Analyzing the hits and misses on Nashville SC’s roster

Yesterday, the MLS Players’ Association released the 2021 salary figures for all players. This yearly data dump provides a snapshot of the guaranteed pay for all 786 players in the league. The ordinarily yearly release did not occur last year. So, this is our first chance to really analyze Nashville SC’s roster spend.

We all know the results. Last year, Nashville qualified for the playoffs as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. A thumping of fellow debutants Inter Miami was followed by an upset win over Toronto before bowing out in a hard-fought loss to the eventual champions Columbus SC. In 2021, the club started off with three consecutive home draws before defeating Eastern Conference leaders New England in a convincing performance. General Manager Mike Jacobs and Head Coach Gary Smith deserve all the plaudits for constructing a roster from scratch that could compete in the first season. 

With the MLSPA salary release, we can now see where Nashville is spending its resources in 2021. Naturally, we want to look at the outliers, who provides value and who is perhaps overpaid based on their production in a bright gold kit.  

Underpaid

1. Nashville’s entire starting defense. 

The bedrock foundation for Nashville’s success in 2021, the defensive back four plus goalkeeper Joe Willis all come in at an incredible value for the club. The salaries for each as listed by MLSPA:

  • Walker Zimmerman (center-back): $981,050.00
  • Daniel Lovitz (right-back): $415,556.00
  • Dave Romney (center-back): $225,000.00
  • Alistair Johnston (right-back): $73,079.00
  • Joe Willis (goalkeeper): $316,250.00

It is almost unfair to not talk about each of these players individually. But I really want to emphasize the home run that Mike Jacobs hit with this defensive group. You can afford a couple of misses elsewhere on the roster when you create one of the league’s best defensive units for only $2 million in yearly salary spend. 

The biggest value is of course Alistair Johnston. Nashville took the young right back with the 11th overall pick in the 2020 SuperDraft. After beginning the year on the bench, Johnston quickly took control of the starting position and never looked back. 

Whether its NFL, MLB, NHL, or NBA, the most-valuable contracts in American sports are always young guys on rookie deals who outperform their contract. Johnston is no exception. A veteran defender with Johnston’s level of output would likely command four times the salary figure.  Johnston will remain an incredible value until Nashville renegotiates Johnston’s contract or looks to move him overseas for a hefty profit. 

The salary numbers released yesterday reflect the contract extensions and pay raises handed out this offseason to Joe Willis and Dave Romney after both put in a stellar 2020 campaign. But even with well-deserved pay raises, Nashville SC is committing highway robbery with Willis’ and Romney’s contracts. 

Based on the MLSPA salary guide, Romney is only the 107th highest-paid defensive player in the league. Read that one more time and let it percolate. You could create 26 teams of four-man backlines with higher-paid players and still not get to Romney.  Since arriving in Nashville, Romney has been Nashville’s steady force in the back calmly cleaning up messes and wiping away attacking threats. 

Joe Willis also received a contract extension and pay raise over the offseason. But he still only comes in as the 20th highest paid goalkeeper in MLS – a great value given his top-level production last season and his strong start to the 2021 campaign, aside from the first 15 minutes against Cincinnati. 

2. Brian Anunga

In salary cap leagues like MLS, quality depth on team friendly deals is often the differentiator between good and bad teams. Injuries, suspensions, and national team duty all can affect your day-to-day roster. It is important to identify quality depth pieces who can come in and provide quality minutes. Brian Anunga delivers that for Nashville SC as the principal backup to first-choice midfielders Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy.

Anunga was signed from USL-Championship side Charleston Battery in the lead up to 2020. Yesterday’s salary release shows that Nashville is paying only $81,375 for Anunga’s services, a great value for a player that Gary Smith has shown a ton of faith in over the past year. 

Anunga’s contract demonstrates that there continues to be value in MLS scouting departments that identify talent further down America’s soccer pyramid. Guys like Mark Anthony-Kaye, Christian Rameriez, Dom Dwyer, and Osvaldo Alonso have all had a tremendous impact in MLS after earlier stints in the lower tiers. 

Overpaid

You don’t have to look far to see Nashville SC’s biggest drain on financial resources. With both sitting in the top five of roster spend, David Accam and Miguel Nazarit are the two worst value contracts for the club. 

  • David Accam (winger): $1,102,916.00
  • Miguel Nazarit (center-back): $894,375.00

Nashville acquired David Accam two years ago from Sunday via a trade with Columbus for $450,000 in allocation money. Accam was a veteran MLS attacker who, at times, had shined bright for the Chicago Fire bagging 33 goals in 78 appearances for the club. He was traded to Philadelphia in 2018 but never could reclaim his form from earlier seasons. 

In Nashville, Accam scored the winning goal against FC Dallas that sealed Nashville’s first win in its MLS history. But he had little impact beyond that goal having made only 7 appearances in total for the Boys in Gold. 

Accam is now spending this season on loan with Hammarby IF in the Swedish Allsvenskan. A respectable club in its own right, Hammarby is almost assuredly paying a loan fee for Accam’s services – though it likely does not fully cover his $1.1 million salary. 

Miguel Nazarit is the most head-scratching player on Nashville’s books. Nazarit was signed on a free transfer from Once Caldas in Nazarit’s native Colombia. At the time of the acquisition, one would figure that Nashville’s scouts thought they landed a solid investment piece for the future. However, Nazarit failed to log a single minute of game action for Nashville SC in 2020, and made just a single appearance on the bench in Nashville’s 26 matches.

After not making an impact in 2020 and a crowded defensive group, Nazarit is spending this season on loan with Independiente Santa Fe in Colombia. The troubling sign is that he is not regularly featuring in Santa Fe’s match-day squad. It is unclear if this has been due to injury or manager’s decision.

It is not clear what the future holds for Nashville and Nazarit. The enormity of Nazarit’s contract gives Nashville a heavy incentive to not give up on him. But it remains to be seen if he will return to Nashville or ever have the chance to push through as a regular contributor. 

The good news for Nashville is that both Accam and Nazarit’s contracts do not affect the team’s salary budget for MLS roster compliance purposes. Since neither player is registered with the club for MLS competition, their salaries do not count as a budget charge towards Nashville’s salary cap figure. 

The bad news is that if you are club owner John Ingram, you are writing some hefty checks to two guys half a world away on top of paying for the construction of a beautiful new stadium. Contracts like Accam and Nazarit’s test the commitment level of MLS owners. But given the tremendous value gained from deals for Romney, Johnston, Willis, and Anunga, it makes it much easier to swallow the occasional miss.  

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