Nashville SC haven’t played a match in what feels like forever. That should change soon. Last week, The Athletic reported that Major League Soccer plans on resuming the regular season on August 22, confirming what Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith told Broadway Sports Media last week. It seems like those details will be made official shortly, with The Washington PostSteven Goff reporting MLS will announce their plans later this week.
By the time August 22 rolls around, it will have been 168 days since Nashville last played a match. For reference, there were 146 days between the end of the 2019 regular season and the start of the 2020 season. A lot can change in that time.
Today, we’re going to look at position battles for Nashville SC. Gary Smith rolled out the same starting lineup for the club’s two matches this season, and there seemed to be a clearly set hierarchy. That was five months ago. Things change.
Nashville set up in the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been a favorite of Smith’s since he came to the music city, and for the purposes of this exercise we’ll assume they maintain the same system. Position battles will be rated on a scale of one to five, with one being set in stone and five being the most likely to see a change this season.
Starter: Joe Willis. Willis is a solid, if unspectacular, starter in MLS. During stints with DC United and Houston Dynamo, Willis played behind average to below-average defenses, conceding 1.58 goals per game. His save percentage numbers and goals-expected goals are middle of the pack, and he’s never been a top 10 ‘keeper in the league. That said, he’s a 10 year veteran in the league who brings needed experience and leadership to an expansion backline. He may not be the long-term answer, but he’s likely not going anywhere soon.
Challenger: Adrián Zendejas. Zendejas was brought in from Sporting KC in the expansion draft with a lot of upside and not much experience. Just 24 years old, Zendejas has spent most of his professional career a level down in the USL Championship, making just one appearance in MLS. He’s above average with his feet and has a lot of potential. He’ll challenge for the starting spot, but probably not this season.
Longshot: Elliot Panicco. Panicco was selected in the first round of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. He’s firmly a third ‘keeper at this point.
Battle rating: 2/5
Starter: Eric Miller. Miller has been a journeyman in MLS, playing for five teams since entering the league in 2014. A versatile option, he’s struggled with defensive lapses and isn’t a consistent producer offensively. He’s a good rotational option, but probably isn’t a long-term starter for this team.
Challenger: Brayan Beckeles. Beckeles has loads of experience at a high level, playing in the Portuguese and Mexican top flights, as well as starting all three of Honduras’s matches at the 2014 World Cup. At 34, he’s nearing the latter stages of his career, but has the resumé to be an upgrade at the position. He had fitness issues to start the season, but when healthy he should get a shot.
Longshot: Alistair Johnston. Another SuperDraft pick, Johnston is one of the more athletic members of the team, with impressive vertical speed and a relentless engine. From speaking with members of Nashville’s technical staff, the club view Johnston as a long-term option at the position, with the potential to start claiming minutes this season. Calling Johnston a longshot is probably fair, but may give the wrong impression. Don’t be surprised if he’s the starter by the end of the season.
Battle rating: 4/5
Starter: Walker Zimmerman. Nashville paid a lot of money to bring in Zimmerman. The club sent up to $1.25 million in allocation money to LAFC for the defender, a league record fee. Throughout his time with Los Angeles and FC Dallas, Zimmerman has been one of the more consistent defenders in the league, earning 12 caps for the US Men’s National Team as a result. Excellent in the air, assured in possession, and athletic enough to cover ground and allow fullbacks to push high, he’s a prototypical defender in this league. If he’s fit, he’s starting.
Challenger: Jalil Anibaba. Anibaba appeared to be the starter until Zimmerman was brought in a couple weeks before the season started. He’s a reliable option, with a really good stint as a left-back in New England last season. He won’t beat Zimmerman in a position battle, but can fill in well if rotation requires.
Longshot: Miguel Nazarit. Brought in on a TAM contract from Once Caldas in Colombia, Nazarit is an intriguing, if unproven, prospect. Nashville will hope he follows the pathway of Eddie Segura of LAFC, but they won’t rush him. Internally, they’re very high on Nazarit, but view him as a long-term option.
Battle rating: 1/5
Starter: Dave Romney. After playing a more rotational role for the LA Galaxy, Romney was brought to Nashville as a starter under their mantra of “valuing the undervalued.” Romney is a solid passer for a center-back, and will be key to Nashville’s success in possession.
Challenger: Jack Maher. The no. 2 overall pick in the 2020 SuperDraft, Maher is a highly-rated prospect out of Indiana University. He’s two-footed and accomplished in possession, and he’s clearly intelligent and good at reading the game. He should end up as a core piece of this team. Whether he’ll break into the lineup in the short term is the bigger question.
Longshot: Ken Tribbett. Tribbett was one of the four players signed from Nashville’s USL side. He’s had experience in MLS with the Philadelphia Union, as well as being a Best XI level player at the USL level. With the players ahead of him on the depth chart, it’s hard to see him earning much time this season.
Battle rating: 2/5
Starter: Dan Lovitz. Despite polarizing opinion at the national team level, Lovitz has been towards the upper-echelon of MLS left backs over the last several years. As a winger-turned-defender, he’s strong going forward, and has the speed to make up group defensively. Firmly entrenched right now.
Challenger: Taylor Washington. Washington is another of the USL group who made the leap to MLS, and while he’s been on the fringes of MLS before, he has yet to make an appearance at the top level. He may be the fastest player on the squad with an unbelievable engine, and was named on the preliminary roster for Nashville’s home opener. It’s hard to see him beating out Lovitz in a positional battle, but next to the center-backs on the roster, he could fill in adequately.
Longshot: Jimmy Medranda. Medranda is an incredibly versatile (and injury-prone) player who’s had success at left back in the past. When healthy, he can absolutely be a game changer in MLS. But with Nashville’s lack of depth at wing and Gary Smith’s defensive structure, I’m not sure Medranda is a realistic option at left-back.
Battle rating: 2/5
Right Center Midfield
Starter: Dax McCarty. McCarty has been one of the most consistent holding midfielders in MLS over his 14 year career, wearing the armband for Nashville and stepping into a leadership role as soon as he arrived from Chicago Fire. He covers a ton of ground defensively, is a crucial piece of their press, and is a severely underrated passer. He’s a lock to start.
Challenger: Derrick Jones. Jones is another high-upside young player, who saw some success in Philadelphia at the MLS level, but probably needed a change of scenery to succeed. He has all the talent to be a contributor on this team, and if needed can fill in well. May see more time in a more advanced role.
Longshot: Matt LaGrassa. LaGrassa has spent his professional career at the USL level, where he’s been a consistent contributor. His game is clean, he has solid passing range and he’s tactically astute. Probably won’t see significant time, but a reliable depth option.
Battle rating: 1/5
Left Center Midfield
Starter: Aníbal Godoy. Godoy and McCarty looked like one of the better midfield pairings in MLS over their first two games. Godoy is an MLS veteran who provides a strong physical presence in midfield. He’s great at breaking up play in the center, and he’s a really good forward passer:
Given his talent and the money Nashville paid to acquire him, it’s hard to see him losing his spot anytime soon.
Challenger: Brian Anunga. Anunga was bought from USL side Charleston Battery after being close to joining a couple MLS sides in recent years. At 23, he’s still very young with a lot of upside. He doesn’t have the passing range of Godoy, but he’s smart in possession and does a lot of the dirty defensive work. A Best XI player at the USL level who’s deserved a chance in MLS for a while.
Longshot: Tanner Dieterich. Dieterich was picked in the second round of the SuperDraft, and can play anywhere across the back or in midfield. He’s a hard working, no nonsense player, but could use some time on loan before he’s ready to contribute consistently in MLS.
Battle rating: 1/5
Starter: David Accam. Accam has been up-and-down his last couple seasons. A borderline MVP candidate in Chicago, he’s struggled since leaving, producing inconsistently in Philadelphia and struggling to earn a starting spot in Chicago. He’s one of the quickest players in the league and stretches the field with his pace, and when he’s on he can be impossible to defend. He’s just not always on.
Challenger: Jimmy Medranda. Medranda’s stronger left foot makes him an intriguing option to play as an inverted winger, cutting inside and picking out passes from more central areas. When healthy, he’s electric on the ball, and he brings an unpredictability that could help Nashville break out of their typical cycles of possession.
Longshot: Alan Winn. He’s very fast. He’s great on the ball. He’s not afraid to try stuff. He’s also indecisive with his final ball and too often opts to pass instead of shoot. But he’s still young and looked really good off the bench against Atlanta. He’s listed as a longshot here, but he’s closer to seeing minutes than several of the “longshots” on this list.
Battle rating: 3/5
Starter: Hany Mukhtar. The first designated player in club history, Mukhtar has a great pedigree, a high work rate, and is capable of changing the game in the final third. The end product wasn’t there in the first two matches, but it takes time to adjust. He’s a core piece of this team.
Challenger: Derrick Jones. Jones played as the 10 towards the end of the 2019 USL season and during preseason. He’s a very different player than Mukhtar, but is unusually good on the ball for a player of his size, and has the vision to act as the playmaker.
Longshot: Jimmy Medranda. He’s been talked about at a couple other positions, but yeah… he can play anywhere.
Battle rating: 1/5
Starter: Randall Leal. Leal is the second DP on Nashville’s roster, and was one of the more promising players in their first two matches. He didn’t find the back of the net, but came close a couple times, and was clearly dangerous whenever he got on the ball. With experience in Europe and at the international level, Leal should start producing with a little more adjustment time. He’s a player who seems destined to move to a bigger league at some point.
Challenger: Jimmy Medranda. Again, Medranda can play anywhere. Playing a left-footed option gives the left wing a different look than Leal, and in his cameo against Portland, Medranda showed that he can put in a great ball from the left. Hard to see him pushing Leal out of the lineup, but Smith could shift things around to get them both on the field together.
Longshot: Abu Danladi. Danladi is quick and versatile and had stretches of production in Minnesota. But he just can’t stay healthy. Injury issues plagued him in college and with the Loons, and he picked up a knock in his second cameo appearance for Nashville. Hard to see him really challenging for a consistent role.
Battle rating: 1/5
Starter: Dominique Badji. Badji is a hard working, high pressing, pacey forward who’s been a constant in starting lineups in Dallas and Colorado. The problem is, he’s never been a clinical finisher, and Nashville need a consistent goalscorer. He’ll still get plenty of minutes if he doesn’t start, able to play on the wing as well as through the middle. But his time as the starting no. 9 seems limited.
Challenger: Daniel Ríos. Ríos is been one of the most consistent scorers in USL history, the first player to score 20 goals in consecutive seasons. He brings something very different to the table from Dom Badji, better at linking play with midfield and a much more consistent finisher. Nashville’s technical staff is very high on him, so much so that they’re wary of signing a DP striker without giving Ríos a fair shot to earn the job. I would be surprised if Ríos doesn’t get the bulk of starting minutes for the rest of the season.
Longshot: Abu Danladi. He’ll probably see time late in games when Nashville are chasing a lead, but it’s hard to see him getting much time as a starting striker.
Battle rating: 5/5
Agree or disagree with our breakdown of Nashville’s positional battles? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments.