Nashville SC kick off their 2024 slate of preseason games on Friday, taking on St. Louis City SC in Port St. Lucie, FL.
While streaming options will almost certainly be nonexistent, there’s still a bit of valuable information to be gleaned from the games. With personnel changes at a couple key changes, the lineups and playing time over next five preseason matches will tell a lot about where players stand in Gary Smith’s pecking order. Here are the key position battles to watch:
1. Center midfield
Nashville needed to make improvements to their midfield in 2023. They need improvements even more after losing Dax McCarty in free agency. The veteran midfielder was the best passer in Nashville’s midfield, and his ability to pull the strings from deep was a crucial piece of the Coyotes’ attack. Perhaps McCarty became too heavily relied on, with no player in the squad able to come close to replicating the 36-year-old’s ball progressing abilities.
Yearwood is and interesting choice to replace McCarty, and he’s a big swing. Nashville believe he’s a better distributor than he was able to showcase in the Red Bulls anti-soccer game model, and I don’t think it’s a bad bet. He’s a low-risk move with potential to pay off.
The big question is if he can break into Smith’s midfield rotation. Smith certainly has had “his guys” in the past, and it’s been difficult for many new signings to move past the incumbents. Nowhere has this been more true in midfield.
Even going back to the USL Championship, Derrick Jones was brought in with MLS pedigree and couldn’t break into the squad ahead of Bolu Akinyode. Sean Davis at times struggled to get in ahead of Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty, and last season Ján Greguš was an afterthought, despite having a skillset that Nashville actually needed.
Moving on from McCarty opens a ton of space for Yearwood, but starting minutes won’t be handed to him. Nashville need him to come in hot and earn a starting spot off the bat. While the midfield as a whole is still the biggest question mark around the team, a midfield that includes Yearwood is a much more exciting idea than the prospect of a Godoy-Davis pairing for the full year.
2. Center back
Nashville have an interesting logjam at center back. Walker Zimmerman is still the best center back in MLS when healthy, but played hurt all of 2023 and may not be fully healthy to start the season. The big question is if Jack Maher or Lukas MacNaughton will be his preferred partner.
Nashville rate Maher very highly, and he’s turned into one of the best young center backs in MLS after being selected second-overall in the 2020 SuperDraft. While he played the most minutes of any Nashville center back in 2023, MacNaughton made a strong challenge after joining from Toronto FC midseason. In fact, Smith picked MacNaughton ahead of Maher in the biggest games, preferring the Canadian in the Leagues Cup final and Nashville’s must-win playoff match against Orlando. That’s not nothing.
Regardless of who is the starter, the Coyotes have the deepest center back corps in MLS, especially if (when) Nick DePuy is officially brought back after missing all of last season. That would give them four starting-quality center backs, as well as Josh Bauer, who has turned into a reliable rotation option.
Boyd is a clear replacement for Fafà Picault, and while he’s a different type of player, he should slot right into Nashville’s XI. That leaves several players to fight for one spot.
Randall Leal was one of Nashville’s most productive players early in MLS, adding 24 combined goals in his first two seasons. He’s produced half that in the remaining two seasons, missing 25 games with injury and struggling to regain form. If he can stay healthy and rediscover his form, he can be an above-average attacker in MLS, but it’s not nearly a sure thing at this point in his career.
Jacob Shaffelburg is a known quantity and a fine starter, but the 24-year-old hasn’t displayed a ton of consistency in the final third; he’s never scored more than three goals in a season. Alex Muyl is a Swiss army knife of a player and never runs out of energy. He’s one of the most useful squad players in MLS, but doesn’t consistently have the attacking production Nashville need. And McKinze Gaines is a depth upgrade over Luke Haakenson, one that Nashville think could have an outsized impact in the same vein as Dave Romney or Aníbal Godoy, but he’s not a high-end starter.
Nashville are going to use some version of a committee approach out wide this season, but it will be fascinating to see which players pull ahead in preseason.
4. Roster fringes
Preseason is a key time for players on the fringes of the roster to make their case for a bigger role, or in some cases a first team contract.
Forster Ajago was a surprise signing following the SuperDraft and could be an interesting depth option in the attack. He could also be Kemy Amiche 2.0 and destined for a full-time role in Huntsville (part of this also depends on if he’ll take an international roster slot).
Joey Skinner wasn’t ready for the MLS level last season, but stood out in Huntsville as a winger or goal-scoring fullback. Can he make a push for the senior roster?
Adem Sipić is eligible to play with the first team in 2024, following his signing as Nashville’s first-ever homegrown player last summer. Expectations have been publicly (and rightfully) kept low for the 18-year-old, but there’s a lot to like in his game. It’s mostly unrealistic to think he could challenge a veteran like Teal Bunbury for the number two spot, and while he seems set for a larger role in Huntsville while he develops this year, anything is possible.
Will any of the academy or Huntsville players in preseason training camp impress? Will any of the SuperDraft picks earn contracts with Nashville, or will Kevin Carmichael and Bryce Boneau use their remaining NCAA eligibility? Makel Rasheed, selected in the 2023 SuperDraft, is in preseason camp after finishing his college eligibility last season and could be signed to a contract soon.
While these moves most likely won’t have a major impact on Nashville’s first team in 2024, they’re still important questions that need to be answered.