With nine games played, Nashville SC’s season has now passed the quarter mark. It provides just enough of a sample size to look at certain trends from the start of the season.
One thing that I have seen questioned this season by supporters in the stands and on social media is Gary Smith’s hesitancy to make substitutions. I wanted to know if perception matched reality and decided to conduct a data dig.
Below is a table charting each MLS team’s average number of substitutions used per match along with the median entry time for the club’s substitutions.
In 2022, Smith has made the 9th fewest number of substitutions per match, and those substitutions come later than any other club. The net result is that Nashville receive a smaller impact from their bench than any other MLS club.
This trend can’t continue. Nashville heavily rely on veterans to form the core of its roster. As Tennessee’s summer heat rises, Smith will need to rely further on his bench to keep legs fresh and provide a spark.
Gary Smith leans on his starters and maintains the game plan
Smith’s substitution philosophy can be summed up as “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Unless chasing a goal, Nashville’s gaffer primarily makes substitutions that maintain the status quo, rather than add a new wrinkle. The notable exception came early in the season as Smith experimented with a 4-4-2 Diamond that utilized Sean Davis, Dax McCarty, and Anibal Godoy in the starting lineup. When it came time to inject fresher legs, Smith opted to shift back to Nashville’s more standard 3-4-1-2 formation.
Smith relies on a core group of players to fill the bulk of available minutes. This year Nashville’s core group consists of 13 regular feature players and another five primary rotational / substitute pieces. Beyond this group, only Ethan Zubak has made a brief cameo appearance (a single minute against the LA Galaxy).
Smith is not one to ordinarily shake up the defense or deep-lying midfielders other than to bring on fresh legs. Beyond ordinary rotation, it certainly would not hurt to give him more attacking pieces to utilize off the bench.
Nashville must address its attacking depth this summer
Smith’s substitution patterns are dictated in part by philosophy and in part by personnel. Outside of Aké Loba, Nashville lack any reliably threatening attacking players off the bench who can change a game.
Prior to a preseason trade to Charlotte FC, the ‘Yotes could rely on the contributions of Daniel Ríos as a depth striker who could find the back of the net. But since his departure to the other side of the mountains, Nashville have yet to find a reliable replacement.
This past offseason also saw the departure of Jhonder Cádiz and the loan move away for Rodrigo Piñeiro.
When available, Cádiz provided valuable bench minutes behind C.J. Sapong. Nashville understandably declined to exercise Cádiz’s purchase option at the end of last season, as his production never matched his DP salary and reported $2 million dollar price tag. But the production Cádiz did provide still needs replacing.
The failed Piñeiro experiment remains a frustration point. Nashville supporters spent last season clattering for Piñeiro to be given an extended opportunity. As frustrations between Piñeiro and the coaching staff reached a boiling point, a loan move was inevitable.
However, Piñeiro still represents the kind of exciting offensive talent that the Coyotes could benefit from. It’s all the more frustrating watching from afar as Piñeiro makes his mark in Chile. He has scored four goals in seven appearances for Unión Española.
Nashville need to find replacements for the departed attacking pieces that can make a difference off the bench.
To be clear, a dearth of attacking talent off the bench is a problem for a lot of MLS teams. Salary caps and roster rules make it difficult to find and maintain depth pieces that can add goals as a substitute. Within the salary cap, the best place to usually find spark plugs off the bench is either through the contributions of academy youngsters or reduced-price veterans playing out their final days.
While Nashville’s academy has yet to produce a homegrown signing, Mike Jacobs acquired a few former homegrowns from other MLS clubs that could potentially make an impact. Ethan Zubak and Handwalla Bwana have featured sparingly since arriving from the west coast. Zubak has played just one minute this year following his offseason to Nashville.
Bwana has yet to feature this year. The former Sounders academy graduate was traded to Nashville in the fall of 2020. He has logged less than 200 minutes in the blue and gold, and didn’t appear in the squad for Nashville’s final 27 matches last season. He’s been on the bench for four of the Coyotes’ nine matches in 2022.
For both Zubak and Bwana, next week’s U.S. Open Cup match is a prime opportunity to make an impression on Smith and stake a claim for increased playing time.
Regardless of their performance, Nashville still needs another forward that can chip in goals and serve as C.J. Sapong’s primary backup.
It’s abundantly clear that Smith prefers to have a big-bodied target forward in his team sheet. In his mind, Loba fills the Hany Mukhtar role as a creative force. While Teal Bunbury was used as the backup #9 prior to his injury, he failed to impress in his minutes. Moreover, Bunbury is not a natural target man – he’s primarily played as a winger during his career.
Mike Jacobs would do well in the summer transfer window to identify and bring in a veteran striker who can add goals and provide the physicality desired by Smith. This could come via intra-MLS trade or from a foreign signing of an out-of-contract player.
For a team filled with veterans, keeping their legs fresh for the fall is a constant battle that needs to be considered from May through August as the summer temperatures spike. Smith cannot afford to end the season with the most underutilized bench in MLS. Rotation will be necessary. To ensure that Nashville stays fresh, new pieces need to be added this summer to put the ‘Yotes in the best possible position to capture silverware.