five seasons, and I would expect the same in 2023. Davis’ contributions to the on-field product are not always noticeable at first glance. However, if you pay close attention, you will notice Davis pop up all over the field.

Godoy, who was limited by injuries and international duty last season, expects to have a bigger impact this year. The Panamanian midfielder has been a stalwart for Nashville since the club’s inaugural MLS campaign in 2020. His ability to both defend and distribute the ball makes him a vital component of the midfield.

Meanwhile, Nashville’s captain, Dax McCarty, will also feature regularly, although he will turn 36 at the end of April. If Godoy can stay healthy, McCarty may see his playing time reduced to make room for the slightly younger Panamanian. One thing to keep an eye on this season is McCarty’s ability to play long, diagonal balls into space. With pacey wingers now on both sides of the pitch, I expect to see McCarty spring a few deadly counterattacks in 2023 from his deep-midfield role.

Brian Anunga is known for his physicality and ability to disrupt opposing attacks, but his offensive contribution is limited. He will continue to play a role as Nashville’s fourth midfielder, providing cover for the three veterans ahead of him. I keep wondering when another MLS team will come calling for Anunga. He’s on a team-friendly salary and could provide valuable defensive solidity.

While not yet announced, I expect Nashville to officially sign Joey DeZart in the coming days. The 24-year-old defensive midfielder spent preseason with the club as a trialist and has been in the team facilities this week. He made just one appearance for Orlando City in 2022 but had a greater impact for the Lions in 2020 and 2021.

In addition to the returning players, Nashville acquired Kemy Amiche off waivers. The 22-year-old French midfielder from Campbell University is a promising talent for the future. However, he didn’t play in any of the Coyotes’ preseason matches and is expected to spend the bulk of his time with Huntsville City this season.

Overall, Nashville’s central midfield looks to be a strength for the team once again in 2023. The combination of experience and youthful talent, along with the potential for improved performances from Godoy, make the midfield a key part of Nashville’s push for a playoff spot this season.

Wingers

Nashville SC’s wingers will be key to the team’s success in the upcoming 2023 season. If they can provide a reliable attacking bite and goals to support star midfielder Hany Mukhtar, then Nashville will be a force to be reckoned with.

Randall Leal is expected to headline the group. The talented Costa Rican managed only two goals in 2022, and needs to increase that tally in 2023 if Nashville is to compete at the highest level. Leal’s a versatile player who can play on either flank or in a more central role. While Nashville’s formation changed last year from a five in the back to a variation of a 4-4-2, it didn’t significantly impact Leal’s role within the team. Even when nominally operating in the center of the pitch, Leal tended to drift out to the right flank.

Randall Leal 2022 Season Heatmap – SofaScore

This season could serve as a platform for an entirely new Leal. With Picault and Shaffelburg also available to start at the winger positions, Leal could be repositioned to plug gaps elsewhere. That may start as soon as Week 1 if Hany Muktar is unavailable due to a knock he picked up in the preseason. Leal could fill in at Mukhtar’s forward position.

Leal may also be utilized deeper on the pitch as a true box-to-box central midfielder. His ball progression, both on the dribble and with line-breaking passes, is a two-threat element that no other Nashville midfielder has in their pocket. Gary Smith pushed Leal into such a role at times when needing a goal late in 2022. Might he experiment with putting Leal next to a Sean Davis or Dax McCarty from the opening whistle? It is certainly an option worth exploring in 2023.

Nashville made its biggest offseason acquisition by trading for Fafà Picault from the Houston Dynamo. Houston received $100,000 in General Allocation Money (GAM) and could receive another $150,000 GAM based on certain conditions. Picault is a speedy winger who scored seven goals last season for the Dynamo. Nashville will be hopeful of a repeat performance. 

Jacob Shaffelburg permanently joined Nashville this offseason. Mike Jacobs exercised Shaffelburg’s purchase option for $300,000 GAM. The young Canadian quickly became a fan favorite in Music City last season after he arrived on loan from Toronto FC. Shaffelburg provided a much-needed spark to the Coyotes’ attack right when the club needed a lift. Shaffelburg’s lightning-fast pace and ability to create chances for his teammates will be vital for Nashville’s success this season.

