Nashville SC will play their first match of 2021 this week. The Boys In Gold will take on USL Championship side Louisville City FC this Saturday at Currey Ingram Academy, before heading to Florida for a three week camp.
It remains to be seen how much information Nashville makes public about any of their preseason contests. A few MLS sides have chosen to not even release lineup information, so unfortunately there’s a chance Nashville’s preseason could reveal little to no information about the squad heading into the 2021 season. I think that would be a big mistake, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Nashville SC are bringing back most of their 2020 contributors. In fact, only Colorado Rapids will return more 2020 minutes for the upcoming season.
Following an impressive 2020, Nashville will set out to prove that their debut season wasn’t a fluke, and that they are a legitimate, consistent playoff side.
Here’s what I’ll be watching for in the potentially sparse preseason information made available.
The striker battle
Jhonder Cádiz is the designated player striker who will get every chance to prove his worth before his loan ends in June. Daniel Ríos was the team’s joint-top scorer last season, despite limited minutes, and just signed a contract extension. CJ Sapong is a 10-year MLS veteran with 73 goals to his name. And Dom Badji is back and healthy after starting nine of 12 matches and playing 68% of minutes when healthy.
All this to say, Gary Smith has options at striker.
While Cádiz is the first choice option, and probably has the highest ceiling of the group, he’ll have his hands full to earn the job. Ríos put up numbers when he got on the field last season, and Sapong has been a serial goalscorer everywhere he’s been.
Smith won’t give anyone minutes on reputation or potential alone, and won’t be afraid to drop a big-name player if they haven’t earned it in training. Keep an eye on who gets the bulk of minutes in preseason, but don’t be surprised if any one of Nashville’s strikers gets a decent chunk of starting minutes.
Nashville’s midfield depth is not very deep. Behind Dax McCarty, Aníbal Godoy and Brian Anunga (three starting-quality MLS midfielders), Nashville have Matt LaGrassa, who filled in really well in just over 400 minutes last season. But with Irakoze Donasiyano not joining the squad until his collegiate season ends in May, Nashville don’t have a lot of options.
Godoy and McCarty are both over 30. Godoy will miss time with the Panamanian national team. He’s already set to miss a couple weeks of preseason in the upcoming round of World Cup qualifiers in March.
If McCarty or Godoy miss time with injury, the midfield gets really thin. If they miss time simultaneously, the it’s hard to see Nashville maintaining their typical level of play in midfield.
Godoy’s absence in March will give Smith a chance to experiment and assess his squad. With a boatload of GAM and a real need, though, it would be a surprise if Nashville don’t bring in another center midfielder before the season begins.
Nashville’s highest-profile acquisition thus far has been Rodrigo Piñeiro. Signed for around $1.8 million from Uruguayan side Danubio, the 21-year-old should immediately add more of a goal threat from the wings.
Players moving to MLS typically go through an adaptation period. Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal took a couple months each to fully hit their stride, and it could be a similar story for Piñeiro. With a fully established team around him, though, Smith will be hoping it’s a simpler adaptation for his latest signing.
If Piñeiro can bag a couple goals in preseason and hit the ground running before the real matches start, Nashville’s attack should look a lot better in 2020.
Luke Haakenson’s development
In his loan spell with Charlotte Independence, Luke Haakenson was quite impressive. The 18th best winger in USL Championship according to American Soccer Analysis‘s goals added model, Haakenson chipped in three goals and two assists on a relatively poor team. He’s also been name-checked by Gary Smith and Mike Jacobs leading into preseason, both unprompted.
“You’ll find than when players get loaned out, it’s usually the opposite of a demotion,” said Jacobs. “Usually you’re loaning a player because you value them enough that you want to get them games. And the experience I would use of someone like Luke Haakenson last year, who we drafted in the fourth round last year, and had such a promising season in Charlotte that he came back now as a signed player on our roster.”
“I think probably the other lad that you’ve forgotten maybe to mention is Luke Haakenson,” said Smith. “Luke went away last year to Charlotte, he’s part of our roster this year, he’s had a fabulous offseason, there’s been an awful lot of work as we’ve mentioned. He looks sharp, and for those young players, if they hit the ground running, the preseason games will offer a great opportunity for them to shine.”
Nashville clearly value players coming out of USL. Haakenson is the eighth player on their roster who spent the majority of their professional minutes at the USL Championship level before joining the first team. If he can impress in preseason, a role in the first team doesn’t seem at all out of the question.
Jack Maher’s role
Nashville’s first-ever SuperDraft selection saw limited minutes in 2020, stuck behind two of the league’s best defenders on the depth chart. While it’s no slight to Jack Maher, young players need minutes to develop.
Walker Zimmerman will miss time on international duty, but will that be enough for Maher? If Nashville utilizes a back three like they did in their second USL season, there’s a natural role for Maher. Can he force his way onto the field?
What are your biggest questions heading into preseason? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments.