In just eight days, Nashville SC kick off their 2021 Major League Soccer campaign. After stunning the U.S. soccer world with a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals last year, the Boys In Gold will look to follow up on their impressive expansion campaign with another strong showing.
With the rest of the East making significant improvements in the offseason, Nashville will have their work cut out for them to qualify for the 2021 postseason. Which players will have the biggest impact on Nashville’s season?
Nashville’s first-ever Designated Player got off to a slow start in 2020, thanks in large part to the stop-start nature of the Covid impacted season. There’s often a significant adaptation period for European players moving to MLS, and that definitely proved to be the case for Mukhtar.
The German playmaker showed flashes all throughout the season, but finally rounded into form after coming back from injury in the fall. Paired with new signing Jhonder Cádiz, Mukhtar lead Nashville to score 12 goals in their final seven regular season matches, including a late comeback over Orlando City on Decision Day.
Under Gary Smith, the no. 10 has a pivotal role on both sides of the ball. Mukhtar is tasked with leading Nashville’s press as well as being a focal point in transition. And without a natural replacement in the squad, Mukhtar will carry a major chance creation burden. Nashville’s 2021 will largely go as Mukhtar goes.
While Walker Zimmerman got most of the headlines in 2020 (and rightly so), Dave Romney was quietly just as good. One of just two field players in MLS to play every minute of the season, Romney was an absolute rock in defense and was the foundation of much of Nashville’s success.
Defensively, Romney was virtually mistake free in 2020. He was consistently in the right place at the right time to cut out chances before they became dangerous, and he gave Zimmerman and Dan Lovitz the platform to push up into the attack.
Romney is an underrated passer of the ball. He was able to play out of pressure and break lines with his passing last season, and Nashville will try to focus on building out of the back more in 2021. Romney will be absolutely key to that.
On top of all that, Zimmerman is almost certain to miss time with international duty this season, whether it be Gold Cup, Nations League, or World Cup qualifying. Romney will need to once again be a steady and constant presence for Nashville.
“Duh”, you’re probably saying. And you’re right. It’s obvious.
Dax McCarty is the leader of this team, on and off the field. He’s basically another coach on the field, not to mention he’s an excellent passer of the ball and still has the legs to cover the field in a box-to-box role. While he completed a solid 86.1% of his passes in 2020, he doesn’t just go for the safe option. Instead, he consistently looks to get the ball to the feet of his forwards and wingers, and excels at breaking lines of pressure and opening up space.
With his midfield partner Aníbal Godoy set to miss time with the Panama national team, McCarty will have to pick up a lot of the slack in terms of forward passing. Gary Smith will have to balance managing minutes with getting his best midfielder on the pitch. While McCarty showed last season that he can still play week in and week out, Nashville can’t afford to be without he and Godoy at the same time.
Perhaps the most important acquisition of the offseason, Nashville addd a proven goal scorer in CJ Sapong. The 10-year MLS vet has found the back of the net 73 times in his career, and with Nashville’s issues scoring early in the season, getting off to a quick start will be absolutely vital in 2021.
Gary Smith already has DP Jhonder Cádiz and last year’s top scorer Daniel Ríos at his disposal, so Sapong joins a somewhat crowded striker group. Again, though, international duty could call Cádiz away, and over a long season, depth is absolutely crucial.
Sapong’s impact in training will be just as important as his performance in matches. Smith has made no secret of his love of competition for starting spots, and Sapong will push both Cádiz and Ríos to be better in training, and hopefully on matchday.
Don’t think that Sapong is just here as a backup, though. He’s been a starter at three MLS clubs, beating out plenty of high-profile players for minutes. He’s also played and scored in preseason, something that neither Cádiz nor Ríos can claim. While all three players, as well as Dom Badji, are sure to see starting minutes this year, it shouldn’t surprise anyone of CJ Sapong starts the season as the preferred option. If Nashville can get 7-10 goals out of him this year, they’ll be in really good shape.
This selection may seem a bit out of left field, but let me make my case.
Dax McCarty is 33. Aníbal Godoy is 31. Godoy will miss time with Panama for World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup. Without a ton of depth in midfield, Anunga is the primary backup at both box-to-box spots. He’ll see a lot of playing time this year.
Anunga was really impressive last season after Nashville bought him from USL’s Charleston Battery. The no-nonsense holding midfielder was reminiscent of MLS legend Ozzie Alonso, never shying away from a tackle and breaking up play in front of the back line.
For Nashville, the main question is whether Anunga can develop his passing enough to be a stylistic replacement for Aníbal Godoy. While he’s more than capable of doing the defensive work, Anunga lacked the passing range and confidence to replace his effectiveness in possession. To be fair, Godoy is one of the better passers in the league. It’s not an easy task to replicate. But if Nashville is to make it through the summer without a drop in production, Anunga will need to take a big step forward on the ball.
Who do you think are the most important players for Nashville in 2021? Let us know in the comments!