“Do I think that we have enough coming into the game to make differences and be more effective? I think the answer to that, based on what we’ve seen on a fairly regular basis, is no, we haven’t got enough.”
Gary Smith was blunt after Nashville SC’s 2-0 loss to Houston Dynamo on Saturday night. While the scoreline on its own wasn’t egregious, the manner in which Nashville lost was.
Smith rotated his squad after a midweek US Open Cup match, making five changes from his typical starting eleven. Playing up a man for nearly an hour, the ‘Yotes rarely threatened Houston. They managed just two shots on target all night, and looked worse after Adam Lundqvist was sent off in the 35th minute.
Smith lamented his sides lack of attacking depth after the match.
“You tell me who came into the game and made a difference creatively,” he responded to my question about squad depth. “You tell me who started the game and made a difference creatively. You tell me. You tell me what your opinion is. It probably won’t be any different from mine. We’ve been nowhere near it.”
It’s hard to tell in a Zoom press conference if Smith really wanted my opinion. And if he really did, he’s right that it’s not any different from his. Nashville don’t seem to have many game-changing attacking options off the bench. But do the numbers back that up?
Nashville utilize depth less than anyone
Nashville have used just 20 players in their first 11 matches. That’s the lowest they’ve used throughout their time in MLS, down from 25 in 2021 and 21 in 2020.
Nashville have used the second-fewest players so far in MLS. Only Philadelphia have had less players see the field, relying on just 18 players in their first 11 matches.
Part of the issue for Smith is that he has less players to choose from than ever. Nashville’s squad stands at just 27 players, significantly less than the 35 and 33 players on the roster in 2020 and 2021, respectively. It’s exacerbated by the fact that five players are currently injured, leaving Smith with just 19 field players to choose from.
While the selection options are limited, Smith hasn’t leaned heavily on the options he does have available, despite a grueling road-heavy start to the season and a brutal stretch of seven games in 28 days.
Smith has made 3.82 substitutions per game, slightly under the league average of four. However, he’s made his changes later than almost anyone else in MLS. Nashville’s substitutes play an average of 15 minutes per match, less than anyone in the league besides FC Dallas.
So Nashville have limited depth and haven’t used it. Why?
Nashville’s attacking bench pieces are a step down
Smith has started just three attackers in multiple league matches. His preferred frontline of Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal and CJ Sapong started the first nine matches of the season together until Leal suffered an ankle injury against Real Salt Lake. It hasn’t always been pretty, but they’ve been effective.
Nashville’s starting frontline has contributed 13 goals and assists in 11 matches. It’s not spectacular, but a goal or assist every two matches is liveable. Those numbers drop off significantly once you look at the bench.
Obviously, sample size is massively important, and by default, players coming off the bench have a smaller sample size. Even adjusted to a per-match framework, they’ve been significantly less effective than the starters. Only Ethan Zubak has come close to matching the frontline’s expected output, and he has just one start all season.
This raises chicken or egg question. Do players need more minutes to get into form, or do they need to show form to earn minutes? Aké Loba has been a prime example of this. Fans (and media) alike have been clamoring for him to earn more minutes, when realistically he’s shown nothing to give him a claim for minutes ahead of the starting trio.
Nashville haven’t replaced proven depth they lost in the offseason
Nashville moved on from several players who were key options for Gary Smith off the bench. Attackers like Jhonder Cádiz, Daniel Ríos and Abu Danladi were traded or not re-signed in the offseason. Alistair Johnston as well was a key two-way player for Nashville at right wingback, and his move was framed as making room for a more attacking right back option. They have yet to make a signing in that position.
This is probably where Gary Smith’s frustration comes from. While players like Handwalla Bwana and Aké Loba have potential and have improved (albeit painfully slowly), they’ve not taken the step forward that the club seemed to expect in the offseason. And while the attacking depth they moved on from needed to be upgraded, they brought in just two attackers in the offseason who’ve made just two combined starts.
MLS’s U22 initiative should be a way to bring in high-potential attacking talent within their constrained budget mechanisms. Nashville attempted to use it last season, signing Rodrigo Piñeiro as a purely attacking wide option.
The move didn’t pan out. Piñeiro played all of 16 minutes in 2021, vocally frustrated and struggling to adapt to a new country. He was loaned to Unión Española in Chile (still without official confirmation from Nashville), where he’s found a rich vein of form, scoring five goals in 10 games. It’s unlikely that he’ll be recalled.
Nashville needed to build attacking depth in the offseason. They’ve done the opposite.
Nashville can make significant moves in the summer
Here’s where things look up. Nashville have plenty of flexibility and resources to make moves this offseason. They’ve been heavily linked to Shaq Moore, who would be a significant attacking upgrade at right wingback and would free up Alex Muyl for a more attacking role.
They need to figure out where Aké Loba fits into the squad. Is he a winger? Is he a striker? Can he play up front by himself, or does he need to be paired with a target forward? Whichever role he fits, they need to find an option to fill the other. And they need a consistent option to come off the bench when the squad is chasing a goal and make an actual difference. The lack of a reliable plan B limits their ceiling.
Mike Jacobs and his staff made moves all offseason to free up resources and keep options open. That’s only helpful if they actually use those resources. Given how he’s built squads in the past, moves in the summer window should be expected.