Late Friday afternoon, Nashville SC dumped a deeply discouraging bit of transfer news.
In the club’s announcement that they have loaned Aké Loba to Mazatlán FC, Nashville communicated that the move failed to immediately re-open the club’s third Designated Player (“DP”) slot. The terms of the deal involve a year-long loan. Mazatlán retains a purchase option that they can exercise at any time while also allowing Nashville to find other suitors during the summer transfer window, should any arise.
The news set off a firestorm of criticism across social media and in real-life conversations. Supporters had been hopeful that the Coyotes could chase a DP striker this winter to finally provide desperately-needed goal-scoring help for the reigning MLS Most Valuable Player, Hany Mukhtar.
Based on numerous conversations over the weekend, it’s fair to say that the honeymoon period is over for Nashville SC.
In each of the Coyotes’ first five seasons as a professional club, a real sense of excitement could be felt at the beginning of the year.
- 2018 – first season as USL Championship club
- 2019 – one year away from MLS with first signings for the future MLS team
- 2020 – first season in MLS
- 2021 – first season with normal fan attendance after COVID disruption
- 2022 – opening of GEODIS Park
With less than 50 days remaining prior to the start of the 2023 season, no spark of excitement is permeating throughout the supporter base. The hope, among many, had been for the club to cut ties with Loba to create space for an arrival of a new DP forward.
A third season of Loba occupying a DP slot is a bitter pill to swallow. This week, the MLS ExtraTime crew labeled Nashville’s Loba purchase as the biggest bust in league history. In 27 years of play, Loba’s flop stands alone.
Entering 2023 allowing Loba to occupy a DP slot whilst not with the team simply adds insult to injury.
Another option on the table
Nashville’s front office and ownership chose to loan Loba for 2023. It was not the only option on the table.
MLS rules provide clubs with an annual, one-time buyout of any player on the roster. The club’s leadership could have elected to cut their losses on Loba and looked to immediately improve the squad. With just one year left on his guaranteed contract, Nashville would have needed to pay Loba one year’s salary – $1,491,475 in 2021.
Had Nashville bought out Loba, club owner, John Ingram, would not have been able to recoup any of the $6.8 million dollar transfer fee Nashville paid to Monterrey in 2021. The upside of the buyout option would have been to immediately open the DP slot allowing a purchase of a new striker to pair with Mukhtar.
Instead, Nashville chose to hang on to Loba’s rights in hopes that a summer buyer materializes to reimburse Ingram for a portion of his original investment.
For supporters, it’s an easy choice to make. It is not our money. The path toward a quicker acquisition of a new star player will always be the most favorable. It is a different choice for owners. Outside of oligarchs and sovereign wealth funds engaged in sport washing, soccer clubs are just one part of a business portfolio for owners. The option to maximize revenue and limit financial losses will, at times, trump sporting concerns.
Although, it should come as no surprise when frustrations begin boiling over when those diametric viewpoints clash. Hard-working supporters spending a pretty penny to attend a soccer match will hardly shed a tear if a billionaire must write off a loss of a few million dollars. This is the push and pull between supporters and ownership that has existed throughout the history of sports.
Where does Nashville go from here?
The danger now for Nashville SC is to prevent apathy from taking root among supporters. When you build an ambitiously large 30,000-seat stadium, the hope is that you can fill it more often than not. Sports, like any other entertainment product, require a constant refresh. The same show repeated quickly grows stale.
Entering the 2023 season, Nashville’s roster feels stale. The Coyotes added Fafà Picault, shipped out Dave Romney, and signed several depth pieces that may contribute more in Huntsville than Nashville.
There has been movement, but it hasn’t moved the needle.
If Nashville SC wants supporters to quickly forget the disappointment regarding the still-occupied DP slot, there are three things the club must accomplish.
Sign a promising youngster via the U22 Initiative
First, the club must show ambition by making a U22 Initiative signing. Inking an exciting young talent will quickly ease concerns as to the club’s level of ambition.
Now that Rodrigo Piñeiro has permanently left Nashville, the club holds an open U22 slot.
The U22 Initiative allows MLS clubs to purchase a young player at a significantly reduced budget impact ($150,000 or $200,000, depending on age).
To be eligible, the only requirements are that the player: (1) not turn 23 years old in their first MLS season, and (2) earn a salary of less than the Maximum Budget Charge ($651,250 in 2023). The transfer fee paid does not matter. Theoretically, a club could pay a $100 million fee and the player would still be eligible for the U22 Initiative slot, provided they satisfy the two criteria above.
With virtually no impact on the roster budget, U22 Initiative signings are a measure of ownership ambition. Leaving a U22 slot open and unused is no different than allowing a DP slot to remain unfilled. The most ambitious clubs would never dare keep such a valuable resource open any longer than necessary.
Dejan Joveljic (LA Galaxy), Leonardo Campana (Inter Miami), José Cifuentes (LAFC), and Santiago Moreno (Portland) were all acquired via the U22 Initiative. How much better would supporters feel if one of those difference-makers were inserted into Nashville’s starting lineup? My guess is quite a bit.
Spend the GAM stockpile on an intraleague trade
An intraleague trade, that actually moves the needle, is the second action item needed for Mike Jacobs to recapture the fanbase.
This offseason, Nashville traded seven international roster slots ($1,250,000 GAM) and veteran defender Dave Romney (2023 – $250k GAM; 2024 – $275k GAM). The club also picked up sell-on fees from the transfers of Alistair Johnston and Daniel Rios which provided an estimated $500,000 GAM between the two deals.
Totaled up, Nashville added $2 million dollars in GAM this offseason.
Now, a portion of that stockpile has already departed. Mike Jacobs completed the transfer of Jacob Shaffelburg ($300,000 GAM), traded for Fafà Picault ($100,000 GAM), and also brought in Nick DePuy ($50,000 GAM).
Those deals still leave $1.55 million GAM from the stockpile assembled this offseason. A small portion of this will need to be used to cover player salaries to remain under the salary cap. However, the $1.9 million GAM provided to all clubs to start 2023 will cover the vast majority of the budget gap.
With the war chest of GAM, Mike Jacobs could target a number of players across the league. The one I have my eye on is Ayo Akinola in Toronto. The talented forward has yet to live up to his potential. A 2021 ACL injury certainly did not help. With DP forward Jesús Jiménez above Akinola on the depth chart, Toronto should entertain trade offers. Letting Akinola take a stab at winning the striker job in Nashville is worth the outlay.
Regardless of the player, the takeaway here is that Mike Jacobs should have plenty of MLS funds to make an impactful trade. Another starting-caliber player joining Nashville’s core will help allay supporters’ fears that the club is poised to take a step back this season.
Winning cures all ills
Lastly and most importantly, Nashville must win games.
Capturing all three points at home, following a 2022 season chock-full of deflating draws at GEODIS Park, will go a long way in making supporters forget all about the third DP slot remaining tied up with Loba.
This last point cuts both ways. If the Coyotes struggle out of the gate in 2023, it will only amplify the boiling frustrations with the direction of the club.
The good news is that the offseason is not over. Just over a month and a half stand between Nashville and the start of the 2023 campaign. The famous Walker Zimmerman trade did not occur until mid-February, just 18 days prior to the start of the inaugural season.
There’s still time for Mike Jacobs to make a splash. After the dispiriting Loba news from Friday, it is imperative that he do so.