Analyzing Nashville SC’s depth chart

Nashville SC kick off their 2023 preseason tomorrow. They’ll take on New York Red Bulls on Saturday in a closed-door friendly at an unannounced time, set to be played the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Let’s get this out of the way off the top: we won’t learn much, if anything, tomorrow. The match isn’t available to watch, and other than snippets or scorelines either team chooses to share on social media, there won’t be much significant information coming out of Bradenton.

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Starting lineups are typically the most valuable bit of information to be taken from preseason, giving a superficial look into how the squad hierarchy is shaping up. There are caveats, though. Aké Loba started several preseason games last year with the full first team, and we all know how that turned out.

Ahead of tomorrow’s match, I put together a best guess at Nashville’s depth chart, trying to notate which position groups seem set and which need additional help.

Goalkeeper

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: High

ASSESSMENT: Joe Willis has been the write-in-sharpie starter for the last three seasons, and has been among the upper echelon of ‘keepers in MLS during that time. Elliot Panicco has alternated between loans to USL Championship and stretches as the backup option, with a couple starts in both league and Open Cup play. And the club signed Ben Martino on a homegrown deal this offseason, expectedly to be the third-choice option, likely with stints in Huntsville.

WHAT TO WATCH: Could there be a position battle in preseason? Panicco impressed in his handful of starts last season, but couldn’t hold down the job. Internally, Panicco is thought of as a long-term starting option with potential to fight for the job this offseason. Willis hasn’t done anything to demote himself, but a strong showing from Panicco in preseason could force himself into the discussion.

ADDITIONS NEEDED? None.

Left back

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: High

ASSESSMENT: Dan Lovitz has been a top left back in MLS for the last five years, and has been a core piece of Nashville’s identity both on and off the field. He showed no signs of slowing in 2022, and should contribute significantly again in 2023.

Behind him, Taylor Washington has been in Nashville virtually since day one of their time in USL, and has been a reliable deputy to Lovitz. Nashville also drafted generation adidas left-back Joey Skinner out of Clemson. While he may not factor into the first team immediately, Nashville have gotten production early out of draft picks.

WHAT TO WATCH: Can Joey Skinner factor in to Nashville’s plans early in the season, or even pass Washington on the depth chart? It’s not out of the question, but barring a spectacular preseason, he could be set to bounce between Nashville and Huntsville this season.

ADDITIONS NEEDED? None.

Center back

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: High

ASSESSMENT: Nothing revolutionary here. Nashville have one of the strongest backlines in MLS, even after moving on from stalwart Dave Romney this offseason.

Walker Zimmerman is a Designated Player and one of, if not the, best center back in North America. Jack Maher has loads of potential and has proven himself in MLS over the past three years, and is clearly ready for a bigger role.

Nashville brought in Nick DePuy from the Galaxy in a move strikingly similar to their initial acquisition of Romney, while adding free agent Laurence Wyke, most recently of the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the USL Championship. They also return Josh Bauer and 2022 SuperDraft pick Ahmed Longmire. Wyke, Bauer and Longmire could all deputize at the MLS level as well as spending time in Huntsville.

WHAT TO WATCH: Jack Maher will go into preseason as the default partner for Zimmerman, and should maintain that position. But DePuy is an intriguing option, and it’s not out of the question to think he could push for a spot in the eleven.

ADDITIONS NEEDED? None.

Right back

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: High*

ASSESSMENT: *High with caveats, since Shaq Moore is literally the only option. Moore was brought in last summer for nearly $2 million, and earned a spot on the U.S. World Cup roster after a strong showing in Nashville. He should be one of the best right backs in MLS in 2023.

Behind him there’s… nothing. Alex Muyl or even Jack Maher could play out of position in a pinch, but Nashville will almost certainly sign a back up before the season starts.

WHAT TO WATCH: Eric Miller is a free agent, and at the time of publication has not signed with any other team. If he and Nashville can agree to a deal, it would make a lot of sense to bring him back. They did it last year.

ADDITIONS NEEDED? Yes.

Center midfield

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: Mixed.

ASSESSMENT: In an ideal world, this should be a solid, if unspectacular midfield. Sean Davis started 33 games last season, and should be on track for the same in 2023. Brian Anunga is a serviceable backup, and excels when tasked to break up play and let his partner be the more forward-thinking option. Laurence Wyke could slot into this more defensive-oriented role in a pinch.

The more box-to-box position is where questions arise. Aníbal Godoy was injured for much of 2022, starting just 11 matches. Dax McCarty had 21 starts, and while he was the most capable passer in Nashville’s midfield last year, he’ll turn 36 in April.

Nashville could use a younger, starting-caliber option to fit in the more ball-progressing role in the midfield pairing.

