Nashville SC’s season is over after a penalty shootout loss to Philadelphia Union. With their MLS Cup ambitions over in the short term, the club will quickly transition into preparation mode for the upcoming 2022 season. With players reporting in late January or early February, and the regular season kicking off in just 89 days, there’s little time to prepare.
Nashville have several players in option years or out of contract, and those decisions are due to the league today (Tuesday). My colleague Chris Ivey has a full breakdown that is definitely worth a read.
The good news for Nashville is that a drastic overhaul won’t be required. The foundations of this squad are incredibly solid and should stay in place for 2022, with a few tweaks needed to maximize the potential and truly compete for MLS Cup.
As MLSSoccer.com‘s Matt Doyle said on the latest episode of Extratime, “we’ve heard expansion franchises talk about three year plans in the past and I’ve always kind of snickered at that in the past, but this feels like what a real three year plan is.”
So how can Nashville level up in year three?
1. Get more production from Designated Players
Hany Mukhtar had an incredible 2021 season, finishing as an MVP Finalist. He’s blossomed into one of the most electric players in MLS, and there are zero concerns around his play.
After him, though, the production from Nashville’s designated players dropped off a cliff.
Jhonder Cádiz, on loan from Benfica with a reported $3 million purchase option, played just 832 minutes in 25 matches. With three goals and two assists, he assuredly did not have a DP-level impact on the squad. He’s a useful option to have in the squad and is a different type of striker than anyone else in the pool, but doesn’t justify a DP spot.
If Nashville wish to bring him back, I highly expect them to negotiate his transfer fee and salary down significantly, but even then they may opt to move on. It seems like a solid bet that Cádiz won’t occupy a DP slot in 2022.
Aké Loba occupied the third and final DP spot in the squad, and played just 478 matches after arriving for a club-record $7 million transfer fee.
We’ve seen big-money acquisitions struggle to perform in their first year in MLS plenty of times. Hany Mukhtar was a prime example of this for much of 2020. However, the way that Loba struggled was particularly discouraging. He was signed to be an immediate difference maker to a struggling attack, and while CJ Sapong’s form limited his playing time, he started just two matches, played just 20% of available minutes, and didn’t see the field in the postseason.
The lack of production from two of three DPs makes Nashville’s season even more impressive, but they can’t afford to do it again. Loba has to be a significant contributor in 2022, and the club has to use their third DP slot wisely.
2. Add younger production in central midfield
Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy each played north of 2,400 minutes in 2021. Godoy will turn 33 before the season starts, and McCarty will turn 35 before the new stadium opens. Both were consistently among the best in their positions this season, and the concerns aren’t so much about production as they are about sustainability.
Brian Anunga is the clear third-choice option, and he was reliable in his 1,678 minutes. However you look at it, though, he’s significantly more limited in possession than either McCarty or Godoy, and Nashville lose a lot going forward if they’re not on the field.
Nashville need to invest (probably significantly) in a younger, two-way midfielder who can take some of the burden off of McCarty and Godoy and aleviet the attacking drop-off when they’re not on the field. As good as they are, it would be foolish to enter the season without a high-level third option.
Nashville will have options in free agency, but they have a treasure trove of General Allocation Money stockpiled. They have the ability to trade for a player within MLS or bring in a player from outside the league on a DP or TAM deal. They need to do it.
3. Add more attacking options off the bench
Rodrigo Piñeiro was brought in at the start of the season with an eye towards the future, but even the most sceptical observer would be surprised at his complete lack of impact in 2021. The Uruguayan winger played just 16 minutes in two appearances, and didn’t even make a matchday squad after the June 23 win over Toronto.
Similarly, Nashville traded up to $250,000 in GAM and Jimmy Medranda to Seattle in return for Handwalla Bwana towards the end of 2020. He instantly turned into an impact player off the bench for Nashville, and even started the second match of the season. Like Piñeiro, he didn’t make a matchday squad after June 23.
Both players had issues; Bwana dealt with a concussion over the summer, and Piñeiro has been public about his struggles with mental health this season. But the complete lack of impact from both was concerning. Nashville will either need both to significantly level up in 2022 or acquire other attacking options. Alex Muyl and Luke Haakenson are both excellent players, but they can’t be the only options on the wings off the bench.
4. Clean up set piece defending
This is the big mystery of Nashville’s 2021 season. On paper, the squad should be among the best in the league at set piece defending. They’re among the best in the league at the other end of the field, scoring 12 goals from corner kicks or free kicks, the fifth-best tally in MLS.
Defensively, set pieces were a liability for Nashville. 15 of their 35 goals conceded came from dead ball scenarios.
Hindsight is 20/20, but in retrospect the points that were lost as a result of poor set piece defending had a major impact on their season, costing them seeding and the ability to host the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In a league of such small margins, this issue was devastating.
The hardest thing about this issue is that there’s not really an obvious fix. Nashville aren’t making a consistent tactical mistake in dead ball scenarios, and they have the personnel to be dominant. It’s feels lazy to say the solution is just to be better, but it kind of is.
Whether through added personnel or excessive time on the training field, set piece defending has to be a top priority for Nashville heading into the new season.