The trio of Shaffelburg, Picault, and Leal will likely take up the bulk of the minutes on the wings, but Luke Haakenson should also reprise his role as a defensively sound substitute that has the trust of manager Gary Smith. Haakenson may not contribute as regularly as the other wingers, but his work rate and defensive acumen make him a valuable asset for Nashville.

Nebiyou Perry, 23, was signed on a free transfer from Östersunds FK in the Swedish second division. The young winger has featured for U.S. Youth National Teams but has yet to establish himself at the senior level. Nashville may park Perry in Huntsville in hopes of developing him into a productive contributor to the senior team.

Overall, Nashville’s wingers will be key to the team’s success this season. If they can add an element of verticality to Nashville’s counterattack, the Boys in Gold should be in good shape for a successful campaign.

Forwards

The forwards conversation must start with reigning MLS MVP and Golden Boot winner, Hany Mukhtar. He is coming off a historic season where he scored 23 goals and tallied 11 assists. He’s been a force throughout his time in Nashville, and fans are eager to see what he can do in 2023.

Mukhtar holds himself to high standards, but it is difficult for any player to repeat an MVP-level performance three years in a row. If he does manage to put in another MLS Best XI campaign, Mukhtar will start finding himself included in conversations as one of the league’s all-time legends. Beyond a slight goal and assist regression, the biggest threat to Mukhtar is injuries. He begins the season carrying a knock and is in doubt for Saturday’s match with NYCFC. Nashville will want to take every reasonable precaution to ensure that Mukhtar is available for the long haul.

Beyond Mukhtar, there are serious questions about the team’s depth at the #9 position. C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury will initially battle for the starting role. Sapong had a disappointing season last year, only contributing 5 goals. But there are reasons to believe that he’s due for a better year in 2023.

If you believe in lucky numbers, Sapong has scored double-digit goals in the last three odd-numbered years. If you believe in finishing luck, Sapong’s underlying numbers in 2022 suggest that he simply suffered from a spell of incredibly poor luck. 

Bunbury, meanwhile, missed a large portion of the 2022 season due to injury. He had a brief run of form in the summer, where he scored a goal in four consecutive matches. Bunbury may have earned the starting nod for Nashville’s season opener against NYCFC. He featured ahead of Sapong in the Coyotes’ final preseason rehearsal. 

One person not in Nashville for the start of the season is Aké Loba. Nashville’s record signing was loaned to Mazatlán FC of Mexico’s Liga MX. Since Loba remains on Nashville’s books, he continues to occupy the club’s third Designated Player slot. Once a permanent transfer is found for Loba, Mike Jacobs will likely reenter the transfer market to again look for a long-term answer to the #9 position. 

Ethan Zubak returns for the 2023 season as a depth striker. Zubak made 11 appearances in league play last year. He scored just one goal in 2022, a memorable match-winner against Atlanta United in Round 32 of the U.S. Open Cup.

Tyler Freeman, a 20-year-old signing from the USL Championship side Loudon United, Freeman scored 8 goals in just 1,200 minutes in the second division. Nashville will hope that they uncovered a hidden gem for the future in Freeman. He should feature heavily for Huntsville City. If he performs well, he may earn opportunities to feature as a substitute behind Mukhtar.

While he has yet to sign a professional contract, I would be remiss if I did not mention Adem Sipic. The 16-year-old forward, who is part of Nashville’s U17 academy squad, joined the senior roster for the first half of preseason camp. He was given a start in Nashville’s preseason match against the U.S. U20 Youth National Team. The Bowling Green native is on track to become the club’s first homegrown signing out of the academy.


The team’s success will rely heavily on the contributions of its wingers and the forward paired with Hany Mukhtar. If those attackers can step up and provide an improved supporting role, Nashville is in line for a successful 2023 campaign. 

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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