WHAT TO WATCH: With all the depth on the wings (more on that in a sec), could Randall Leal feature in a more central role this season? He’s played there for Costa Rica, as well as a handful of times last season. He’s a chance creator, and has all the qualities to play as a more attack-minded central midfielder. He could be an in-house solution.

ADDITIONS NEEDED? Probably.

Wings

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: High.

ASSESSMENT: Is this the deepest Nashville have ever been on the wings? Spoiler alert: it is.

Fafà Picault was acquired from Houston in the offseason, and was quietly one of the most goal-dangerous wingers in MLS last year, despite playing for an abysmal Dynamo team. Jacob Shaffelburg’s loan was made permanent after revitalizing Nashville’s attack last season. The pair are joined by USYNT winger Nebiyou Perry and Kemy Amiche, acquired on waivers after a stint with Asheville City SC in USL League 2.

Oh, yeah, and Nashville already have Randall Leal, Alex Muyl and Luke Haakenson returning. Leal is one of their most consistent creators, Muyl has been a regular starter for two years, and Haakenson has been a reliable depth piece. Nashville are deep on the wings.

WHAT TO WATCH: As mentioned earlier, this much depth could allow Leal to shift into a more central role. With very little tape available on either Perry or Amiche, it’s hard to guess what their role will be in the squad, if they’ll be contributors with the first team or spend time in Huntsville. And this hasn’t even included Tyler Freeman, who is able to play out wide as well as centrally.

ADDITIONS NEEDED? None.

Center forward

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: High.

ASSESSMENT: What Nashville lack in depth, they make up for in quality. Hany Mukhtar has been the best attacker in MLS for the last two years. Barring a catastrophic injury blow, Nashville know what they’re getting in this spot.

There’s not much behind him on the depth chart. They might not need it. Mukhtar’s form was a main factor why Aké Loba could hardly sniff the field in Nashville (among other things), and with Mukhtar starting 89% of Nashville’s matches over the last two seasons, depth likely won’t be relied on too heavily.

Leal has played in a more central role in Mukhtar’s absence, and 20-year-old Tyler Freeman is a high-upside young attacker who excelled in a second striker role at the USL level.

WHAT TO WATCH: Freeman really interests me. We’ve seen Nashville take swings on players from USL, but none as young as Freeman, who already has four years of professional experience. With eye-catching numbers at the USL level, he could be more of a factor in MLS this year than most seem to think.

ADDITIONS NEEDED? None.

Striker

CONFIDENCE LEVEL: Mixed.

ASSESSMENT: Nashville know what they’re getting up top. CJ Sapong works hard and contributes a lot off the ball and in possession, but other than a hot two-month stretch in 2021, he hasn’t been the consistent goal scorer Nashville need their no. 9 to be. Teal Bunbury scored five times in limited minutes last season, but his connection with Mukhtar and his holdup play are a step below Sapong. And Ethan Zubak is an affordable depth piece.

Aké Loba was brought in for $6.8 million to be the goal scoring striker that would elevate Nashville SC from a good team to an MLS Cup contender. He’ll spend the year on loan with Mazatlán FC in Mexico after a disastrous year and a half in Nashville, and the ‘Yotes won’t even get the DP spot back to replace him this season.

The Loba move continues to handicap Nashville and severely limit their ceiling. With a DP-caliber striker, this could be one of the more dangerous sides in MLS. Without one, Mukhtar will have to shoulder an oversized burden once again.

WHAT TO WATCH: Loba has a purchase option with Mazatlán that, if triggered, would open up a DP spot for Nashville. They also have a U22 initiative spot to work with, as well as loads of General Allocation Money stashed. There are ways for them to add a high-end striker, although it will most likely have to wait until the summer window.

Not having a top tier no. 9 for at least half the season is less than ideal for Nashville. It lowers their floor, and could put undue pressure on the team in the back half of the year. If it means their next DP attacker is a hit, though, it could be worth it in the long run. However they address the striker position, they need to make sure their next signing is a success.

ADDITIONS NEEDED? Yes.


What positions are you most interested in or concerned about? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

Comments

  1. This is some great information! Much appreciated. I agree that re-signing Eric Miller would seem to make the most sense as an affordable option who provides solid depth at right fullback with the ability to play in a back three. One option I think you missed was Wyke. Looking at his time with Tampa Bay in the USL last season he appears to be incredibly versatile. In addition to playing at center back (both in a back two and back three) and occasionally in a defensive midfield role, he also appears to have played at right back and even right wing back. I’m assuming that versatility is one of his main assets which made him an attractive signing for Nashville SC.

    1. I agree, Mark. Gary Smith mentioned him as a possible option at right back after their preseason game against the Red Bulls, so he could factor in there. Alex Muyl is also getting a lot of reps there, and with the depth on the wings, it might make sense to use him more there.

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