Moving forward with limited options up top

Nashville SC struggles to score goals. That’s no secret. FC Cincinnati is the only side in Major League Soccer to have scored less than Nashville’s eleven goals.

A rash of injuries in the squad exacerbates the problem.

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Abu Danladi has missed the last three matches with injury. David Accam hasn’t been in a matchday squad since September 2, and has been on the injury report for a couple weeks. Dom Badji came off injured after just 21 minutes against DC United. And minutes after scoring his second goal in as many matches, Daniel Ríos hobbled off the field with what looked like a groin injury.

At the time of publication, Nashville SC don’t have a healthy center forward on the roster.

For a side that struggles to score anyway, it’s less than ideal.

So how do Gary Smith and Nashville SC move forward? Here are a couple options.

The best option: Daniel Ríos isn’t hurt too badly

This is probably an obvious and overly-optimistic solution, but Daniel Ríos has quietly been very good for Nashville. He’s had one or two poor misses, but his holdup play, off-the-ball movement, and positioning in the box is far and away the best on the team. I’ve been very high on Ríos stock for a while, and with more consistent time on the pitch, the numbers are starting to back that up.

Of MLS forwards who have played at least 300 minutes this season, Ríos is second in goals added and third in expected goals per 96 minutes. He has the 22nd best goals-per-minute ratio of the league’s strikers (and if his goal against Houston wasn’t pulled back for offside, he’d jump to 11th).

I’ll shut up now. The point is, Ríos was finally rounding into form and showing why Nashville made him their first MLS signing.

“Where we’re at with our bodies, extremely disappointed to see Daniel limp off,” said head coach Gary Smith after Ríos left the match with an injury. “I don’t know the full extent of it at the minute, so we’ll have to assess that.”

The good news is that Ríos walked off the field on his own. He was able to walk around after the match, and didn’t look too uncomfortable. There’s a chance he was pulled off as a precaution. Hopefully he’ll be able to play against New England. That’s the best case scenario. We’ll find out more later on in the week.

A good option: Abu Danladi comes back

Abu Danladi has been a pretty consistent presence for Nashville this season. He’s played 343 minutes thus far, most of which have come on the right wing. However, he’s more than capable of playing through the center.

He’s a different type of player than Ríos or Badji. He won’t drop as deep as Ríos to combine, and he’s not as physical as Badji. Instead, he’ll stay on the back shoulder of the defense and try to get in behind. It’s a different look for Nashville, but one that could work.

Danladi has missed the past three matches with injury, but head coach Gary Smith specifically mentioned him in his post-match press conference.

“Dominique [Badji], obviously injury in the week. His injury has been fully assessed to maybe give us a bit more of a timeframe,” said Smith. “Abu [Danladi] is probably the closest to any competitive work, and I’m hoping that he may join the group next week and give everyone a bit of a boost.”

It remains to be seen how much Danladi will be able to handle, but if he’s fit enough to start, that would be a huge boost for Nashville.

A less-than-ideal option: play someone out of position

We saw this for the last 30-plus minutes of the Houston match. Without a replacement on the bench, Gary Smith did what he had to do and played someone out of position. That player was… Derrick Jones.

A natural eight, Jones has already played in a more advanced 10 role since arriving in Nashville. He continued the journey forward after Ríos came off, and didn’t look totally out of place.

Jones certainly has the strength and touch to serve as a hold-up forward, although he doesn’t have the field-stretching pace of a Badji or Danladi (or even Ríos). He’s much better with passing options ahead and beside him, and it certainly limits his effectiveness.

Another option Smith has would be to play Randall Leal or Hany Mukhtar up top. They’re both very different players from Derrick Jones, and would probably end up playing more as a false nine than the more traditional look Badji or Ríos would bring.

Leal played up front at times for Saprisa, his prior club. Again, it’s not ideal, but this whole injury situation isn’t ideal. In a pinch it could buy Nashville some time.

Kinda crazy option: recall Cameron Lancaster

Let me start by saying this may not even be feasible. Lancaster would likely have to serve a quarantine period, which would make a recall impractical, unless the injuries to Ríos, Badji and Danladi are more severe than initially thought.

If MLS would somehow allow Lancaster to come straight into first-team training (again, unlikely), it would be an interesting short-term option. Lancaster has been on fire in Louisville, absolutely banging in goals in the USL Championship. He’s scored four goals in his last four matches, and while there’s a clear difference in the level of play, having an in-form, healthy striker doesn’t sound all that bad.

I’d still argue that Lancaster is an MLS level finisher (honestly, probably better than that). He’s had absolutely horrific luck with injuries, though, and seems like he’s found a great fit in Louisville. Again, it’s unlikely a recall is even feasible, but it would be an interesting development.

The bottom line

Jhonder Cádiz is coming. That’s been official for a couple weeks, but it looks like he’ll be here in a matter of days. He’ll have to quarantine for 10 days before training, and even then he hasn’t played a competitive match since early March. He definitely won’t be available for the weekend match against New England, and it will likely be a couple more weeks until he’s ready to start.

If Nashville can hold on until he’s healthy, he’ll be not just a reinforcement, but an upgrade at the striker position. If Ríos can get back to health, having Cadiz and Ríos as options suddenly gives Nashville more flexibility up front, and gives them a boost heading down the stretch.

In the short term, however, it might be ugly.

What would you do to work around the injury crisis up front? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon


  1. Great write-up Ben! I agree it’s definitely a long-shot to call up Lancaster this season, but do you see him having a big role with the MLS squad down the line potentially like Rios, or more of an Alan Winn/Taylor Washington type depth player that can spot start if needed?

    1. Thanks, Kevin. I’m not sure how much he’ll be involved in MLS, to be honest. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up in Louisville permanently. It’s a shame how much injuries have hurt him, because I think he’s an MLS-level finisher, but he just can’t stay healthy. It seems like he’s found a good situation in Louisville.

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